At its center, Anouk Markovits’ novel is about two young girls growing up in the same household, members of the Satmar, an Hasidic Jewish sect. When they reach their teens, one sister embraces her faith, the other rebels. The author herself was raised as an Hasidic Jew. She knows her subject and is able to write objectively about the faith. Even though she chose to leave her community at 19, her novel delves more deeply into the life of the sister who chooses to stay.
In contrast, just a few months ago we featured a review of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, a controversial memoir about leaving a Satmar community in Brooklyn. These two books would make an interesting fiction/nonfiction pairing.
There is a long excerpt of I Am Forbidden on Scribd, and an article in Publishers Weekly about Markovits’s desire to help the outside world understand the inner world of a member of a fundamentalist sect. One of the reasons Markovits was able to leave her community was thanks to her love of reading. “Books were not only a way to encounter a world she was told to shun, they let her see the inner lives of that world’s inhabitants. In I Am Forbidden, Markovits reverses the lens, giving her believers inner lives that outsiders can see and feel.”
Adult/High School–Five year-old Josef becomes Anghel, “son” of the Catholic maid who saves his life after his family is murdered before his eyes. Years later, young Mila watches as her parents are shot, running for the train that carries their rabbi through the Hungarian countryside, away from the atrocities of the Nazis. Why didn’t the holy man save them? But Anghel saves Mila, setting into motion a chain of events that binds them over time and distance. I Am Forbidden is a beautifully written, suspenseful novel whose young characters’ dilemmas will capture the imagination of teen readers as it offers a glimpse of life within the insular Satmar Hasidic sect. Orphaned Mila seeks out family friend Zalman Stern, who raises her alongside his own daughters. She tells him of Anghel, the Jewish farm boy, whom he then “rescues” and sends to Brooklyn to study Talmud. The Sterns transport their family to Paris when Zalman accepts a position as a cantor. Mila and her now-sister Atara attend school with completely different outcomes. Atara craves intellectual challenges, while Mila unquestioningly absorbs the teachings of her faith. Her beloved Atara chooses a path that severs all ties to their staunchly observant family. Josef has never forgotten Mila; he has dreamed of the day she would be his bride. Their destined union is marred by infertility. Knowing that after 10 years a Satmar man must divorce a barren wife, a desperate Mila commits a shocking, life-altering sin, turning her marriage to dust. Markovits’s masterful storytelling elevates this riveting saga of love, loss, and the limits of faith.–Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD