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Book Discussion at Epiphany, "I Am Forbidden" by Anouk Markovits

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Jewish history is quite extensive and encompasses a wide range of stories. For the month of July the group continued to focus on this history, as we did in the previous month's selection, by reading the novel I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits. This sweeping tale brings to life the story of a Satmar family (a very strict Hasidic sect), focusing specifically on two young women within the family and their roles as they grow within their community.

In 1944, five year old Mila is orphaned when her parents are murdered. She is taken in by the Hasidic rabbi Zalman Stern and raised as one of his own. She becomes close to their eldest daughter Atara who is around the same age. The family eventually moves to Paris and attempt to continue adhering to the strict guidelines of the Satmar despite being surrounded by more secular Jewish people. As they grow the girls begin to diverge in their feelings about their religious upbringing. Atara begins to yearn for knowledge beyond what is allowed for young women while Mila is content living the life of a Satmar woman. When the girls are sent to a seminary for learning, the divide between the two widens as Mila becomes even more entrenched in their religion and Atara begins to pull away. At the end of their time at the seminary Mila becomes engaged to the young man who helped save her life while Atara chooses a different path. The story then focuses on Mila's life in America with her husband and the struggles they endure with faith and their community.

I found myself for much of this novel trying to figure out exactly what character I fully understood and I can honestly say none of them. The author certainly paints a picture with some interesting elements but I never felt as if I really understood the motivations of anyone in the story. There was no main character per se but the majority of the novel focused on Mila and her husband. Yet the description of their life together is vague and one never feels connected to their motivations. The one thing that the Markovits did do right was give some real insight into what life was and probably still is for women in the Satmar sect. By presenting the two divergent paths of Mila and Atara she was able to present both what keeps women in this group as well as what would make one desire to leave.

"I Am Forbidden" created an interesting and surprising divide amongst members of the group. There were some who felt it was very vivid and gave invaluable insight into a little known community. Others agreed with this observation but felt the story lacked any real depth. While we learn something about life as a Satmar and some of what they went through during the war, there were those who felt the characters could have been presented better and should have had more complexity. This leads into the biggest complaint which was the fact that we are shown what takes place in Mila's life as an adult but are never given a full description of Atara's. This seemed like an odd omission especially since Atara's struggles to reconcile her desires with her beliefs is such a big part of the first half of the novel. There were also some issues with the the structure of the book. There are no chapters marked to distinguish each section. Rather a new one simply starts on a new page. Some felt this was odd and a bit distracting without really serving a purpose.

So as a recommendation this novel receives a slight pass if only for the fact that Markovits manages to engage the reader in learning about a group that is for the most part a mystery to outsiders. There could have been more to the story but what is presented is at least interesting and provides historical context to the Satmar Jewish experience. It is also a fast read.

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