A family is torn apart by fierce belief and private longing in this unprecedented journey deep inside the most insular Hasidic sect, the Satmar.
Sweeping from the Central European countryside just before World War II to Paris to contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I Am Forbidden brings to life four generations of one Satmar family. Opening in 1939 Transylvania, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard and is rescued by a Gentile maid to be raised as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, after her parents are killed while running to meet the Rebbe they hoped would save them. Josef helps Mila reach Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman’s daughter, Atara. As the two girls mature, Mila’s faith intensifies, while her beloved sister Atara discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore. With the rise of communism in central Europe, the family moves to Paris, to the Marais, where Zalman tries to raise his children apart from the city in which they live. When the two girls come of age, Mila marries within the faith, while Atara continues to question fundamentalist doctrine. The different choices the two sisters makes force them apart until a dangerous secret threatens to banish them from the only community they’ve ever known. A beautifully crafted, emotionally gripping story of what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law, and centuries of tradition collide, I Am Forbidden announces the arrival of an extraordinarily gifted new voice and opens a startling window on a world long closed to most of us, until now.
This is a disturbing book. Once I started listening to the audiobook, excellently narrated by Rosalyn Landor, I could do nothing else but listen to more and more ......and more still, until I reached the end! If I am to set the star rating by how urgent it was to read the book once I started, it would get five stars. But I am not giving it five stars, only four. I had to listen because I was so disturbed. I had to listen because in the beginning it was confusing. I even had to listen to the first hour and half twice.
To know if you want to read this book you must have a general idea of its themes. It deals with Hasidism, particularly the Satmar sect of Jews living in Transylvania. It deals with women who want children, very, very much and cannot get pregnant. How and why can infertility destroy a relationship? It deals with to what degree do you follow rules e-x-a-c-t-l-y, and who has the right to bend the rules and who cannot? Hasidism, should it be criticized for being strict and inflexible, or is it the people who slavishly implement the rules that are to be criticized. Judaism is known for being a religion open to discussion and debate, but what about in the Satmar sect? The story begins in the 1930s near the Hungarian / Romanian border. Clearly, another theme is the Jewish situation in this area during WW2, and specifically the guilt versus innocence of Rezso Kasztner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rezso_Ka...) and how the Satmar Jews viewed Zionism. Kasztner was a Zionist. Related to Kasztner is the theme whom do you choose to save? Is it the number that counts? The question expands as the novel continues. Do you do it at any cost? And when do you save yourself? None of these are easy questions. Do you understand why I could not stop listening?
One complaint that I had initially was that only the harshness and destructive qualities of the Hasidic beliefs seemed to be depicted. As I continued through the book the author also showed wonderful traditions of the Satmar Jews. There are songs and rituals filled with happiness and delight. The view became balanced.
The sentences, if sometimes ambiguous and even confusing at points, were also very often beautiful. Jewish expressions and French lines are thrown in. The French is usually translated, but less often the Jewish expressions. I mentioned above the theme related to how rules can restrict and thus make you crazy for freedom. Atara opened the door to the Parisian street:
In the shivery Parisian dawn a swell of poppies swayed, each blossom a scarlet freedom quivering on its fragile stem. (end of book two)
Isn't that pretty? There are many such lines.
I have not told you why the book is disturbing. It is sad to watch what people do to each other. It is hard to watch what life throws in our path. Did I want a happier ending? No, this ends on a good note that is realistic too. This is not a fairy tale novel. To really understand you have to read the book, see how the plot unfolds and concludes.
Please see the book description; I did not want to repeat what is mentioned there.
This novel is truly a seminal work on the topic of Jewish Fundamentalism. With unparalleled detail and poignant storytelling, this saga of a Satmar family explores and debunks the myths upon which the extreme version of Judaism we know today was founded, and it does so with a resounding clang. I found myself gripping the edge of my seat quite a few times, holding my breath while I waited to see how the characters in this novel would find self-determination. People will read this novel both because it is a beautiful story told in a magical setting, and because it completely unravels a world heretofore tightly enclosed. I extend my deepest gratitude and admiration for Anouk Markovits, who so skillfully brought my world to life, and abolished the mysteries that remained of my childhood.
And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
Well shit, I was totally not expecting that twist at the end. KAPOW.
I gobbled this up in one evening and -- I don't think it's a novel per se? (yeah I know that is such a useless categorization when you have books like the Odyssey and David Markson) -- it was more like a very long tale by a storyteller, or a collection of them. It had a real fairytale atmosphere, even though it was about horribly modern events....it's a real hybrid. These aren't even criticisms. Obviously the book knocked me on my ass and parts of it are beautiful and nearly all the characters are amazing. It reminded me a little bit of Briar Rose by Jane Yolen except the focus was all on the women.
I do think there was one big structural problem with the book -- up to A's leaving the family it's pretty much a day-by-day chronologically intact novel with minute psychological observations, and after that, BOOM, major time skips, and the chapters are much shorter -- the wedding, then five years! then ten years! then R's birth! then ten years! then R getting married! then J's birth! and so on. I can see why; I mean, if the entire story was written in the style of that first half, it would fill about four volumes. WWII and the Holocaust are pretty much giant lacunae (which fits the general theme) because those would completely drown out the other story.
I think this narration -- X begat Y begat Z -- is also deliberately Biblical, and totally in keeping with the idea of survival at any cost, the survival of generations, of Jews -- how do you survive as a Jew? How does Judaism survive? At what point do you stop being Jewish because of the terrible things you have to do to live? Is it even possible to make a bargain with God? -- it's easy to imagine the Rebbe or Josef thinking Just this once, and I'll confess what I did later....later....later.... and "later" never comes because confessing what you did would destroy the result, the reason why you did it.
Anyway, it's beautifully written and mesmerizing and gripping and even if the structure's wonky and there's some first novel-itis there, I'd buy anything else this author wrote unseen in a heartbeat. HEAR THAT AMAZON
PART 1 is my initial Goodreads entry in response to the book.
