I often find the books we read when we are ill are the ones that bring us most solace. I seem to have a penchant for reading books set in Jewish Orthodox communities whenever I’m ill, when I had the flu as a teenager and was sofaridden for a couple of weeks I read Lillian Nattel’s beautiful book The River Midnight, set in a shtetl in the early 20th century. This week, after spending two days in my bathroom for various reasons, I read Anouk Markovits’ heartbreaking book I Am Forbidden, set in the worldwide Hasidic ultra-orthodox sect, a book about belief and commitment to that belief, self-denial and love and the hunger for more.
A former member of the Satmar Hasidic community herself, Markovits would be well positioned to write a book about life after leaving a community, but what makes this book, her second novel and her first written in English, so special is how it looks at what it is so stay behind, to live on within the confines of what is or is not permitted. Although reading it as a very liberated and independent person with no real religious identity I found some parts of the lives of the characters seemed so sad ,however a lot of beauty is to be found in a life prescribed by interpretations of texts, handed down throughout generations.
Beginning in 1939, with gifted Talmud scholar Zalman Stern restraining himself in his sleep to try and stop his body producing nocturnal emissions, this book begins with restraint and ends with release. Sensual and evocative, this book is part lyrical prose poem, part uncovering of a mystery of what makes a people stay within their traditions, even across seas and continents.
During the Second World War, in Romania, two orphans, Josef, who saw his baby sister pitchforked by the Iron Guard, and Mila, whose father was whipped to death in the town square, are taken in by the Stern family. After the war, fleeing communism Zalman takes his family to Paris, where they live in the Jewish quarter but keep their ultra-orthadox traditions alive. Mila and Zalman’s daughter Atara are best friends, closer than sisters, but Atara longs for a world outside of the endless readings and re-readings of the Torah, of keeping the Sabbath and being constantly on guard for things that are not kosher. One night, a few months after Mila’s engagement, she steals off into the night.
The second part of the novel concentrates on Mila’s marriage and family, and the life that is dictated by scripture and by the words of a few Rabbis and Rebbes prescribes to them. The community is fascinating and I would have loved to have seen more of it. I was also constantly plagued by the question-where do the families who do not allow their women to be anything other than mothers and the fathers anything other than scholars get their money?
As Mila tries her hardest to be a good Jew, a good Hasid, the world around her is changing. As her family grows, the ghost of Atara and her wonder at life beyond what is permitted stays a shadow in the background.
My favourite part of this book looked at the relationship between Mila and her husband. I loved the idea of having a secret sign between the couple, a scarf or a necklace, that you would wear on the days you were “permitted”. My favourite line in the book comes after they have slept together for the second time,
There were rules prescribing everything up to, and during but this moment of simply lying together felt entirely unbounded, unruled
This is the sort of line that makes me think-maybe there’s not that much different between us at all, really, not where is counts.
Beautiful book, its out now in hardback and Kindle, but out in paperback on the 28th February, and I highly recommend it as a payday treat.