Book Review: When love and law clash

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What happens when the demands of Jewish law and the desires of the human heart clash? In her novel "I Am Forbidden" (Hogarth), Anouk Markovits explores how the answer to this question can echo through several generations. Markovits, who grew up in a Satmar household in France, focuses on the world of haredi Jews, for whom almost every decision is based on Jewish law and ritual. Her work offers readers an opportunity to debate Jewish tradition and faith as its characters search for their place in the world.

"I Am Forbidden" revolves around several different characters throughout its 300 pages. In Transylvania, Zalman Stern, a rabbi who is part of the Satmar community, not only shelters 5-year-old Mila Heller when she miraculously escapes the Nazis, but after the war searches for the young Jewish boy, Josef Lichtenstein, who was her rescuer. Josef has survived due to the bravery of his family’s maid, Florina, who brought him to her mother’s farm, claiming he was her son. Josef is sent to live with the Satmar community in New York City, while Mila remains with the Sterns, who treat her as a member of the family.

The relationship between Mila and Atara, the Stern’s eldest daughter, is the core of the central section of the novel. Although close friends, when the Stern family moves to Paris, the two girls are attracted to different paths. Mila finds comfort and strength in Judaism, while Atara falls in love with secular Paris. Knowing that her father prefers none of his children settle in France, Atara thinks about her feelings for the city: "She loved the story of time the old stones told, time before her, after her, loved feeling herself to be a mere fleck in the immensity. The bells rang the hour, then the hour filled with silence and she filled with longing; must Paris be a mere way station on her wandering? If Paris had a home in her heart, might she not have a home in Paris?"

Mila, on the other hand, accepts the life offered her, believing that the traditional Jewish ways are for the best. For example, the Satmar style of courtship tells her all she needs to know about her future husband, particularly since the groom who seeks her out is Josef. Their past creates a strong connection between the two: "They knew all they needed to know about each other in a Hasidic courtship... And they also knew particulars [from their meeting during the war] they should not have known – he, the smell of her hair covered by black earth; she, the taste of his tears... They knew they would have a lifetime in which to tell each other the dance of stories that had placed them at this table, b’shert, destined, among the generations."

It’s impossible to discuss the final conflict of the story – which takes place during Mila and Josef’s marriage – without spoiling the plot. In fact, it’s difficult to discuss the most interesting parts of the book without revealing how the novel ends. However, this gripping and challenging section reveals the emotions generated by those who deeply love Jewish law and seek to obey it with all their heart, even if it interferes with their worldly desires.

Markovits has written an incredibly powerful novel, one that is so gripping that I read the work in an afternoon. Although readers can argue whether or not the story reflects well on the Satmar community – particularly on the behavior of the Satmar rebbe during World War II – the subject is open to debate. The author so successfully created three-dimensional characters that they take on a life of their own, perhaps one beyond what Markovits might have expected. For example, I found myself able to sympathize with all of them – even those whose behavior I didn’t admire – because they were clinging to love and faith. My one complaint might have been about the disappearance of a major character in the latter section of the novel, but it turned out that her story was far less relevant to the Jewish tale Markovits fashioned.

Readers can and will debate the ending of "I Am Forbidden." However, it defines an important dilemma in the contemporary world, particularly for those who cling to traditional Judaism. How personally and seriously readers will take this question is a sign of Markovits’ skill.