I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits is a novel about four generations of a Satmar family. Written in the present tense, the book depicts a world unknown to the majority of us, the world of Hasidic Jews. According to Wikipedia, Satmar Hasidism is a movement of mostly Hungarian and Romanian Hasidic Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants, founded and led by the late Hungarian-born Grand Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979).
I Am Forbidden begins right before the onset of World War II, in 1939, in Transylvania, Romania. The book also takes place in Paris, then in Manhattan, and finishes in present day Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which has a large Satmar community); chapters provide the various locations so the book is easy to follow. At the beginning of the story, two young, Jewish children from different families, Josef Lichenstein and Mila Heller, become orphans at the hands of the Romanian Iron Guard and the Nazis, respectively. Josef (renamed Anghel by his new, Christian mother, Florina), is five years older than Mila, and he helps her get to the home of Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community; then Josef (or Anghel) and Mila separate (they'll reunite later, in a different manner).
The Sterns send Josef to school to study the Torah, and take Mila in as their daughter when she arrives at their doorstep, exhausted. They have another daughter, Atara, who is almost a year younger than Mila, as well as other children. Atara and Mila are expected to help care for the younger children in the family, which will train the girls for their future careers as mothers. Zalman is protective and strict with the girls, and on one occasion uses his belt to punish them with severity when they break the Sabbath by taking an exhilarating bike ride on this holy day. This episode in the book is haunting.
"Every morning, the girls' eyes shone when they opened their cahiers d'école, notebooks with pages white, smooth, ruled and cross-ruled by pale blue lines. They dipped their new pens into the glass inkwell, how lovely it was to trace, meticulously, the new French words, the ascenders and descenders."
~Anouk Markovits, I Am Forbidden
In Paris, Atara and Mila enjoy school, and are eager learners. As the girls mature, they remain close, but their beliefs become quite divergent. Mila lives her life with a strict adherence to Satmar beliefs, and her deepest desire is to marry a son of Torah and raise a "pure" Jewish family. Atara, Zalman and Hannah's biological daughter, is restive and rebellious, drawn to the world of books and learning. She has aspirations which go beyond an arranged marriage and children, but this is not acceptable in a Satmar house; in fact, like much else, it is forbidden.
I Am Forbidden brought me to tears a few times (the first instance was due to little Pearela's fate). It's a touching, inside look at an insular Hasidic sect, and its extreme effects on people. On the one hand this religious sect provides a reassuring structure; on the other hand, it demolishes many important freedoms. With honesty and clarity, this book explores the possible dangers and consequences of leading a life with so many rigid restrictions. Life in this sect is devoid of personal freedom and choice, particularly for women. Author Anouk Markovits was raised in France in a Satmar home, but left when she was nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage, and to pursue more education. She relies on her background to bring to life the vivid and touching plights of various characters who struggle with their beliefs and because of their beliefs. As I read this novel I became fully invested in the characters, especially Mila and Atara. I look forward to reading more work by Anouk Markovits.
Excellent news! Hogarth, a new imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, is offering a copy of I Am Forbidden as a giveaway (U.S./Canada only) to a lucky reader.
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Enter by 5PM PDT on Monday, June 25. One lucky winner will be randomly selected and announced on Tuesday, June 26. Good luck!
Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for sending me this book. For more reviews please visit the other stops on TLC's I Am Forbidden book blog tour.