Religious tradition has the power to enrich one's life -- or to destroy it. That is the message at the core of I Am Forbidden, a novel that sheds light on some of the most destructive -- and least discussed -- tenets of ultra-Othodox Judaism, in the cloistered world of the Satmar Hasidic community. In this multi-generational saga spanning pre- and post-World War II Transylvania, Paris, England and Brooklyn's Williamsburg, Anouk Markovits explores the double-edged potential of religious conviction in the lives of two women who choose paths that are diametrically opposed -- until tragedy brings them together again.
When Mila Heller's parents are shot by Nazi soldiers, she is adopted by the rabbi of their Transylvanian village and becomes a sister to Atara Stern. As the daughters of a revered community leader, the girls enjoy a status akin to princesses, yet Atara chafes at the restrictions of her Satmar upbringing. In contrast, Mila looks forward to achieving the one goal that she believes she was born to achieve: marriage and children in a home built on the foundations of ultra-Orthodox tradition. But, in a twist of irony, it is that same tradition that will threaten to destroy Mila's dreams of happiness.
To Markovits's credit, I Am Forbidden does not read like a contemptuous, unidimensional exposé of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life. With poetic grace, she succeeds at depicting the culture from the inside out, conveying the way in which a life of limitation and law can provide a bulwark of meaning. Those outside a religion tend to see it as a collection of petty rules; Markovits -- who was raised in the Satmar community -- demonstrates that to those within, these laws are written on "a scroll of fire," imbued with incredible power to save and destroy. Compounding this power is the proximity of Mila and Atara's story to the Holocaust, which gives the characters even more cause to see the world as a Manichean play of righteousness and evil, dark and light.
Markovits best captures this theme in her tender depiction of Mila's marriage to Josef, the love of her life. Living within the codified parameters of "forbidden" and "permitted," the alternating flows of blood and ritual immersion, Mila and Josef embody a love story that is real and deep. By avoiding the easy cliché of the cold arranged marriage, Markovits intensifies the emotional heft of the story -- and forces the reader to be moved by the characters' fates.
This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness.