What is life really like as a Satmar? I Am Forbidden opens the window and then pushes the reader right through the door of the insular Williamsburg, Brooklyn religious community.
Anouk Markovits, raised in the Satmar sect, creates a gripping novel as she explores that world. The everyday demands, obligations, rules, and secrets are imparted from within a world not usually permeated by outsiders.
The characters move through seventy years of plot twists. The horrors of World War 11 Transylvania, Jewish life in the post-war Marais district of Paris, and eventual settlement in Brooklyn are detailed in this quickly paced, succinct, and poetic read.
In 1939 Josef Lichtenstein’s family is killed before his eyes and he is rescued by the peasant, Florina, who raises him as her Catholic son. He tries to save young Mila Heller’s family as they run to board the Kasztner train that will save selected Jews. Only Mila survives and Josef sends her to safety with Rabbi Zalman Stern and his family, who later adopt her. Mila and Atara Stern become inseparable and loving sisters as they grow up in Paris after the war. Mila is ever vigilant and ensconced in her religious adherence so she can ensure the sanctity of her dead parent’s souls. Atara, unable to stifle her curiosity about the secular world, takes the huge step of leaving the family and the fold. Mila is sent to America to marry Josef, who is now helping to establish the Satmars’ new base in Brooklyn. Mila becomes adrift from the community after many years of childlessness. Mila and Josef’s resolve, love, and beliefs are tested by the many events to follow.
The characters’ sorrows and joys are deeply felt and considered in this absorbing and honest portrayal. They struggle with extreme religious law and love while experiencing the delights of belonging along with the harshness of constantly conforming.
I Am Forbidden is a poignant and exceptional novel.
Courtesy of Random House
1. The opening scene powerfully illustrates ultra-orthodox Jewish teachings regarding the struggle between body and soul. What is the nature of Zalman’s sin? What does this scene tell us about the yearning for holiness depicted throughout the book?
2. After Florina rescues Josef, what do she and Josef learn from each other? Which aspects of Josef remain within Anghel in Book I, and which aspects of Anghel remain within Josef later in life?
3. Discuss the “I” in the title. Which character or characters do you think it most refers to? Throughout the generations, how do the novel’s characters perceive themselves? How are they shaped by the quest for an identity of purity and piety?
4. What accounts for the different paths Atara and Mila take, despite being steeped in the same teachings? Where, in the text, do you see them begin to diverge? How would you interpret these lines: "Atara flew above river and roofs, above all the boundaries the world drew around her. Mila whirled faster still, until she let herself drop to the ground, too dizzy to answer Atara’s calls.When Mila’s eyes opened, they were filled, not with Atara’s inebriation but with apology—for surviving, for being alive. Atara combed her fingers through Mila’s disheveled hair, combed them toward what she hoped might still be the direction of an escape." (p. 138)
5. A turning point in Atara’s life is the discovery of the Kasztner Affair. How did you react to the passages about Joel Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Satmar, boarding Kasztner’s train? How would you approach the complex ethical dilemmas reflected in this debate? Was Teitelbaum working from a different concept of leadership than the one that says that a captain must stay on his sinking ship until his passengers are safe?
6. The physical appearance of the Satmar sets them apart from mainstream culture and helps them to preserve their identity. Has your family been able to preserve its cultural and religious heritage, or has it assimilated? Do you think it is constructive to give up characteristics of one’s heritage in order to accept shared values and belong to a more universal society?
7. In tender scenes, the author balances the beauty and the constraints of the Satmar world. Which aspects of this world were the most intriguing to you? Which aspects defied stereotypes?
8. Devotion thrives in the novel’s arranged marriages. How would you fare in such a marriage, particularly one with strict protocols regarding sex and pregnancy?
9. Is Mila and Josef’s pursuit of a pure bloodline commendable or destructive, in light of their losses?
10. Mila and Josef grapple with the conflict between modern medicine and ancient texts. What choices would you have made in their situation?
11. Judith’s and Josef’s stories embody the belief in a biblical command that asks that descendants be held liable for the sins of their ancestors. What do you think of this belief? Would their dilemmas have been different if women served on rabbinic courts of law?
12. How does the Satmar belief system compare to that of other fundamentalist faiths? How does the experience of reading about it through fiction—immersed in a novelist’s storytelling—enhance your understanding?
13. Zalman, Josef, Mila, Atara, and Judith take turns as the primary character from whose perspective the story is told. What is the effect of these shifting points of view and why do you think the author chose that approach?
14. Who is stronger: Atara, living independently, or Mila, seeking strength through community?
15. Do you have siblings or family members from whom you are estranged? What did this novel make you think about estranged relationships and about family bonds in general?
Guide written by Amy Clements for Random House- available to download here