Anouk Markovits’s English language debut, I Am Forbidden offers readers a rare glimpse into a closed society. Markovits is—was—a French Satmar Jew. She left the Ultra-Orthodox sect at age 19 to avoid an arranged marriage, later earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Science from Columbia University, a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Harvard, and a Ph.D. in Romance Studies from Cornell. If this were not enough, she is fluent in French, English, Hebrew, and Yiddish.
Satmar Jews, who originated in Transylvania, Romania, are a sect that, like the Amish, have opted out of modern society and its countless heresies. Unlike the Amish, however, Satmars, like many Orthodox Jews, are unwelcoming to the point of rudeness. Not only do Orthodox Jews shun converts, they consider less observant Jews no better than goyim (non-Jews).
A Jew who leaves the Orthodox community is forever expunged. It’s not uncommon for Orthodox families to sit shivah, the seven ritual days of mourning a death, for a departed individual, never mentioning that person’s name again. To leave is to become non-existent.
One of the largest Satmar communities is Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York. In this 2011 New York Times article, Kiryas Joel is noted as the poorest city in the United States, relying heavily on government assistance and charity from wealthier neighbors. For a dismaying first person look into Satmar society, read this July 2008 article from New York Magazine chronicling Gitty Grunwald, a young woman who fled Kiryas Joel with her daughter, Esther Miriam. The child was taken by Gitty’s estranged husband back to Kiryas Joel. An ugly custody fight ensued.
I write this as a secular Jew of Transylvanian and Lithuanian descent. Apart from avoiding pork and speaking Yiddish, my family was not especially observant. But a large Hasidic group lived in our community. Every Saturday morning I watched the Orthodox families march down the street to the tiny shul (Yiddish for Synagogue) at the end of our block. The patriarch, in black hat and long black coat, led the family. The wife, clad in a long skirt no matter the weather, walked a step behind him, their many children—Orthodox Jews do not practice birth control—tagging along in a descending line.
Once inside the shul, the woman would collect her children and go to the back, sitting behind a woven lattice. I attended a Bar Mitzvah there once. I was 13, and saw nothing but the lattice. I could hear my friend chanting in Hebrew, a language I do not speak. It was a profoundly alienating experience.
So in fairness to Markovits, I brought a lot of baggage to her book, the baggage of intimate knowledge coupled with a strong distaste for Orthodox practices. Yet Judaism is my heritage. So I am drawn to books like I Am Forbidden, even when their contents make me wince.
I hoped I Am Forbidden would illuminate the increasingly archaic Satmar world, offer an explication making these reclusive people more comprehensible, even sympathetic, to non-Jewish readers (and maybe a few Jewish ones, too). And while Markovits offers clear explanations of Orthodox practices, her characters aren’t precisely sympathetic. While many are likeable enough, they are predictable: the rebellious girl, her obedient best friend, the loving mother, the brutal father, the hectoring teachers. Markovits, a deft, lyrical writer, is capable of more.
I Am Forbidden opens in Szatmár, Transylvania. It’s the eve of war, yet Satmar families heed their rabbi’s bidding and stay put. One of those staying put is Zalman Stern, a Torah prodigy with an excellent memory and beautiful singing voice. In short order he is married to Hannah Shaïovits. Their first child, Atara, soon follows.
From Szatmár we jump to Maramures, Transylvania, where five-year-old Josef Lichtenstein watches his mother braid his infant sister’s hair. Moments later soldiers invade the Lichtenstein home. Only Josef, spirited away by Florina, the gentile maid, survives. Florina takes him home, raising him as a Catholic.
What happens next bends reality slightly. Suffice to say the young Josef rescues a Jewish child named Mila Heller. Mila is the daughter of Gershon Heller, Zalman Stern’s childhood partner in Torah study. Via the magic of fiction, Mila is delivered to the Sterns, who accept her into their burgeoning family.
Mila and Atara, close in age, are soon inseparable. Zalman, now a rabbi, is a deeply observant man, strict to the point of joylessness. Hasidism is known for its approach to Judaism as a mystically joyous tradition involving singing and dancing. And while there is some song in Zalman Stern’s house, it is largely psalms. Dancing is reserved for shul, where men and women are separated, and for Hannah, who is a caricature: pious, uncomplaining, seemingly happy despite her dour husband and endless pregnancies.