PART 2 is the review I wrote for the Washtenaw Jewish News.
1. The writing is elegant, concise, sometimes brilliantly stark. The Yiddishkeit flows naturally - unlike several books I've read of late which drowns under research. French, Yiddish, English, Hungarian language and culture all figure in the moving and provocative story. Markovitz follows a Szatmar family as they move from Transylvania to Paris to New York, gaining and losing members along the way. The Szatmar rebbe's rejection of Zionism figures centrally in the story, as it emerges that this towering figure of the Szatmar community survived the holocaust by making a deal with the Zionist leaders he excoriates. A Szatmar family at the story's center suffers horribly. In the end, the family's survivors thrive, though a key member of the family (the author's double?) leaves the fold. In the book, this character, who disappears for much of the book, reappears as a filmmaker in NY, when beckoned by her sister. As girls, they were inseparable. As adults, they were estranged. Among the central, inspired themes of the novel is the story of Tamar, who sinned to stay pure - a paradox. Judah, her father-in-law proclaims her more righteous than himself. The author's inspired choice of this biblical tale is arresting.
2. (Washtenaw Jewish News) I Am Forbidden is a stunning novel. Written with eloquence and economy, it follows several generations of a Satmar Hassidic family, from Transylvania to Paris, France to Brooklyn, NY. The tale is told with a rare mix of tenderness, resentment, nostalgia, and perspective, and it offers a rare glimpse into the world of Satmar Hassidim. The story begins through the eyes of a child, a little boy who witnesses the murder of his family. He is whisked to safety by the family’s servant, who removes his yarmulke and payess (sidelocks) and raises him to be Christian. Time passes quickly. He almost forgets his heritage – until he witnesses a Jewish family shot in cold blood, and rescues their little girl.
Anouk Markovits grew up in the world of Satmar Hassidim. Her writing brings to mind a poignant axiom: to make a story universal, make it very specific. In her story, the foreign words that permeate the writing add color, texture, soul, and, strangely enough, universality. Markovits’ fluency in French, Yiddish, English and Hungarian helps her to flesh out these characters, as they journey through the chaos of 20th century Europe. Ultimately, two branches of the family survive: one in Paris, the other in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The blend of languages is arresting, especially when the language of desire becomes a memorable mix of Yiddish, English, and French.
At the story’s core are two sisters, Mila and Atara. Their father is a man whose own travails we have followed. He is strict but loving. The sisters are inseparable, until the two unwittingly violate the Sabbath one sunny day. Atara bears the brunt of their father’s wrath. She then turns inward, trusting only her intellect for guidance. The books she reads clandestinely are taboo. Yearning for higher learning, she leaves her family, at which point she disappears from the novel, too. The reader, like her family, is left to wonder what became of her.
The story turns to Mila: grateful, compliant, devoted to tradition. It is a curious plot twist. We wonder what became of Atara. Like Jacob, we must settle for the sister. Surprisingly, this switch enriches the plot. Mila, the “good” daughter finds herself in an arranged marriage that proves as romantic as any fairy tale. Her bridegroom had once rescued her from certain death. But life interferes. Lest I spoil the book, I will not divulge their tribulations. Suffice it to say that eventually she turns to the story of Tamar for consolation. The biblical Tamar, desperate for justice, turns to harlotry. In a sense, Tamar sins to stay pure, a paradox. Ultimately, Tamar is declared a righteous woman. Markovits’ reference to this biblical tale is inspired.
For a tale spurred by indignation and longing, this story is remarkable for its compassion – and for its autobiographical overtones. Markovits grew up in France, and, like Atara, left her Hassidic roots. She fled at 19, after being sent to New York to marry a man she never met. Eventually, Markovits earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Columbia, a Masters in Architecture from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in Romance Language from Cornell. It is tempting to speculate that Markovits has taken her own story and split herself in two, hence the sisters. By exploring the path not taken, Markovits examines the life she might have led: Mila’s life. At the same time, she gives a nod to the free spirit who establishes a career and keeps her own counsel. In fiction, Markovits can reunite these women (the two parts of herself?) and restore, however fleetingly, a sense of family. But she cannot tell her Satmar forebears that they revere a man she deems a coward. The original Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, was rescued from the Nazis by Zionists, but Teitelbaum excoriated Zionism, and taught his followers to do the same. This historic truth is at the heart of the novel. Atara cannot tolerate the community’s erasure of their leader’s betrayal. In her eyes, his behavior is unpardonable. Atara could never have lived Mira’s life.
This book is an act of courage and literary prowess. It is Markovits’ second novel. The first was written in French. She wrote this one in English.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Markovits writes of a Romanian Jewish community during World War II. They are from the Satmar sect and have very strict beliefs and traditions. There are two sets of parents, one trying to flee to safety and another attacked in their home, are murdered by fascists. Left behind are two children, one from each family, each is rescued. The boy is adopted by the family maid. She’s a Christian and tries to keep him safe by teaching him to ‘pass’ by adopting Christianity and pretending to be her own child. Though she’s misguided she loves him very much. The girl is adopted and raised as a devout Jew by her father’s Talmud study partner and bought up with his ever growing family in France.
I found the immersion in this unique culture fascinating but also heartbreaking both because of the World War II atrocities but also because of how unbending and unforgiving the Satmar tradition seems to be. I also found this culture extremely loving and caring. This contradiction is at the heart of the story. I was reminded of Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” for two reasons. See’s book is centered on the very insular Chinese culture of the 19th century which also had very strict traditions and expectations for men and women and their respective roles. The second similarity between the stories was the central theme of women’s friendships that were formed early and sustained through life’s hardships. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope when I say this but neither the Satmar nor the 19th century Chinese traditions were female hating even though they were dominated by male privilege but they did have unflinching expectations.
