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Reviewed by Vera Pereskokova (Luxury Reading)
I Am Forbidden is Anouk Markovits’ first book to be translated into English, and I certainly hope it’s not the last. Markovits herself was raised in the ultra-Orthodox branch of Judaism, Satmar, and fled the community at 19. Throughout the book, I wondered how much of the story was based on her own experience.
Part of the Satmar community in Transylvania, Rabbi Zalman Stern and Rachel Landau married and began a family on the eve of World War II. As Jews around them were being deported and murdered by the thousands, the Sterns were somehow spared and took in two orphans whose families were not so lucky.
Five-year-old Josef Lichtenstein hid under the table as his parents and little sister were butchered, and was taken in by their maid who passed him off as her own son. Several years later, Josef came across a Jewish family hiding in a barn, and hid their five-year-old daughter when the adults were discovered. The girl, Mila Heller, was the daughter of Gershon Heller, Zalman’s study partner from his school days, and with Josef’s help, the little girl made her way to Zalman’s home. When the war wound down, Zalman learned of Josef’s Jewish heritage and took him in as well, later sending him to Williamsburg, New York, to be part of the new Satmar community there.
Since a young age, Zalman Stern was known as a wonder of Torah knowledge; he strived to live his life by the Law his religion imposed and he expected the same from his family and his congregations. In the Satmar branch of Judaism, women typically dropped out of school to marry early, bear many children and be under direct control of their husbands. While some, like Mila, eagerly prepared for their roles as wives, others, like Zalman’s first born, Atara, rebelled against the strongholds.
Much to her joy, 17-year-old Mila was engaged to Josef – a boy she idealized since childhood – and was set to leave for Williamsburg. Shortly after her departure, Atara stole off in the night to avoid her own impending nuptials, and was declared to be dead to the family by Zalman. Despite Atara’s betrayal, it is pious Mila that eventually struggles with the expectations of her faith, and makes a choice that has devastating consequences for generations to come.
I Am Forbidden is not an easy book – due both to the subject matter and the writing style – but I finished it in one sitting nonetheless. The story is immensely powerful but Markovits’ style requires the reader to fill in the gaps and often draw their own conclusions from what’s given to them on the page. Personally, I loved this approach and appreciated the thought process the book inspired. I Am Forbidden is a brief read but there is such meaning packed into each sentence; not a single word is wasted.
The title itself has as many meanings as a reader’s imagination will allow. It directly relates to Mila’s choice and the effect of that choice on her place – and the place of her offspring – in the community. However, it could also be taken to mean that women are forbidden to anyone but their husbands, that they are forbidden to pursue any interests of their own, and so on. Beyond women, the community described by Markovits does place many restrictions on men as well, making the title equally relevant in their realm.
Overall, bravo bravo bravo! It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed I Am Forbidden.
Review and giveaway copies were provided free of any obligation by Hogarth. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.a Rafflecopter giveaway