Atara’s hands reached for walls as if stones returned caresses, her lips whispered to crack and moss as if they whispered back. To the polished stones, Atara confided that one day, courage might call for a bigger self, not for making oneself smaller.
(from I Am Forbidden, page 90)
I Am Forbidden is an utterly enthralling family saga focused on the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews. Anouk Markovits, who left her Satmar home at 19 to avoid an arranged marriage, paints a detailed portrait of a family bound together by faith and tragedy and pulled apart by secrets stemming from desires they are unable to quell. Markovits takes readers from Transylvania in 1939 to Paris in the 1940s and 1950s and eventually to New York in the present day.
The novel focuses on Josef Lichtenstein and Mila Heller, both Hasidic Jews whose families were murdered in Transylvania during World War II. Josef’s parents and baby sister are slaughtered by the Romanian Iron Guard when he is just five years old, and it’s a miracle that he survived. By the time he witnesses the murder of Mila’s parents, the boy knows too much about loss. He helps Mila make her way to Zalman Stern, a rabbi and friend of her father’s, and she and Josef’s shared grief makes them kindred spirits.
Mila becomes a part of the Stern family, and she and Zalman’s daughter, Atara, are raised as sisters. After the war, Josef is sent to the Satmar community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, while the Stern family moves to Paris. Mila and Atara grow apart, with Mila focused on her faith in order for her parents to live again and Atara wanting to taste freedom and to know what it means to think for herself. With all the details Markovits provides about the laws and observances of Hasidic Jews, readers easily understand how Atara feels stifled, but they also can see how these rules strengthen and comfort the believers.
I Am Forbidden shines a light on what it means to be a woman in the Satmar sect when Mila and Josef marry, what it means for someone to say, “I am forbidden, so are my children and my children’s children, forbidden for ten generations male or female.” There is such a heaviness to the novel, but it was so fascinating that I didn’t want to put it down. Markovits enables readers to sympathize with the characters, even when they might not agree with their religious convictions. I really felt for both Mila and Atara throughout the book, and I teared up many times while reading. The book was perfectly paced, yet at times I felt the pages turned too quickly because I knew I wouldn’t be ready to let these characters go.
Markovits has given readers a captivating glimpse of an insular religious community. I felt like I learned a lot of new things while reading I Am Forbidden, and it certainly was my first trip to Transylvania during World War II. Markovits doesn’t give a lot of background about the Romanian Iron Guard, and the scene in which Josef’s family is murdered is seen through his five-year-old eyes, so I’ll have to do some research on my own. I Am Forbidden is that kind of book — it grabs you, doesn’t let you go, and inspires you to read more about the history of the people detailed within. It’s a thought-provoking novel, and it definitely will be on my best of 2012 list.
Courtesy of Hogarth, I am giving away a copy of I Am Forbidden. Because the publisher is shipping the book, this giveaway is open to readers in the U.S. and Canada only and will end at 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, May 27, 2012.
**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**
Disclosure: I received I Am Forbidden from Hogarth for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.