The orphan, Mila, and her adopted sister, Atara, were of one mind as children but in adulthood their paths forked. Each still held the other dear in her heart. This is the best part of Markovits’s book. The women’s relationship holds it together and is emotionally affecting. The story is told from various viewpoints and from many time periods but it remains clear. Markovits is an affecting, skilled writer. I didn’t like the ending, it felt forced. I loved learning about a culture so different from any I’m familiar with. The contrast between the rigidity of the Satmar culture and the sweetness of the women’s love for one another touched me deeply.
I am mystified by meandering rivers. I've never seen one in person, but I've seen photos and these have grabbed my attention. Part of what makes these rivers so beautiful are their wide arcs back and forth. If you were on any point of one of these rivers, you'd see things differently. You might, at first, think the river that flowed parallel to yours was a different river that would eventually merge with your own.
Much in the same way, I Am Forbidden meanders through scenery that is beautiful heading for a destination that seems clear one moment, then changes. Zoom out and you'll find a story that looks similar to this river. A story that goes this way, then that. It's more than 2/3 of the way through the novel before the story—the real story at the heart of this novel—begins to come into focus.
Some will see this as poor planning. Others may see it as the writer's style, or maybe they'll propose an underlying theme in the drifting story. I'm not sure why Markovits covered such a broad range in a novel that could have been much more focused, but it's not something your average writer would undertake. To be clear, I Am Forbidden has a focal point in a small cast of characters, but the places they go, the events they experience, so much of it doesn't seem necessary to the story itself. So, in my opinion, it may be a little too easy for a reader to scratch their head for more than 200 pages and think “Where is this story going?” And for some readers that sort of thinking may mean putting the book aside for an indefinite period of time.
Once the story becomes clear, however, it does stay focused. It's a good story and the insight it gives the reader into a Hasidic Jewish family makes it well worth it. It is a heartbreaking story, but I think had more time been spent with these last hundred pages it would've been much more affective; the farther from the story I move, the less memorable it becomes.
This book took me by surprise as my hopes for it were entirely to low. Perhaps it's because I've read many books about the Hasidic Sect of Judaism but this book steps very far apart from those I've read before. This author can write and it's seems that based on her own personal history, she writes what she knows. Although there was a slightly elusive beginning to this book and I felt like I was lost, it took no time to grab me and suck me in to this fanatical world of the Hasidic sect called the Satmar. From the fields of Transylvania to the streets of both Paris and Williamsburg, NY, this story unfolds between two sisters and a boy from their past who watched his family be murdered by the Nazi's. This book presents us with ethical questions within religion, the love of family, the full circle of life and the choices we make and ultimately how they affect others. Beautifully written is many short chapters and short sections some of which read like lines of poetry. I highly recommend this book no matter your religion because the central themes are paramount to everyone while you learn about the Satmar sect as well.
As eastern Europe is fractured during World War II, the Satmar Rebbe of Transylvania makes a miraculous escape to America and begins building a new community in the Williambsurg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York; meanwhile, those of his Transylvanian followers who survive the war are dispersed throughout Europe. Zalman Stern, his wife Hannah, and their growing family end up in Paris, where they are eventually joined by two young orphans. Josef was the only survivor of the brutal murder of his family, rescued and raised as her son by their Christian maid; several years later, Josef rescues Mila after her parents are killed chasing after a train--the very train on which the Satmar Rebbe is leaving. When both children end up in the care of the Sterns, Mila remains with them to be raised as a sister to their eldest daughter, Atara, while Josef is dispatched to Williamsburg to study with the Rebbe himself. Josef and Mila will be reunited a few years later when their marriage is arranged. The Sterns' daughter Atara will find herself on a different path; her curiosity about the secular world surrounding her family in Paris raises questions she is emphatically discouraged from pursuing--but she can't ignore them. While Mila and Josef become more deeply entrenched in the Satmar way of life, Atara will become estranged from it...and ultimately from her family.
The title of I Am Forbidden can be interpreted several ways within the context of the novel. Women in the Satmar sect are forbidden from furthering their educations or working; they have no role outside the family. Their most important job is producing children, and one of their greatest responsibilities related to that job is the preservation of "family purity"--the rules that govern sexual relations between husbands and wives. Sex is for procreation only, and a wife must carefully track her cycles. There are several days each month when her husband is forbidden to touch her; at the end of that time, she partakes in a ritual bath and returns home to give her husband a sign that he is now "permitted" to be with her. This "permitted" time should coincide with her most fertile days, and if all goes well, she won't have "unclean" days again for months; however, pregnancy will make her "forbidden" again. A wife who does not produce children has failed at her job, and after ten years, her husband may divorce her.
It can be hard for a modern woman to understand how any woman in this day and age could accept living like this...which is why it's key to understand that living like this is a deliberate rejection of anything "modern," and can only be perpetuated within a community that chooses to close itself off from the world. Exposure to unsanctioned ideas from the outside can raise questions; questioning can undermine an individual's belief, and individual questioners may ultimately break down a community of believers. Questioning is why Atara Stern had to leave her family behind.
Markovits has Atara leave the story behind along with her family, as the remainder of the novel focuses on Mila. Her story is probably more interesing from the outside because her life is so unfamiliar, but at the same time, the narrowness of Mila's life makes her story more challenging to tell. While Markovits rises to that challenge for the most part, when she tries to take Mila out of her life's confines, the novel takes a turn that I thought was unfortunately soap-operatic. Although I continued to be pulled along by the story, my appreciation for it diminshed a bit over the last third of the book.
Anouk Markovits' writing is lovely, and she has attempted some ambitious storytelling in I Am Forbidden. The novel spans decades and explores a way of life that seems to exist alongside our own time rather than of it. It touches on matters historical, political, and religious while focusing on one family's story. I don't think all of it worked, but I appreciate it when an author reaches the way this one does; and while I didn't find the novel entirely satisfying, I did find it consistently engaging, interesting, and emotionally resonant.
