Book Review: I am Forbidden

Anouk Markovits takes us on a remarkable journey, allowing us to witness the inside of a strict, highly devout religious sect and hear of all that is forbidden to the Satmar people. The word forbidden is often spoken, thought, prayed…many, many, many things, thoughts, emotions, dreams are forbidden to them. It’s a melancholy story, yet also a beautiful one that gives us a compassionate, well-rounded glimpse in to the lives and different choices of two girls growing up in the same home.

Best friends, sisters for life.

This is a story I ripped through in just a few short days (finished in under 2 I think?) The writing starts out as quite sparse and almost erratic in places, but once you become steeped deep in the lives of Mila and Atara it becomes almost impossible to put down. Markovits gracefully shows compassion to both of their tales, one sister that remains devout, one that dreams of escape.

The story begins with a very young boy named Josef witnessing the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard. He is later found by his housekeeper whom steals him away, cuts the payot (side curls) and baptizes him as her own. Josef’s story is brought to the attention of Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, when Josef rescues another Jewish girl Mila, after witnessing the murder of her family.  Zalman is honour bound to both return Josef back to his people, but also to help Mila. He brings her in to his home to raise with his family. She shares everything with Atara, the daughter of Zalman Stern.

The story progresses as we discover one who begins to question the suffocating rites, rituals and beliefs they must remain beholden to, and one that remains devout and unwavering. Following a particularly harsh beating from her father after riding a bike on the Sabbath, Atara begins to examine her religion with a critical lens. Is this all there is to life, to become a mother like hers whose body is destroyed from pregnancy after pregnancy, too exhausted to enjoy any sight or sound around her other than little ones clamouring for her attention, never to be able to attend university, never allowed to read books or even walk in to a public library?

Atara daydreamed of preparing for the baccalaureat with her classmates at the lycee, but then her family would be erased from the register of good Hasidic families, her siblings condemned to bad marriages, to no marriage at all…Was it a selfish heart that dreamt of living her own life?

If Atara fulfills her dream of an education and continues on the path to escape, will she lose Mila forever too?

Mila later marries Josef, thereby completing their connected destinies, Mila’s long, beautiful, beautiful hair is shaved off as law dictates that Josef can never touch her hair. And Atara flees from her home, leaving her family and community far behind.

There are a number of (heartbreaking) moments when you read about the married life between Josef and Mila and the emotionally crippling rules they must honour: “He stroked her lips, her lashes – he stopped. Bride and groom must separate as soon as the act is consummated. When was it permitted to speak again? He pulled up a chair, making sure it did not touch her covers, And every bed whereon she lieth shall be unclean.

For 10 years Josef and Mila are married, and barren. By their law, Josef must divorce. 10 years without child is the limit. Both desperate with love for one another, they both commit acts so strictly forbidden in their belief with heartbreaking end results for them and their family. It just wrenched on my heart to see how they loved each other so, but their religious teachings and law did not allow them to truly come together because they remained so conditioned to what their law and the Rebbe states is so, true and just in their religion.

My only sadness was that we knew nothing of the time during which Atara had fled. We are only brought back in to her life after many decades has passed and Mila’s granddaughter must seek her out prior to revealing the family secret to the Rebbe. No one was allowed to ever speak Atara’s name again, and there was never any mention of where she went or how she was able to remain hidden. I so wished to read more about this part! But the finale of the story is incredibly heart breaking, but again, Markovits handles with such compassion and justice to all sides.

There are a number of interviews and reviews with Anouk Markovits on her site here. From reading through these interviews, she seems a very poised and calm person, yet such a heroic and brave person too for her decision to leave all she knew of behind and move away from the punishingly strict sect. There is much in this story that you can see is semi-autobiographical for Markovits. The New York Times wrote a great review that can be read here.

I do recommend this one, I always enjoy peeking in to these religious sects and organizations, and Markovits does so with the Satmar in I am Forbidden in a very compassionate yet heart breaking way. 4 stars.

Scenes from a Satmar wedding: