I Am Forbidden

by Anouk Markovits

Book, 2012



Call number




London ; New York : Hogarth, c2012.


A novel spanning four decades, from pre-World War II Transylvania to contemporary New York, looks at the cause and effect of both belief and non-belief within the Jewish religion, in a tale that focuses on the relationship of two sisters within a Hasidic sect.

User reviews

LibraryThing member labfs39
The story begins with the twisted fates of the Heller and Stern families in Hungary during WWII, and how Zalman Stern rescues two children, Mila and Josef. The second part of the book is about the two sisters, Atara and Mila, and their life growing up in a strict Hasidic community in Paris. Mila is
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obedient and content, but Atara burns for an education and freedom. After Mila's marriage, Atara leaves the community and disappears. Book three is about Mila's life as a newlywed in a new Hasidic community in America. Already isolated from her family and home, Mila feels more and more desperate that she has not yet conceived. In the next book, Mila and her husband struggle in their marriage, and Mila become increasingly obsessed with learning the truth behind her childhood wartime memories. The final book closes the circle with Atara meeting Mila's daughter in the present day.

Despite some hard to believe coincidences, I found much to like in this, the author's second book, and first in English. The story is page turning, and the descriptions of life in a Hasidic community were interesting. The author herself was brought up in a Satmar home in France and left her family and community in order to get an education, so there is authenticity behind her words. I wish, however, that the story of Atara had been told more completely. Atara disappears from the story in 1957, and makes a brief appearance at the end of the book in 2005, but with little of the back story filled in. I liked Atara's determination and strength and would like to have known how she fared after leaving everything she knew. But perhaps that story will be revealed if the author writes a memoir.
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LibraryThing member Florinda
As eastern Europe is fractured during World War II, the Satmar Rebbe of Transylvania makes a miraculous escape to America and begins building a new community in the Williambsurg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York; meanwhile, those of his Transylvanian followers who survive the war are dispersed
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throughout Europe. Zalman Stern, his wife Hannah, and their growing family end up in Paris, where they are eventually joined by two young orphans. Josef was the only survivor of the brutal murder of his family, rescued and raised as her son by their Christian maid; several years later, Josef rescues Mila after her parents are killed chasing after a train--the very train on which the Satmar Rebbe is leaving. When both children end up in the care of the Sterns, Mila remains with them to be raised as a sister to their eldest daughter, Atara, while Josef is dispatched to Williamsburg to study with the Rebbe himself. Josef and Mila will be reunited a few years later when their marriage is arranged. The Sterns' daughter Atara will find herself on a different path; her curiosity about the secular world surrounding her family in Paris raises questions she is emphatically discouraged from pursuing--but she can't ignore them. While Mila and Josef become more deeply entrenched in the Satmar way of life, Atara will become estranged from it...and ultimately from her family.

The title of I Am Forbidden can be interpreted several ways within the context of the novel. Women in the Satmar sect are forbidden from furthering their educations or working; they have no role outside the family. Their most important job is producing children, and one of their greatest responsibilities related to that job is the preservation of "family purity"--the rules that govern sexual relations between husbands and wives. Sex is for procreation only, and a wife must carefully track her cycles. There are several days each month when her husband is forbidden to touch her; at the end of that time, she partakes in a ritual bath and returns home to give her husband a sign that he is now "permitted" to be with her. This "permitted" time should coincide with her most fertile days, and if all goes well, she won't have "unclean" days again for months; however, pregnancy will make her "forbidden" again. A wife who does not produce children has failed at her job, and after ten years, her husband may divorce her.

It can be hard for a modern woman to understand how any woman in this day and age could accept living like this...which is why it's key to understand that living like this is a deliberate rejection of anything "modern," and can only be perpetuated within a community that chooses to close itself off from the world. Exposure to unsanctioned ideas from the outside can raise questions; questioning can undermine an individual's belief, and individual questioners may ultimately break down a community of believers. Questioning is why Atara Stern had to leave her family behind.

Markovits has Atara leave the story behind along with her family, as the remainder of the novel focuses on Mila. Her story is probably more interesing from the outside because her life is so unfamiliar, but at the same time, the narrowness of Mila's life makes her story more challenging to tell. While Markovits rises to that challenge for the most part, when she tries to take Mila out of her life's confines, the novel takes a turn that I thought was unfortunately soap-operatic. Although I continued to be pulled along by the story, my appreciation for it diminshed a bit over the last third of the book.

