I Am For­bid­den: A Novel

Anouk Markovits

By – April 27, 2012

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.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions

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?