|Anouk Markovits was born into a Satmar family, but left the community at age 19 to avoid an arranged marriage.|
Anouk Markovits’s novel moves and fascinates, she writes about about the Satmar Hasidim, the most isolated and insular of Jewish communities. The Satmar movement opposes all forms of secular culture and of Zionism. It began in 18th-century Hungary, but today is mainly based in Brooklyn and in upstate New York, though there are smaller communities elsewhere, including in Montreal. To write an intimate, respectful and yet critical novel about the workings of this community is no mean feat.
Markovits is well-positioned to lift the veil of secrecy that hangs over fundamentalist Hasidic sects. She was born into a Satmar family in France, but left it at the age of 19 to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to study at Ivy League U.S. universities and then to write fiction in French. I Am Forbidden is her English debut and has already been sold in 10 countries.
The novel opens in Transylvania on the eve of the Second World War with an arresting scene: The teenage Torah scholar and cantorial prodigy Zalman Stern unwittingly “sins” by having an erotic dream featuring his study partner’s wife. Zalman, who over the course of the novel will become a harsh patriarch, accepts the teachings of the Talmud at face value. Much will ride on the dictum that “Whoever emits seed in vain deserves death” and not just in this vivid beginning.
Markovits infuses a great narrative arc with lyricism and immediacy. When 5-year-old Josef witnesses the brutal slaying of his mother and baby sister in 1939, it’s as if we are right there, trying to decipher the moment’s horror through a child’s innocent eyes. He is hidden by the family’s Gentile maid, who, though she hates Jews, yearns for a child of her own.
Monstrous historical events are telescoped into filmic images as, five years later, Josef, in turn, saves a little girl – also orphaned during an atrocity – and engineers her escape to the household of the same Zalman Stern with whom the story started. This child, Mila Heller, the daughter of Zalman’s former study partner, will become one of the dual heroines of the novel.
The other is Atara, Zalman’s oldest daughter. The two girls are closer than close and share the trials of displacement as the family is transplanted to France after the Iron Curtain descends over Eastern Europe. In Paris, at the age of 8, Atara experiences her first seeds of rebellion. Having mistakenly infringed the rules of the Sabbath by riding a bike in a park, she receives a severe beating from Zalman.
Atara, whose story surely echoes the author’s, begins to question the dictates of orthodoxy and the infallibility of the Satmar Rebbe, in whose behaviour she detects self-serving hypocrisy. (The Rebbe, a historical figure, escaped Nazi-occupied Hungary through the agency of the controversial Zionist Rezsö Kasztner, who negotiated with Eichmann to save a trainload of doomed Hungarian Jews. Yet the Rebbe had bitterly denounced Zionism and afterward claimed that he was saved not by Kasztner, but by a miracle of God.)
When Atara runs away from home, the focus shifts to the obedient and faithful adopted daughter, Mila. This is where the novel really shines, as Markovits explores the dichotomy between the comfort and costs of belonging to a tight, closed off group. By concentrating on the sister who conforms, she delivers a character study of great nuance and sensitivity.
Mila’s destiny is joined to Josef, who had been sent to the Rebbe’s court in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when the war ended. With tenderness and compassion, Markovits portrays their youthful arranged marriage, circumscribed wedding night and devotion to each other. But this love is gravely tested when Mila fails to conceive. By this time she, too, is in Williamsburg and discovers that there’s not much to life there for a childless young woman.
Fate and faith, free will and strict commandments collide, as Mila and Josef react to their situation in ways that have dark and far-reaching consequences.
Steeped in erudition and seething with emotion and energy, I Am Forbidden is driven by a breathless momentum that makes it hard to put down. It will stay with me for a long time.
I Am Forbidden, By Anouk Markovits, Bond Street Books/Doubleday Canada, 300 pages, $29.95