Anouk Markovits' writing is lovely, and she has attempted some ambitious storytelling in I Am Forbidden. The novel spans decades and explores a way of life that seems to exist alongside our own time rather than of it. It touches on matters historical, political, and religious while focusing on one family's story. I don't think all of it worked, but I appreciate it when an author reaches the way this one does; and while I didn't find the novel entirely satisfying, I did find it consistently engaging, interesting, and emotionally resonant.
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LibraryThing member Litfan
This relatively short novel has great breadth, and sheds light on the inner world of the Hasidic sect of the Satmar. It begins in Transylvania during World War II, as Jews seek to escape capture by the Nazis. Two children are orphaned at the beginning of the book, barely escaping with their own
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lives as their parents are killed. Throughout the book these two children’s lives, and those of their families, intertwine in serendipitous, and very complex, ways.
The author, herself raised in a Satmar home, describes the inner workings of the religion and culture as few could. Her knowledge about the sect is woven seamlessly into the story, as the strict rules and deep beliefs of the sect impact the lives and choices of the characters across generations. A major theme is the questioning of unquestioning belief in a religious system. As religious elders make unthinkable choices without consequence, and innocent members suffer consequences for the choices of others, the reader also questions the wisdom of following without question, and finds the gray area between right and wrong broadening sharply.
The story itself had an air of inevitability, as though the characters were swept up in a tide over which they had little control. The characters are deeply human, and their internal struggles are described with unflinching honesty. It’s quite well-written, with well-developed characters and an intricate, absorbing plot. For me its best quality was how unflinchingly it opened up the world of this particular sect of Hasidism. A very rewarding read.
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LibraryThing member coolmama
This first novel of four generations of a Satmar Hasidic family from the 1940s in Transylvania to Williamsburg, Brooklyn focuses on two sisters: Mila and Atara. Atara escapes to the world, but Mila continues to live a frum life with an arranged marriage. I was very interested in reading this book
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as Atara's story is similar to the author's.
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LibraryThing member mom2acat
As the story opens in 1939 Transylvania, a 5 year old Jewish boy, Josef, witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard. He is rescued by the family's Christian maid and raised as her son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, after her parents are killed by the Nazis
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after trying to avoid deportation.

Joseph helps Mila find the home of her father's friend, Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community. Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman's daughter Atara. As they grow into young women, Mila's faith intensifies, while Atara learns more about the outside world and wants to leave the faith, even if it means her family will disown her. Mila has her own struggles later as a married woman. In the Satmar Jewish faith, a man is expected to divorce his wife if there are no children after 10 years of marriage, and Mila's inability to conceive leads her to an act of desperation.

This was a riveting story that had me hooked from the first chapter. The author herself was raised in the Satmar community, but she left as a teenager to avoid an arranged marriage. This story was hard to put down once I started reading. There is a glossary in the back of many of the Jewish terms used in the book, but I also looked up a lot of information online as I was reading. I always like it when a book I am reading leads to me want to learn more about a subject.
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LibraryThing member Jenners26
I've got to start this review by saying that this type of book is not really my cup of tea. Yet I did find myself interested by this glimpse inside a world that most of the world knows little or nothing about, the most insular sect of Hasidic Jews, the Satmar. Learning about this way of life is the
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main attraction of the book, and Anouk Markovits presents it unflinchingly. I'm sure she related closely to the character of Atara—the daughter who leaves the sect as a teenager and must forever live outside the community—as the author bio indicates that this was her own circumstances in life. It must have taken a great deal of courage and soul-searching to decide to write this book and share the view of the community.

The story begins in Transylvania in World War II. A young boy witnesses the murder of his entire family and is taken to be raised by a Christian maid. A young girl sees her parents killed before her eyes before being rescued by the boy. Both of them are rescued by Zalman Stern, a highly regarded Rebbe who arranges for the boy to live in America while he brings the girl to France to live with his own family as a daughter. The fates of these two children are intertwined, and we witness their journeys and relationship as it develops over the years.

