Cindie Harp's Reviews > I am Forbidden

I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits
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Feb 27, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: spring-reading-challenge-2012, first-reads
Recommended to Cindie by: goodreads giveaway
Recommended for: my friends
Read from April 10 to 12, 2012 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** 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?
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Reading Progress

04/11/2012 page 67
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Paula (new)

Paula Fogle Good recap, Cindie. Sounds like an interesting and very involved story.


message 2: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Weinstein Your review shows how difficult it is to approach the unfathomable nature of holocaust experience.


message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan Great balance of personal and analytical comments. Wonderful review.


Cindie Harp Susan wrote: "Great balance of personal and analytical comments. Wonderful review."

Thank you!!


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