Teških dvjestotinjak stranica. Ništa ovdje nije bilo lijepo, lagano, glatko... Ono što je mi je najviše remetilo tijek čitanja bio je stil. Hladno, kratko, ponekad nerazumljivo (kako zbog nepoznatih riječi, tako zbog gubljenja niti tko trenutno govori), nije bilo tečno, već zbunjujuće na momente.
Gušila me priča od početka. Takva muka kod svih likova je u ovo vrijeme stvarno bilo previše za mene. Nisam pronašla ništa dovoljno lijepog ili pozitivnog, ništa za što bih se uhvatila i htjela čitati dalje. No jesam. Osim što je ovaj naslov bio zadatak za čitateljski, ja uvijek pročitam knjigu do kraja kako bih mogla dati cjelokupan subjektivan sud. Toliko pravila, normi, zabrana, toliko ustezanja, toliko negacija, uskraćivanja sebe, da mi je u jednom trenutku bilo i muka.
Podsjetila me na knjigu „Obrazovana“ - Tara Westover koja mi također stilom nije odgovarala, ali priča koju nam je spisateljica, ujedno protagonistica, pričala bila je nevjerojatna. Nevjerojatna za ovo vrijeme (sadašnjost).
Opet sam si postavljala pitanja koliko je vjere potrebno? Do koje „granice“ je u redu vjerovati, a ne izgubiti sebe i svoju bit? Slijepo ići kroz život toliko da baš ništa nije naš odabir, sve nam je određeno još dva koljena prije nego smo se rodili je u redu?
Shvaćam da ja to gledam po sebi, iz svog, "slobodnog" kuta, s nemogućnošću razumijevanja ičega od onoga što se mota po glavama muškarcima na visokim i utjecajnim mjestima svoje vjere koji slijepo žive po retcima napisanim davnih godina. Bez ikakvog napretka u u budućnost? Kako? Jako puno pitanja, niti jednog odgovora.
Zanimljiva knjiga koja je bila odlična i za raspravu od mene ima preporuku kako bismo osvijestili gdje i na koji način živimo i bili na tome zahvalni, ali i da spoznamo različitost i pokušamo ga razumjeti i prihvatiti.
„Strašno je osjećati da netko nema nikoga s kime bi razgovarao.“
Those who read The Chosen will find some similarities here: there's a scholar prodigy, gematria, questioning of long-held beliefs, and the transition of a Hasidic group from Eastern Europe to America. However, here the author a better knowledge and understanding about Hassidism and Judaism than I suspect most people will have. For example, Hasids originally opposed the formation of the State of Israel and were anti-Zionism. That's not so say there isn't some explanation (eg, complete immersion three times in the mikvah cleanses your soul, or Jewish beliefs in what happens after death) but I'm not sure it's enough.
The conflict with the beliefs that sends Atara away from her family is shown, but in a weird way: we see her reading "forbidden books", questioning Midrash and commentart, hearing that she might have an arranged marriage and leaving home - but there's nothing about her for the next nearly 100 pages and 47 years! How Mila and Atara's family deal with her absence is only revealed in the last 30 pages. It's also within those last 30 pages that all the major plot twist gets resolved, but in such a way that readers might be confused as to the religious issues.
Those in the NYC area, with the Satmar populations of Williamsburg, Kirias Joel and Monsey nearby will find this an interesting look into that closed world. The dynastic issues are not covered, as this book focuses mostly on the world of the women.
What do you do when religious law and life collide? This is a disquieting story about two young girls who have very different reactions to their religious upbringing. Beautiful, tender, and SO HEARTBREAKING. As I mentioned after reading, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, understanding the beginnings of the Hasidic movement makes these stories/characters much more tragic.
I have both read and heard tell that some believe this to be autobiographical. So? Either way, Anouk Markovits, does an excellent job portraying the lives of the "one who left" and "the one who stayed." And, neither women had it easy.
LAST, Anouk Marovits, lived in a Satmar community until she was nineteen. After leaving she went on to get her BS at Columbia, her MA at Harvard, and her PHD at Cornell. Her first novel, Pur coton: roman, is written in French. This book she wrote in English. And this after living in an incredibly isolated world. Obviously, Anouk Markovits is BAD ASS.
I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits is a brilliant, poetic novel that begins during World War II in eastern Europe and ends in contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
During World War II, two children become orphaned. One, a young boy named Josef, loses his parents and sister to storm troopers and is adopted by a peasant woman in Translylvania. Her name is Florina and the two of them forge a loving bond. She renames him Anghel and baptizes him to protect him from the Nazis. In yet another scene, a young girl named Mila watches as her pregnant mother runs toward an open railroad boxcar calling, “Rebbe, Rebbe”, and is shot down mercilessly by the Nazis. She is taken in by a Satmar family, a sect of Hasidim. The Zalmans adopt her and bring her up with love and as one of their own. They have a daughter named Atari who is nearly the same age as Mila. Atari and Mila grow up together.
As time progresses, Mila becomes more and more observant of the Satmar beliefs along with its laws and observances. Atari seeks to leave the sect and make a secular life for herself. This is considered heinous and the title of the book comes from this leaving. For ten generations, she and her offspring are ‘forbidden’. They are estranged from the family and not permitted to participate in any of the Satmar rituals or be acknowledged by family members.
Marriages are arranged by the Satmar and Mila is matched with Josef who, as a young boy was separated from Florina and sent by the Zalmens to Williamsburg in order to study Torah. This is a marriage of love despite it being arranged. The goal of Satmar Hasidim is to be fruitful and multiply. If, after ten years of marriage, there are no children, the husband is permitted to leave his wife and file for divorce. After ten barren years, Mila is afraid that Josef will leave her despite knowing that he loves her and that they share a good life together. They are b’shert, which means that under the eyes of God, they are meant for one another.
Atari, meanwhile, has left her home in Paris where the Zalmans were living and is in New York making documentary films. She is a forbidden one.
The connections between the characters throughout time, geography, and family is beautifully rendered. The story is a prose poem that is sensuous, poignant, and tragic. I loved the story though the first twenty pages or so were a bit confusing. Once I was past that, I was riveted to the book and could not sleep for wanting to finish it in one sitting.