Filled at times with joy and life and at times with deep sorrow and tragedy, I Am Forbidden makes you think. I know that I found learning about the Satmar community to be fascinating, yet it made me grateful that it wasn't my fate to be born into such a religion. Although the book clearly indicates why one would choose to leave the community, it also shows why such a decision would be incredibly difficult. I imagine that the rituals, laws, and rules might provide incredible comfort for many, yet it is easy to see how a person with a questioning mind and inquisitive soul would seek the wider world rather than stay in such an insular community.

The writing style of the book is somewhat poetic (by which I mean fragmented and dream-like at times rather than a straightforward narrative) and filled with Hebrew terms that sometimes made for a challenging reading experience. (However, there is a glossary at the end of the book that defines some of the Hebrew terms.) However, I never found myself completely lost while reading. If you just give yourself over to the ebb and flow of the story, you'll find a glimpse inside a world that is wildly different from the world most of us know.
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LibraryThing member ForeignCircus
This book a very powerful read and pulled me in from the very beginning. This intimate look at the tragedy of the Holocaust from the perspective of two families was moving and engrossing. I eagerly followed the story of Josef, Mila and Atara as they grew to adulthood, hoping that all would be well
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for these people who so desperately deserved some happiness.

It is hard to explain my concerns with the novel without giving away too much of the plot, but essentially halfway through the book, one of the main characters disappeared from the narrative not to re-emerge for decades. Because Atara dropped away form the story, I was left feeling that the story was incomplete. Josef and Mila's tale is tragic and compelling but I wanted also to learn about how Atara dealt with the choices she made. I was also dissatisfied with the end of the book which was just too bleak for me.

Well-written and compelling, this story was nonetheless incomplete for me.
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LibraryThing member MarkMeg
I found this interesting, yet disturbing. The story begins in Transylvania in 1939 and tells the story of Zalman & Hannah, Mila and Josef and Atara. The Satmar Hassidic community and their religious teachings cause a rift between Zalman and his daughter Atara. The infertility of Mila and her
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transgression cause a rift between Mila and Josef, who love each other intensely, but are restricted in this love. The transgression ultimately causes the death of Josef, and Josef and Mila's granddaughter, Judith. Atara is reunited with her mother but her father won't see her. Ultimitely, Atara reunites with Josef's foster mother to bring the story full circle.
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LibraryThing member keneumey
Here's a twist. I didn't like the beginning or the end, but enjoyed the middle. A few chapters in, I found the writing style too sort of impressionistic. I scanned some reviews and was surprised how overwhelmingly positive they were. The only negative reviews I saw complained of growing attached to
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characters who then disappeared for several chapters.

I stuck with it, because I'm interested in the subject matter and because it's a book club selection. I became engrossed in the parts about Mila and Atara's adolescence, Atara's desire to read secular books, and Mila's marriage. The contrast between the two women illustrates the struggle of women in the Orthodox faith.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed in the ending.
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LibraryThing member mkboylan
I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

This novel elicited a few different and emotional reactions from me. First of all, I had some difficulty following the plot initially, I believe due to my unfamiliarity with the history and the foreign (to me) names. The beauty of the writing, paired with my
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personal beliefs, caused the varied emotional responses. Initially, I felt increased compassion for the characters and increased understanding of the Hasidic experience. As the story continued, I experienced anger about the way the characters in this religious community treated each other and women. I hope that my increased compassion will win out, but it may take some time. I think the behavior that bothered me was due to their own experiences of trauma. Some of those experience seem to me to be almost impossible to overcome, and yet many did.

It is also interesting to think of how different my personal reaction would be at different points of time. Right now, I'm a little tired of hearing women put down daily in the news, so don't have much patience for it in my reading.

This book IS an interesting and I believe realistic, look at the development of religious beliefs based on life experiences in addition to time and place of birth. If you are interested in that topic or in Jewish history, I highly recommend it. I learned a lot.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
I read this book back when it came out in prepub form in 2012. At that time I gave it a rating (3 1/2 stars), but I didn't write a review. Today (7/1/2014) I accidentally deleted it so I added the book from my library, so now I've added it back in.