As the novel progresses, those pregnancies take their toll: “The doctor had warned and threatened, but what were high blood pressure, varicose veins, and exhaustion when one considered Hannah’s siblings who never returned?”
Zalman tracks down the Aryanized Josef, indoctrinates him into the religion of his birth, then ships him off to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the Satmars, led by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, are establishing a community in the Holocaust’s wake.
Teitelbaum’s behavior during the war is a dissonant note in the book. It’s rumored that Teitelbaum collaborated with a prominent Zionist to gain freedom at the cost of countless others, Mila’s parents among them. Satmars are violently against Zionism and Israel, preferring to wait for the Messiah’s arrival before moving to the Holy Land. Despite stories in secular newspapers and Mila’s eyewitness account of the Rabbi on an open train, the Satmar community prefers their beloved Rabbi’s story of escaping the Nazis, even as he departs for “treifanah Americaner” (literally, unclean America), a place he had warned his congregation was a “den of novelty and assimilation”.
After Josef’s departure, the Sterns leave Communist Romania for Paris, where Zalman is a Cantor (a professional singer in a shul). Paris, that den of iniquity, must be fought against. To this end, breakfast at the Stern table is a unhappy affair: Zalman shouts at his children, pounds his fist on the table, and quizzes his whimpering brood on the Torah.
“Zalman’s brow furrowed. His pulse galloped. It was essential for children to fear their father so they would grow up into God-fearing Jews.”
Yet once enrolled in Parisian schools, Mila and Atara’s home lives begin colliding with the secular world. Mila responds by becoming even more frum—modest and religious—while Atara’s curiosity is kindled. Her love of reading finds a new outlet in secular libraries, which are as illicit as houses of prostitution.
Markovits meticulously weaves Jewish law into I Am Forbidden. No female may over age 12 may sing in the presence of a male, lest she distract him from thinking about God. Boys old enough to read are permitted no play; they must begin their lifelong Torah studies. Marriages are arranged. When Atara and Mila ride a bicycle in the Sabbath, Zalman beats Atara mercilessly. The event further divides the girls, driving Atara from Orthodox Judaism and its attendant repressions as Mila bends her head submissively.
Atara’s defiance only deepens: she wishes to continue her education at the Sorbonne. Zalman responds by pulling both girls, aged 15 and 16, out of school to do housework until they marry. Another improbable plot twist sends the girls to an English religious school, where Mila continues her meek observance, while Atara spends hours in the school library, hoping to quell her hunger for the outside world. But the tensions between honoring her family and fleeing only worsen. Eventually, the girls are called home to help Hannah, who is experiencing yet another difficult pregnancy.
Mila is now 17. A marriage is arranged, to one Josef Lichtenstein, now of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Mila begins attending private bride classes, where she is taught the rituals surrounding menses, cleanliness, and the times a wife is “permitted” to her husband, ancient rules likely to astound some readers. Yet Mila is thrilled to marry, eager to start a family. She is also ready to escape Atara’s insistent nagging regarding Rabbi Teitelbaum’s dubious survival story.
Here the plot begins unraveling into a series of unlikely events (which are also unfortunate). Shortly after Mila’s marriage and departure for Brooklyn, Atara vanishes. She will not reappear until the novel’s end. Her initial culture shock and eventual adjustment to a complex secular society go unmarked. Given that Markovits did this herself, Atara’s disappearance from the text disappoints. Both the author and her character have experienced something unique. While children reach adulthood and (mostly) leave home, making lives for themselves, few are forced to sever relations with family, friends, and relatives in the quest for adulthood.
Skimming over Atara’s departure, Markovits focuses on Mila’s life in Brooklyn. Initially the marriage is a happy one. But Mila fails to conceive. “It was not a good thing for a young woman in Williamsburg not to be pregnant. There was not much to be, in Williamsburg, for a woman who was not pregnant.”
Years pass without children. By the tenth year of marriage, Mila has begun searching out Biblical references to childbearing. She is more than slightly mad, but this fails to explain what she does to conceive. Her pregnancy ruins her marriage, and by Talmudic Law, taints her children for generations to come.
From here, I Am Forbidden leapfrogs rapidly through time. The story ends on an unrealistic note, with a violation of Torah law. Did Markovits want the secular and Hasidic worlds to overlap, to bleed into one another? Or is this reviewer asking too much? I Am Forbidden unquestionably offers non-Jewish readers insight into a closed society. Whether this leads to sympathetic understanding is another question entirely.