Ms. Markovits, according to the book jacket, “was raised in France in a Satmar home, breaking from the fold when she was nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage.” She went on to college and graduate school, not something that is considered possible for Satmar women. I Am Forbidden is her first work in English and I eagerly await her future work.
I chose to read Anouk Markovits’ I Am Forbidden because of the blurb about the writer on the back inside flap. I am fascinated by stories of people who belong to fundamentalist religious sects (which religion is not relevant) and who leave those sects because it seems they are more taken with the inclusive world of literature than with intense study of their own religious sect. Markovits grew up in France as part of the ultra-religious Satmar sect of Judaism. She left that community at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. Since that time she earned a bachelor’s from Columbia, a master’s in architecture from Harvard, and a doctorate in Romance Studies from Cornell. She currently lives in NYC. I Am Forbidden is her second novel, her first in English.
This novel is a beautifully written (her first in English?!!) story of two young women who are brought up as sisters in a Satmar family living in France. One is the biological daughter of the family, the other is the daughter of the father’s yeshiva study partner. She is the only one of the family to survive an attack by the Nazis. Knowing the biography of the author, I was expecting something like the story in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: the biological daughter would leave the ultraorthodox community for the secular world, while the adopted daughter would remain a member of the Satmar community. I couldn’t wait to hear how the details of how the biological daughter transitions from ultraorthodox to secular values and lifestyle.
Was I ever surprised. The book chooses a different path and takes the reader into unexpected worlds. I was spellbound for the last third of the novel, traveling through an unfamiliar landscape while immersed in the most lyrical language. This is a book worth rereading, worth owning even though I read a library copy. And I will look for this author’s future books. I would try her first (Pur Coton), but my French is not up to the task.
Fascinante leer acerca de esta comunidad jasídica Satmar. Personajes que se envuelven en sus tradiciones y reglas rígidas para protegerse y permanecer. Que fuerte historia, y aun así disfrute leerla, me la devore.
This novel elicited a few different and emotional reactions from me. First of all, I had some difficulty following the plot initially, I believe due to my unfamiliarity with the history and the foreign (to me) names. The beauty of the writing, paired with my personal beliefs, caused the varied emotional responses. Initially, I felt increased compassion for the characters and increased understanding of the Hasidic experience. As the story continued, I experienced anger about the way the characters in this religious community treated each other and women. I hope that my increased compassion will win out, but it may take some time. I think the behavior that bothered me was probably due to their own experiences of trauma. Some of those experience seem to me to be almost impossible to overcome, and yet many did. I'm sure they fared much better than I would.
It is also interesting to think of how different my personal reaction would be at different points of time. Right now, I'm a little tired of hearing women put down daily in the news, so don't have much patience for it in my reading.
This book IS an interesting and I believe realistic, look at the development of religious beliefs based on life experiences in addition to time and place of birth. If you are interested in that topic or in Jewish history, I highly recommend it. I learned a lot.
This was my first win from the Read It Forward program!
This is a devastating account, simply narrated and all the more chilling for it. Some readers may find it poignant and may even be able to celebrate some of the joy that after all, is a commandment in this community; and no question the elegant restraint of Anouk Markovits's writing and the way time flows between the covers of her book, demand 4 stars. But this reader honestly felt quite sick throughout the reading, faced with this stark exposure of the fascist heart of fundamentalism, so I can't really say I really liked it because it was intolerable to consider the suffering and needless pain and contortions people subject each other to in the guise of piety. It is fundamentalist thinking that is the despoiler of innocence.
was it a selfish heart that dreamt of living its own life? p99
This is not historical nor even documentary fiction, yet the thought that this kind of exclusion is still happening is disturbing. We must applaud AM for her courageous drawing back of the curtain.
Was it not better to choose one's death and die all at once? p130.
This was a compelling read right from the get-go. Although there is a 1-page prologue set in 2005, the story really begins in 1939 in Transylvania. The physical violence at the beginning of this section is hard to read, even though it is less graphic than others I've read. It is real, however, and made me tense. But the war ends, and the story continues with the survivors.
It seems there is no freedom for these people. The soul, in order to pass onto the next life, is dependent on the body behaving within a very strict, very rigid, set of rules. Some acts are Permitted, some Forbidden. A woman is sometimes Permitted to her husband and other times Forbidden. She will keep a diary, a calendar, to know when she is Permitted and when she is Forbidden. There is a ritual she must perform to go from Forbidden to Permitted. Some people are Permitted, some Forbidden. Even members of the sect might be Forbidden should they fail to follow the rules.
Not knowing anything about the Satmar Hasidic sect, I didn't realize how much of this is historically based. When not very far in, I googled the author and found an interview. I probably should have waited because there was a spoiler within the interview. It turned out not to have mattered, because I learned that information within minutes of my returning to the book. (I stopped reading that interview - I should go back and finish it now that I've finished the book.) I have also googled Satmar and found a wikipedia article.
The prose is good enough. The characterizations are not as complete as I might want, but the characterization of this aspect of Judaism is quite good - and is what the story is about. I'm glad to have added to my knowledge through this novel, written by a former member of the sect, a woman who walked away. I'm holding back a star, but I can't quite put my finger on exactly what more I would have wanted for a 5th one.
Heartbreaking. I wasn't sure where the story was going to go at first, but I was drawn in by the crispness of the writing and the fullness of the characters. Even though none of them are overly-descirbed, these are people you have hopes for and want them to find happiness. The synopsis is a bit misleading as the story continues only with Mila once Atara makes a fateful decision. She doesn't reappear until almost the end of the story. We get only the life among the Hasid. I think that works well because Mila can't imagine or doesn't even want to think of a life outside due to losing her parents and what it would mean if she didn't live her life as she believes she must. Josef is probably my favorite character, enduring such upheavel in his youth, but perservering and trying to be who he's expected to be. His struggles were so painful to read. One thing, if you aren't familiar with this world, it might be helpful to do a quick Wiki search and learn the basics of their beliefs and lifestyle. I'm was left wondering about some traditions so I did that. Also, there are bits of history of which I was totally unaware and was, in fact, shocked to learn. The writing style draws you into the story and I'd definitely read this author again.