As I remember, the story was about women in the
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ultra-conservative Satmar sect of Orthodox Judaism. One female character wants the same opportunities to learn that males have, and the another just wants to be a mother. As is typical in books like this, both women have to make difficult choices to make their dreams come true. I really should read it again so I can write a fuller review, but I don't think it would stand up to a second reading.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
This book follows four generations of two families in a Satmar Hasidic community. Throughout the story, customs of this devoutly Jewish community are told so that all readers can understand what is happening from the point of view of the characters. French, Yiddish, and Hebrew terms are translated
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within the narrative. In addition, there is a glossary for yet more words which may be familiar to some readers but totally foreign to others. Know that the glossary is there before you begin to read this book.

The story opens in Transylvania during World War II with two small children. The first is the boy Josef who sees his family murdered and is taken in by his family's Christian maid who attempts to hide the child's Jewish origins. The other is the young girl Mila whose parents are killed when they see their Rebbe (Hasidic leader) in an open cattle car and run to meet him. The girl is taken into an adoptive family where she develops a sister-like closeness for that family's daughter Atara.

The most important ideas developed in this story are about what behavior is acceptable and what is not within this devout community and how individuals cope with deviating from the community's rules. It's not easy at all.

The chapters of this book are relatively short so the reader gets sucked into moving through the narrative ever more quickly while learning about a culture that lives in the heart of the modern world, yet is completely isolated unto itself. Behind the strangeness customs of the Satmar Hasidim are individuals who come so to life that they will tug at your heartstrings. Meet them, empathize with them, and even cry with them. This is a beautiful story.
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LibraryThing member raizel
The book explores many different types of "forbidden"---people, objects, and actions at various times and places---and the consequences of being, interacting with, and doing that which is forbidden. There is a short glossary at the end of the book, which includes some categories of
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forbidden-ness---muktza, apikores, and challilah, but, surprisingly, not niddah or mamzer or herem or treif. The "forbidden" of the title is both an adjective and an active verb.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
Interesting, nonjudgmental depiction of Satmar family. Kept at a distance from characters, but still cared deeply for them. Enjoyed this style of writing
LibraryThing member booklovers2
Such an tragic emotional journey! Words are difficult to describe the feelings evoked from this story, only I wished for a better ending because I felt so attached to the women in this story. It was such an eye opener to a world of people that I never knew before. I always start on page 1 of any
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book - this time I wish I knew that there was a glossary at the end of the book with translations to some of words.
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LibraryThing member Juva
Two Jewish orphans, Josef and Mila, narrowly escape death at the hands of the Nazi's in Romania. Together with their adoptive family, they immigrate to France. Josef goes to America to study the Torah while Mila is brutally educated about her duty to raise Jewish children by her violently orthodox
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adoptive father. Atara, the family's real daughter, is so disgusted by her parent's ultra-orthodox religion that she decides to abandon the faith even though it means exile. Later, after Josef and Mila marry and move to New York, Atara runs away from home.

Meanwhile, in America, Josef and Mila are happy. All Mila wants as it have children, but the months go by, and then the years. She begins to study the Torah for herself, studying what is has to say about infertility. Obsessed by the story of Tamar and Judah, she becomes convinced that she can only have children through infidelity. As their marriage approaches ten years without children, the Torah law insists that they divorce. Driven to extreme measures and believing she is being led by God, Mila has sex with a man she meets at a protest rally in Paris. She conceives but Josef has just been tested for fertility. He wants to believe that the child is his, but he knows it isn't. When he confront Mila she admits everything and tries to convince him that it was the will of God. Though he keeps the secret, he determines to abstain from his wife forever.

This beautiful novel is about faith, love, and the mystery of morality. Full of drama, truth, and surprising characters, I enjoyed every moment of this book.
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LibraryThing member beckyhaase
I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits
Three children who survive the destruction of their orthodox Jewish communities during WWII are followed throughout their lives. One survives because his Catholic nanny hides him as her son until he is “restored” to Judaism after the war. One survives because
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that same boy prevents her from following her mother and father to certain death. The third survives because her family is fortunate enough to escape to neutral land and then Paris after the war.
The aftermath of the war influences all the decisions, secrets and separations that follow them all their lives. The Ultra orthodox community is sympathetically rendered as is the decision of one of the three to leave that insular and confining faith.
The characters and faith are presented with clarity. Book groups will discover the lifestyle of the orthodox and its ramifications. A discussion of the decisions of the three characters and the decision of a granddaughter should lead to a lively conversation.
4 of 5 stars
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