In her first English-language novel, U.S.-based French writer Anouk Markovits delves into the hidden world of the Satmar Hasidism, a closed sect of orthodox Jews originating in Hungary. Her unique story, engaging writing and fascinating subject matter makes this work of literary fiction a compelling read.
I Am Forbidden revolves around three central characters, Josef, Mila and Atara. It chronicles their intertwined lives from childhood during the Second World War, when they are raised in the strict Satmar Jewish tradition, to their old age in present-day Brooklyn, New York.
The novel begins in Transylvania, with a young Josef also escaping the brutal murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard. Miles away, young Mila also witnesses the murder of her parents by Nazi soldiers as they try to escape deportation to a concentration camp.
The two orphaned strangers find each other and form a childhood bond when they are both taken in by a strict Satmar Jew, Zalman Stern, and his family. Josef and Mila's friendship is put on hiatus when Josef is sent by Zalman to America to study under Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, a real-life historical figure who went on to establish the Satmar Hasidism community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
With the loss of her parents and her childhood sweetheart, Mila finds comfort and love in her adopted sister, Zalman's daughter Atara.
Mila and Atara move with their family to Paris, where they grow up in the strict confines of their Satmar upbringing. They are forbidden to partake in activities deemed sacrilegious -- visiting the library or reading newspapers because they espouse secular ideas. While Mila faithfully adheres to the rigorous requirements of her tradition, Atara finds it stifling and runs away to live a life outside of the Satmar sect.
In adulthood Josef and Mila are reunited as Zalman arranges their marriage to one other. But their love is tested when Mila abrogates her religious principles, ironically believing that she is fulfilling a higher duty as a Satmar wife and to the memory of her murdered parents.
It would be tempting but erroneous to lump this work under "apostate literature," stories of those who reject oppressive religious communities, such as Tehmina Durrani's My Feudal Lord, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel and, more recently, Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. This is not that story.
Like her character Atara, Markovits was raised in a Satmar home in France and also escaped the sect, travelling to the United States where she currently resides. Yet despite her own experiences, which obviously inspired the character of Atara, Markovits focuses on Mila and Josef, the characters that stayed within the Satmar community and, despite their spiritual dilemmas, remained faithful to the end.
In that way, the title, I Am Forbidden, appears somewhat misleading, its meaning becoming apparent only toward the end.
Because of this, Markovits is able to go beyond the superficial clichéd storylines of female characters who are suddenly emancipated from the "backward," "sexist," "barbaric" religions. I Am Forbidden offers a refreshingly different insight.
Moreover despite Markovits own experiences with the Satmar, there is no bitterness or judgment in her writing. She presents her characters as nuanced and human, so that we empathize with many characters instead of rooting for just one.
Markovits' ability to bring to life the maddening and heart-wrenching struggle of Mila and Josef as they are torn between religious duty and human emotion is absorbing from beginning to end.
She allows readers to experience a unique world that, for many is largely unknown and for some, even shocking. And yet she is still able to create characters that are not only relatable but who poignantly reveal the human condition.
It is a fine addition to anyone's bookshelf, regardless of their religious belief.
Winnipeg-based Nadia Kidwai is a freelance journalist.