The book is a great discussion book but it bothered me. There were points that I didn't want to listen anymore. I believe that Mila suffered from mental illness. I am not sure why Joseph led the life that he did. Lack of communication in any culture causes disaster! A minor issue- in the beginning of the book Joseph is 5 years old and all of a sudden he is 12. There is plenty of foreshadowing, so you kind of know what's coming. It doesn't make it any better!
I read this book in about 36 hours, and yet I had an entire relationship with it that ran the gamut of an emotional continuum. By the time I received it, I had almost forgotten that I had entered the giveaway. I did not remember what it was about, and frankly, the title did not help. I had entered because I am interested in reading about other cultures, and being a non-charedi Jew but still a Jew, I was interested when I read the details for the giveaway. My only contact with Satmars was while in Israel over 10 years ago -- I was with a Hadassah Young Leaders Tour. I noticed a traditionally-dressed man across the street in the Old City, who spit when we passed by. Our tour guide told us he was a Satmar, who did not believe in the modern state of Israel nor in modern women of Jewish descent. (He would not consider us actual Jews, we were told).
But I digress...
Well, one more thing: I live in a city where the small Jewish community shares space, a JCC and interacts across the belief lines, if you will. I know Lubavitch families, have studied with more than a couple Lubavitch girls, and went with a group for a Shabbaton in Crown Heights. While Lubavitchers are known as the proslytizing branch of the Ultra Orthodox, they are still a different culture than what I grew up with. The women have a much more free culture than Satmar, but the "modern" woman would find their culture limiting. I find it beautiful, if not the way of life for me. I continue to be fascinated, which may be one reason I was led to this book -- same, but different.
So, the book. It sat in my To Be Read pile, til I finally picked it up out of obligation. I thrilled to the first page, remembering why I wanted to read it in the first place. I gritted my teeth through the Nazi-era history. (My son and I just finished reading Night by Eli Wiesel. It has been a very Holocaust spring for us). The more I read, the more immersed I became. When Josef was returned to his Jewish brethren, leaving his adoptive mother Florina, who also was casually anti-Semitic, I felt uneasy. Markovits never takes the easy route -- at least not in most of the book. The contradictions that probably led her to leave her Satmar life (we are told she was raised as a Satmar and left at 19 to escape an arranged marriage in the "about the author" page) comes through every step of her characters' lives.
Zalman, the patriarch, who does not seem to ever falter in his belief, is both unlikable and yet demonstrably empathetic. He goes back to recover the remains of the dead Jews Hitler left behind. He wants to reclaim the poor orphan boy living with the peasant woman who rescued him. He is not kind to her, and is relentlessly manipulative to get the boy from her. Is his bigotry of her excusable because of all he has suffered? Or that she is herself anti-Semitic and complicit in some ways of the war crimes? She is also a contradiction: she looked down on and disliked the Jews as a group, yet she saved Josef -- to much danger to herself. As my sister would say, what do I do with that?
I am not sure if my eventual disenchantment with the book (not total -- it was still a great read) was influenced by the lack of happy endings for any of the characters. The narrative insisted, even if my own inner literary compass did not (and it did), that consequences were not to be avoided. Well, not for the main characters, anyway. I knew the story of the escape of the Satmar rebbe from the Nazis. This book explains the conspiracy behind it: a deal made with Eichmann -- let the Rebbe out, and the other Jews in the area will go quietly. Is this true? i have no idea, although my guess is that the author thinks it is. Why else include such a heavy accusation, even in a novel? There were many other ways she could and did illustrate the unavoidable misogyny inherent in this fundamentalism, as all the patriarchal religions inevitable must reveal.
The Rebbe leads a long life of glory in his court in America. The pious but cruel Zalman suffers losses but never admits to himself that to follow his proscribed piety may not be the kind choice. (The Nurmeberg trials and the excuse of following orders is rather clumsily inserted numerous times in juxtaposition.)
Josef, the saved little boy who witnessed the murder of his biological family and his own abandonment of his adoptive mother, marries for love and finds out he is infertile. His wife, Mila, finds precedent for sleeping with someone other than her husband to conceive. Not only does she never have more children, any intimacy with her husband ever again, estrangement from her granddaughter who eventually commits suicide, and the premature death of her husband. Atara, the adoptive daughter of Zalman after her own parents are killed trying to "catch" the Rebbe's train that will lead him to Switzerland instead of Auschwitz, gets to see her mother one more time before her mother dies. Her father never accepts her again. She is left with rueful dissatisfaction and loneliness. She risks it all to be true to herself. I did not see her finding spiritual redemption, Jewish or otherwise. I wonder if that lack of closure, or at least satisfaction in it, is what the author feels as well. Can we escape who we are born to be and become who we want to be? And is it worth it?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I Am Forbidden follows three-generations of a Hasidic Jewish family. Starting in Romania under the Iron Guard movement and finishing in the Satmar Hasidic community established in Williamsburg, New York. Hasidism is a strict religion rooted in the Torah. Their day-to-day lives are lived based on the interpretation of this book and everything is done in such a fashion to ensure that all family members in the same blood line have a place by the messiah's side. There are many activities deemed forbidden in Hasidism and if someone within the religion does something out of line with the laws of the religion, they become forbidden, unable to marry or have any sort of life within the religion.
At the start of the story we are introduced to Josef, who was hiding when his family was killed by members of the Iron Guard, Romania's anti-Semitic death squad. He is found by the family's gentile housemaid and she takes him in as her own. Five years after Josef rescue, he helps Mila, a young girl who has recently witnessed her family's death at the hand of the Iron Guard, escape from countryside by train. Later, Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community learns of Josef, who is the only living son of a prominent family murdered by the Iron Guard and retrieves him from the woman who has taken him as her own son.
