March 2013

Rebecca Silber


I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

Although I Am Forbidden, Anouk Markovits's first novel written in English, is fiction, it recounts many experiences that Markovits herself likely encountered during her youth. Markovits grew up in an ultra-orthodox Satmar family in France. The Satmar is the most insular Hasidic sect of Jewish people, originating in Eastern Europe, and forced elsewhere during the Holocaust. Eventually, Markovits left her family and France, to meet her potential future husband -- an arranged marriage in New York to a Satmar man she had never met. Instead, she arrived in the United States, abandoned the Satmar community, and went to college, making a new life for herself.

I Am Forbidden begins in Transylvania just before and during World War II. A young character, Josef, at the age of five is horrifically orphaned during the Holocaust. He is subsequently taken in by a Christian maid, and raised as her own son. A few years later, Josef rescues another orphan of the Holocaust, Mila. He leads her to Zalman Stern, a rabbi in the Satmar sect, and she is adopted into his growing family. The family moves from Eastern Europe to Paris where Zalman is to work as a cantor in a synagogue. Mila becomes a close sister to Zalman's biological daughter of similar age, Atara. The family finds themselves isolated in Paris due to their extreme beliefs; this isolation causes Atara and Mila to grow even closer. Instead of high school, the two girls are sent to an English seminary to pursue their Jewish studies and to ready themselves for marriage. Prior, they had been slowly drifting apart, but it is away at school that the sisters are irreversibly pulled apart by growing differences in religious matters and beliefs.

Mila grew up with the burden to obey strict Hasidic laws and held onto the belief that doing so would bring her parents to life again when the Messiah comes. Atara felt otherwise. "The last summer afternoons in the Luxembourg Gardens, while Mila watched the children in the playground, Atara rose and circled the water basin, the ringing alleys, the park fence. She synched her steps to those of strangers so that they would take her to different fates. The postman on his bicycle, she envied him, envied his wheels kissing the cobbles, that he knew one language only, one country only, envied his undivided past, undivided from his future." My heart ached for Atara and her temptation to break free from the insular Satmar world. Living in dreamy Paris, strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens, on the Rue de Seine and Boulevard Saint-Germain, as the Stern sisters did -- how could they not be tempted to follow their own dreams?

Mila ends up moving to the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to marry a Satmar man, an arranged marriage, but not a stranger to her. Atara flees from the Satmar religion, just as Markovits did. Due to their strong religious convictions, Atara's family, Mila included, ceases all communications with her. At this point, Atara's character is somewhat fittingly dropped from the book. Markovits instead chooses to focus on Mila's story, her marriage, and the years that follow during her life in New York. The book encompasses four generations of the Stern family, and surrounds a family secret that could alienate the entire family from the Satmar sect.

Prior to reading this book, other than their appearance, I was not too familiar with Hasidic Jews. Not long after I began reading, I quickly grew enthralled by their beliefs, and enjoyed learning about them as much as I enjoyed reading Markovits's plot. The Satmars are an extremely isolated community, the men fully committed to studying the Torah (the Jewish written law), and the women fully committed to having babies and raising them. They do not interact with outside society. It is for this reason that Zalman was afraid that his family would lose their strong Jewish faith in Paris, a city where the Satmar community was small.

Markovits does an amazing job telling this story without judgment. Her accounts of the Satmar beliefs are knowledgeable, honest, and unbiased -- despite the fact that she herself defected from the faith. Her writing is incredibly focused; she sets aside several of her earlier characters, mainly Atara, to focus on Mila's story. This is a huge strength in her writing, that she feels confident enough to shed personalities in order to really develop the main story. Leading the reader from Eastern Europe to Paris to Brooklyn, Markovits's writing is also adaptable. She effortlessly takes her story from the Romanian bleakness surrounding the Holocaust, to the beauty of Paris in the 1950s, to the confined Satmar modern community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As I read, it was with little effort that the scenes of I Am Forbidden played out in my head. Cinematic imagery such as "The milk in the children's bowls lifted in curls that collapsed over the rims and onto the oilcloth" is an ordinary pleasure of Markovits's writing.

Markovits amazes with words; her writing astounds in its power. There is a key part of the story where Markovits artfully juxtaposes two emotional and simultaneously occurring dramatic scenes -- two scenes that are both so tense, real, and raw that I cried as I read them. Despite the strong religious themes in this book, it was at this moment that I realized, stripped down, this book is about people, any people. I Am Forbidden is about humans who are torn between outside obligation and personal struggles, and about how living with a desire to please can lead someone to do the unthinkable, the forbidden. Markovits's characters are entirely relatable, to those readers who may be a part of the Satmar sect, and to those readers who are not even Jewish.

Once I began reading I Am Forbidden, I could not stop. When I reluctantly needed to set it down, I continued to think about the story. Markovits's storytelling is informative and interesting, her plot completely gripping. I finished the book with a much deeper understanding of the Satmar sect, and, even more importantly, an understanding about the external and internal battles that people in isolated religious groups grapple with. Markovits has successfully taken actual historical events and created a novel that goes beyond, drilling right down into the human condition.

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits
ISBN: 978-0307984746
336 pages