Many years ago The New Yorker ran a long story by Lis Harris called “Holy Days,” about the Lubavitcher Jews of Crown Heights. (She later turned it into a book.) I was amazed and fascinated by the lives she described, and that fascination has stayed with me. It’s not just very devout Jewish observance that I find compelling: I’ve written enough here about nun books here to make that clear. What gets my attention is the details of these lives, whether Catholic or Jewish for that matter LDS. I love ritual, and I love reading about communities where rituals of faith permeate everyday life. There is also something attractive about the close-knit quality of these communities, and what I imagine to be the comfort of knowing where you belong. Yes, I realize I am romanticizing.
Whether or not you share my interest, you may see the inherent drama in the clash between religious and secular life. It’s constantly in the news, and it must be a perpetual source of tension for adherents of the strictest faith communities. The way it’s often explored in fiction is in the “stay or go” narrative. I Am Forbidden falls into this category. Anouk Markovits, according to her author bio, “was raised in France in a Satmar home, breaking from the fold when she was nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage.” The Satmar sect is one branch of Hasidic Judaism, with roots in what is now Romania and a large post-World War II presence in Brooklyn. I Am Forbidden opens in rural Transylvania on the verge of World War II. In snapshot-short chapters, we are introduced to Zalman Stern, a young Torah scholar with “the most beautiful voice east of Vienna,” to little Josef Lichtenstein and Mila Heller, both orphaned in the war. A moving passage recounts The Days of Awe in the tiny synagogue full of “Jews who wished they could forget they were Jews and thin bent shadows who knew someone would remember: Jews who spoke no Romanian; Jews who spoke only Romanian.” Josef, hidden during the war as a Catholic, is introduced to his true identity. “Like Zalman at the lectern, he, Josef Lichtenstein, wanted the lost world to live again.”
Markovits is very good on this lost world, giving us outsiders a glimpse of the ecstasy of worship, the confidence instilled by living in an enclave, the rewards of satisfying family life, and above all the Satmar community’s will to survive. The weak link in the novel is the structure. Markovits leans on the contrast between Zalman’s daughter Atara (restless, inquiring) and Mila Heller, adopted by Zalman’s family, who luxuriates in the structure of her world. Mila is thrilled to be married to Josef and the two set up a household in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with every expectation of producing child after child to replace the Jews lost in the war. But nothing happens. “There was not much to be, in Williamsburg, for a woman who was not pregnant.” After ten years, if a couple does not have children, they divorce. Mila and Josef love each other. Satmar practice forbids Josef being tested to see if he can conceive. This lovely little family crashes into the unyielding edicts of their faith.
The plot, of course, isn’t the point of a book like this. The “stay or go” narrative is always written by someone who left. The renegades are our only source of information. What sets Markovits apart is her rueful even-handedness. She allows herself — and the reader — to regret what she’s lost.