Josef has a difficult time fitting back in to the Hasidic lifestyle after being taken in by the Stern family, who has previously taken in Mila, the girl Josef previously rescued. Mila proves to be a comfort to Josef while he tries to adjust to his changed life, but he is quickly sent away to live in the Satmar community in Williamsburg. The years go by and Mila continues to live with the Stern family in Paris, being raised as a sister to their eldest daughter, Atara, while Josef is raised as a highly accomplished Torah scholar.
Atara and Mila are close, but Atara gets a taste of books, which are forbidden. Although Mila is devoted to the religion, Atara decides she wants more from her life and she steals away in the middle of the night. Mila receives a marriage proposal from Josef in America. Mila is thrilled by the marriage proposal and leaves Paris to wed Josef. Josef and Mila are devoted to each other and I really got a strong sense of this while reading about their life together and through their attempts to have children.
This is where the story gets bound up in this severe religion, which could be the demise of the bloodline and the families ability to go on to be with the Messiah. Mila eventually goes on to have Rachael, and she proves to be a devote to the religion as her father Josef. When Rachael's daughter, Judith, is old enough to wed, secrets are revealed that cause tragedy.
Although I cannot imagine being involved in such a strict way of life, this story is presented in such a way that I felt I connected with the Satmar's way of life as if I was completely understanding of the reasoning. Although this is ultimately a sad story, there is beauty in the love and dedication these people have for their beliefs. Previous to this book, I had no knowledge of the Iron Guard. I had not previously realized that Romania, too, was involved in the Holocaust. This story would have received a 5-star rating had it not been for the disjointedness I felt during a couple of periods where the author skipped through time very quickly. If you are interested in understanding more about Hasidism, this is an excellent choice.
I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits was a fascinating read. There are moments of great sorrow and horror in the opening pages, as two young children survive the pogroms in Transylvania in 1939 and their lives intersect. Then, the story takes us beyond the war, into the heart of the Satmar Hasidic community and their adherence to the strictest orthodoxy and distrust of Zionism. I haven't read much about Judaic fundamentalism before, and at heart it isn't different from any other fundamentalism, but what illuminates the story are the lives of multiple generations of a family, taking sometimes diverging paths, sometimes openly, sometimes in secret. Markovits herself fled her Hasidic family to pursue broader options in life, but there is no simple taking of sides here. There is a great love for the world the author and one of her characters has left behind, and a sense of sympathy for these ultra orthodox people and what has shaped them, that perhaps a social history would not have conveyed as richly (at times I was reminded of the sweep and intimacy of Jenny Erpenbeck or Patrick Modiano). There is perhaps a shade of melodrama, yet it must be admitted that melodrama is the natural state of the human race. Most of all, I was left with a sense of the sheer waste and tragedy of prejudice, especially when the 'prodigal daughter' goes to visit the Transylvanian towns and villages where her people no longer live.
I really found this book to be emotional and it really pulled me in. It made me think about what life could be like in a different culture or religion. I found it to be very interesting. It explained some aspects of the Hasidic Jewish faith and how the people were treated during World War II. It was a wonderful story that made me feel for the characters in the book. It starts out in World War II with the Jews being taken on trains to the concentration camps. There was the story of the boy who watched his whole family be murdered in front of him, then the maid took him away from there and turned him into a Christian. He is found by the Jewish people again and taken to America to study with the Rabbi. There is marriage to a young Jewish girl from the family who found the boy. They cannot have children and then things get interesting. To tell more would give away too much of the ending. This book gave a bit of history of World War II as well as the perspective of a Jewish family and how they survive. I found the book to be very interesting and would recommend it to anyone who loves a good book. It will draw in the reader and make them feel like they are a part of the story. I really enjoyed reading this book even though parts of it made me cry.
This book proves that in any religion there are extremists that take generic 'holy' text and follow it to the letter without thinking of decency to their fellow human beings. I found this book so disturbing, not only because it is a sect of my own religion, but because this really isn't a work of fiction. This is real life to those believers. And I am all for freedom of religion but those that take their beliefs over the top and it affects children....that's when I say enough. I have never understood how a person could love their religion more than their own child. A parent that would disown their own child certainly does not have my respect. Although this was very extreme, I also grew up in a household where utmost importance was placed on religion and marrying within that religion. Maybe that was why this book bothered me so...because I saw shades of my dad within..just not so over the top. The book held my interest throughout and I probably should have given it a four for storyline...I just wasn't crazy about the way it was written. It didn't flow for me.
This is not a light or breezy read. It will challenge most readers to learn some obscure things, to be patient, and to withhold their opinions of things that may seem strange and rub against our modern mainstream PC grain.
The story begins in Transylvania in 1939. In seemingly unrelated flashes, two children witness the murder of their parents, members of the ultra-orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jewish dynasty. It's obvious from the beginning that the entire book will revolve around these two children's connection, but that may be the only thing you're completely sure of in this submersion into the lives of this insular community. When it does end, three generations later in 21st century Brooklyn, you're left to wonder at the many different kinds of isolation and exile, both internal and external, decisions people make based on faith and how we legitimize our hardest choices clutching at the things we convince ourselves are justification or absolution.
The author manages to portray the daily life of this insular community without resorting to exposition or talking down to the reader. She simply puts material in context and lets the information unfold naturally. The writing is clear and modest, but that makes it no less elegant and engaging.
I admit I wasn't sure what to think at the beginning of this book. We got off to a slow start while the author set the foundation for the relationships that followed. What was the deal with the rebbe on the train? Why remove a child from where he is safe? And why was she focusing on some things that seemed like minor details. But nothing is minor, not in a faith that has 613 commandments to remember, that sees mystical meaning in the a kind of numerology, that dictates exactly how and when a married couple may "be permitted to each other." The details are important. This is a tradition where forbidden or permitted sometimes is determined by splitting the finest hair.
