I Am Forbidden: A Novel
by Anouk Markovits
Paperback- $12.60

A family is torn apart by fierce belief and private longing in this unprecedented journey deep inside the most insular Hasidic sect, the ...

Overall rating:


How would you rate this book?

Member ratings

  "I Am Forbidden" by JoStARs (see profile) 02/18/13

  "I Am Forbidden: A Novel by Anouk Markovits " by thewanderingjew (see profile) 12/13/13

The novel begins in Transylvania, as we are introduced to Zalman Stern, a rigidly religious, Satmar Hasidic Jew. He is a follower of this sect which bridges no compromises in the practice of religion. He is well known as a devout scholar. The book then continues on to tell the story of Josef Lichtenstein, a small boy who witnesses the murder of his family. Both Josef and Zalman are connected, for both are miraculously spared from death on the same day, in 1939, as others are wantonly murdered. Josef is instrumental in the rescue of Mila Heller which is another connection to Zalman Stern since both children eventually wind up under his tutelage. Both Mila and Josef, have been orphaned by the tragedy of events leading up to and including, World War II.
Josef spies Mila and her family hiding near where he lives, with his second mother, Florina. He sees Mila’s mother gunned down by Nazis, as she runs to her “Rebbe”, who is sitting in an open “special” cattle car for prominent people who are being rescued from the Germans (although this fact is not known to her). The “Rebbe has all the answers and is sought out to solve all problems. When the “Rebbe” told every Jew under his jurisdiction that they must not leave their land, they must tear up their papers to Palestine, they must not be Zionists, they obeyed him. He said the religion forbade them from leaving their homes and land and forbade them to fight against their enemies. It was G-d’s job to do that. Then he saved himself, explaining his rescue with a story about having a dream that it was G-d’s will that he be saved and sent to America. That story didn’t sit well with me. It actually filled me with disgust as his followers believed and justified the hypocrisy of his behavior. He had condemned them to death, knowing what awaited them, but spared himself. I had to remind myself that this was a novel.
Josef protected Mila by forcing her to remain with him and to keep silent so that she was not shot like her mother, or caught as her father soon was. He was later tortured and murdered. More mature than their young years, the children, Josef and Mila, find her father and bury him. Mila was told by her father that she should seek out Zalman Stern in the event of an emergency and Josef does what he can to help her find him. Josef introduces himself to Mila, as Anghel. Florina, who had formerly worked for Josef’s parents, was busy robbing their apartment after their brutal murders by Jew haters, when she found Josef hiding under a table in the apartment. Florina did not like Jews, they were non-believers, but she loved Josef. (Oddly, this is just one of the strange parallels in the book, since the belief mirrors that of the Satmar Hasids who believe non-believers should be ostracized, avoided, and perhaps, punished.)
Florina takes Josef with her and tells him never to reveal that he is a Jew. She has him baptized, gives him the name Anghel and raises him as a Christian for the next 7 years. When Zalman Stern learns from Mila, that the child he occasionally sees watching him on the road is Jewish, he makes several attempts to rescue him, and when the war is over, after many years of unsuccessful effort, he finally does. Josef/Anghel, is now 12 years old. He is brought back into the fold, lives with Zalman and is eventually sent to America to study further and also to remove him from the pull of Florina. A good Jewish male studies relentlessly. A good Jewish female supports him and is a good wife and mother.
With the rise of Communism, it becomes more difficult to practice Judaism in Rumania. Zalman decides to move his remaining family to Paris, where he takes a position as Cantor. He is a strict observer and religious observance there disappoints him. His disposition changes and he becomes more intolerant, more anxious. His eldest daughter, Atara, wants an education, and when he refuses and threatens to lock her up until he marries her off, she runs away, abandoning her religious life because of his intransigence and its limitations on her freedom and independence. She is mourned by Zalman, as if she had died. Meanwhile, Mila, who has been raised by Zalman and his wife Hannah, since the death of her parents, remains home and grows more devout. Eventually, she is betrothed to Josef, and she moves to America to join him. She has fulfilled her dreams.
When Mila does not conceive a child, the community begins to whisper about her. Years pass. A husband is allowed to divorce a barren wife after a certain amount of time. She resorts to an odd interpretation of the religious doctrines, and finds a way to become pregnant. Unfortunately, it is at that time that Josef also circumnavigates Jewish law and finds out he is sterile. When Mila gives birth to a child, the marriage is irreparably damaged. Although Josef loves the child, he suffers emotionally and mentally, punishing himself, ever after, causing his body to deteriorate physically. The novel explores the effect of fanatic religious observance on the people, and life itself, in these communities. Will tragedy continue to follow them? Will it be G-d’s will to punish them for their sins? Can they find loopholes in commentaries to justify what each has done? Are the personal tragedies, as well as the larger ones, including the Holocaust, as the Hasids believed, the result of disappointing their G-d, of not being a “good enough practicing Jew”, of somehow disappointing their G-d, thereby preventing the Messiah from coming to save them?
This is a book that tells a story steeped in the customs and culture of a devout and fanatic Jewish sect. It will raise questions and concerns in the minds of all readers about the rights of women and about the approach of these believers to those who do not believe. It felt like I was reading about a sect that had a deep, abiding love and belief in the word of their G-d, but overhanging it all were the constant threats of impending punishment and doom, banishment from the community, if they were not blindly obedient. Rigid demands for fanatic observance is the same in other religions, as well, but does that justify the intolerance?
This was a difficult novel for me to review and a difficult book to rate. It moved me fiercely, emotionally, in many conflicting directions as I read it. It left me with many unanswered questions. It presented a picture of Hasidic Judaism that opened my eyes to both their love of the religion and the rigidity of it. It pulled me in polar opposite directions as I read it, first respecting the observance, than disrespecting the intolerance of the observers. I wondered how such strict adherence to rules, especially by the women, who had few rights, was possible, and then I thought, it is possible because every instance in their lives is governed by a rule, questions about the rules are answered unequivocally by the Rabbi, and their education is completely controlled and limited. They are only permitted to read certain books and most have no idea or desire for an independent life in the outside world because it simply does not exist for them. They are forbidden to mix with non-believers and they are brought up to believe that transgressions will be severely punished by G-d or the community. The Rabbi always has the last world on all behavior. I was forced to realize that most fanatic religions are like this, and I shuddered because that is the reason there is such disharmony in the world. There is no room for compromise.

  "I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits" by [email protected] (see profile) 03/24/15

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 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

Remember me

Now serving over 80,000 book clubs & ready to welcome yours. Join us and get the Top Book Club Picks of 2022 (so far).



Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...