I need a cooling off period before I could write this post about Anouk Markovits’ I am Forbidden. So much of the culture and religion of the Satmar Hasidim made me angry, or sad, or both. But let me start from the beginning.
The book opens in Transylvania in the late 1930s, in a community of Ultra Orthodox Jews. The Holocaust destroys their families and towns, but a handful survive. The novel centers on Blimela “Mila” Heller, Atara Stern, and Josef Liechtenstein. Mila and Josef are orphans. Atara’s family survives intact, and her father, a cantor, takes the orphans into his family. Mila easily settles into the rule-bound life of Ultra Orthodox Judaism. Josef shakes off the years he spent in hiding in a Gentile Romanian woman’s house to become a ben Torah, a son of the Torah. He excels in his Torah studies to the point where he is invited to Williamsburg, New York, to be a part of the Grand Rebbe‘s court. Atara, however, starts to question her upbringing and her faith.
While Josef and Mila set out on their new life as a married couple, Atara breaks with her family. She runs away because she can’t reconcile what she actually thinks and believes with what she should think and believe. Before Mila was married, she and Atara attend a Jewish seminary in England. They study as much of the Torah as they’re allowed. When Atara finds the gaps in Judaism’s logic, she is told that they are not to think about it. Atara wants to make her own life, but there is only one permissible path for a Hasidic girl: wife and mother. She runs away from her family when they start to talk about engaging her to another Satmar man. She fears being forbidden from pursuing education and expression.
Mila is truly happy in her new life except for one thing. She can’t get pregnant. Under Satmar Hasidic law, a couple that doesn’t conceive in ten years is obliged to divorce. Mila and her husband are in love and don’t want to separate. Josef prays and studies, but Mila comes up with a plan inspired by the biblical Tamar. She commits what the law would say is adultery, though she would argue that this sin is outweighed by her child.
Throughout I am Forbidden, the characters run up against what they are and are not permitted to do or think. For some, the conflict drives them to the brink of insanity. Others compromise and keep their secrets. The tension in the book is whether those secrets will come out, and what will happen if they do. It’s hard not to judge the Satmar Hasidim way of life, but doing so raises up an ugly can of historic and philosophical worms. But I can feel sympathy for all the characters caught on the horns of their various dilemmas.
What will stay with me most from I am Forbidden is the way that free will is denied the characters. Zalman Stern, Atara’s father, rails against free will. The body of Jewish law and tradition have guidance for nearly every situation one could find oneself in. Zalman would argue that you don’t need free will. But every character wrestles with it when their choices are between one bad thing and a worse alternative. No one can win in this book, but you have hope that someone will find a way to be happy.