I am fascinated by religion and enjoy reading / learning about other religions. This book tells the story of a Satmar family (Hasidic Jewish) from 1940’s Romania then Paris then to present day Williamsburg, NY & the challenges (and joys) of living within their religious beliefs.
I am Forbidden begins in 1939 Transylvania where five-year-old Josef, who has crawled under the family table to pick up one of the wooden letters he thought was lost, is the lone survivor when his family is murdered by the Iron Guard. He spends the night under the table waiting for his sister’s voice, and is found the next day by the family’s housekeeper as the Jewish Burial Society takes his sister’s body away. The housekeeper, Florina, stops her tasks as she sees Josef, and quickly takes him away to raise him as her own in the home of her parents. She changes his name to Anghel, removes his sidecurls and has him baptized. That night, Florina lulls him with “Mama wants Anghel to live…”
Years later, as Anghel becomes accustomed to this new life on this small farm near the railroad tracks and the river, he wakes early to the sound of his dogs barking. Looking out his window he sees the shadowy figures of a man, woman and a little girl. He waits for Florina to leave and then goes in search of these three. Peering through a hole in the shed’s wall, he sees them again. A train approaches, but doesn’t slow to stop. A second train approaches and the woman looks out the shed’s window and sees the Rebbe and rushes to him, calling him. One shot is fired, and the man rushes to her as Anghel’s hand covers the little girl’s mouth and pulls her from the doorway to hide behind the shed. He tells her not to move, that her mother would want her to live.
Night falls, and the two make their way through the market square, where the girl’s father, slashed and bleeding is tied to a post. Her father renames her Mila and tells her to go to Zalman Stern, and begs the boy to tell them to see to it he is buried with his own.
Mila’s story begins as she appears at the door of Zalman and Hannah Stern and their daughter Atara, and they raise Mila as their own. Mila and Atara sleep side by side and Atara is the first to hear Mila speak, after a summer of silence. Later, after Zalman goes to the village where Mila’s father and mother died, he meets the farm boy who tells him of Gershon Heller’s request to be buried with his own. When he returns with the news of her father’s proper burial, she speaks to Zalman for the first time, letting him know that the boy named Anghel is a Jew, another child orphaned. When Zalman confirms his heritage, he returns home with Josef / Anghel, but seven years with Florina have dimmed his memories of his Jewish heritage. As Zalman prepares Josef for his bar mitvah, he also prepares him for his move to America, while Zalman prepares his own family of their upcoming move to Paris.
As a young girl, Atara is more willful, questioning the rules and regulations of more and more in the Satmar household. Mila, fueled with her belief that her reunion with Josef is a foretelling of her reunion with her parents, submits to the Satmar ways. It is in Paris that the story really begins to take on unexpected twists and turns and the characters really begin to add depth, and their personal struggles take on an added dimension, some sensational and some tragic.
This is Anouk Markovits second book, her first book “Pur cotton” was published in French.
I somewhat hesitantly give this four stars, but three isn't really enough. There are parts that don't really flow, and parts that are disjointed. Between people coming and going, different eras, different locations, that is to be somewhat expected. There are, on the other hand, parts that are mysteriously bizarre and yet poetic.
“Atara liked to pray with Mila. She could tell that in Mila’s prayer, the messiah’s coming was not the glory of the Temple rebuilt but a kitchen with Mila’s mother in it, a bedtime with the story Mila’s father had not finished telling her.”
I decided to read this after I read Unorthodox. Similar stories, I heard. Both by women who left the Satmars, they said.
That couldn't be more wrong.
It is true that the author of this book - Anouk Markovits - left the Satmar community, as did Deborah Feldman, but there the similarity ends In Unorthodox, the author clearly had an axe to grind and though she certainly had legitimate complaints her book was more an airing of grievances and a revelation of customs than the telling of a tale.
This, however, is a beautifully constructed tale - not of one who left, but one who stayed. It is about love and loss, and the unbending nature of Satmar Jewish law (it's certainly not the Jewish law I obey). It's about the complete subversion of self while yearning to find a way to make oneself whole within the unforgiving rule of law. In a nutshell: it is the story of Mila, orphaned during the Holocaust, who is raised in the Satmar community, and - tangentially - about her relationship with her husband, Josef, also orphaned; and with her adoptive sister, Atara.
Those who know me know that I shy away from emotional books (too much like real life) but this... it's worth reading. I am not sure if the fact that I am Jewish explains some of my interest but it was fascinating, and at the end of the day I feel very, very sorry for the Satmar girls. Not because they are insular and religious, or because they pick piety over individuality, but because they have so little freedom to deviate in the tiniest, most personal ways. Perhaps the most disturbing passages relate to proscriptions against seeking help for infertility... forbidding pleasure within a marriage...damning generations of children.
Josef is a young boy when he survives the massacre of his family in Transylvania during World War II. Hidden and raised by a non-Jewish woman for several years, Josef is eventually discovered by other Jews and sent to live with the Rebbe in New York City. Mila, a young Jewish girl is orphaned when her parents are brutally killed. She is taken in by another Jewish family and raised in Paris.
Thus begins I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits.
Eventually, Josef and Mila, Satmar Jews, will marry and entwine their lives together in New York. Their peace and security in this insular Hasidic sect is threatened by a secret they will keep for generations.
Markovits writing is abstract and illusive and at the beginning of the novel, my background with the history of Transylvania and Hungary during World War II was not significant enough for me to fully grasp what was happening. I did a little research on my own and found that it helped in the understanding of the novel.
It was not long into the novel before I was completely entranced by the story and characters. I couldn't put the novel down and I was literally weeping for Mila and her struggles with infertility, her desperate act and the ultimate consequences.
I Am Forbidden is a heart breaking novel that follows generations through pain, death, love and joy. While the novel opens a window on this intriguing and secluded group of people, the novel is ultimately about human desire which is, of course, universal.