Anouk Markovits follows four generations of a Hasidic family in her story I Am Forbidden. The characters in her tale display friction with the rules of the orthodox lifestyle imposed on them. She traces the characters actions as each one struggles between conforming to the Hasidic way of life and satisfying their desire to pursue an alternative lifestyle where they are free to live as they wish. Each character in a way chooses their cage to live in for a home.
Markovits’ analysis of the Jewish community through the eyes of her characters exhibits many similarities with the Amish community and the Ancient Regime of 18th century France in its levels of hierarchy, its rules of conduct, and its educational system. In all three societies, women are relegated to be mothers and expected to be obedient to men thought to be their superiors. Through the characters, audiences are enlightened about the standards instilled in Hasidic families which the characters aspire to achieve. During the course of their lives, some characters fail to meet such expectations. Their fallibility makes them appear human and identifiable to a broad audience.
The story opens in 1939 when five year old Josef Lichtenstein witnesses the murder of his family. Destined to be a yeshiva boy, he is saved by the family’s maid Florie who raises him as her son. At ten years old, he rescues Mila Heller, a young girl whose parents are murdered by the Nazis. He takes Mila to the family of Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar congregation, a sect of Jews. Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman’s daughter Atara. Mila and Atara become inseparable as they enter the seminary, meanwhile, Josef is sent to America to join the Rebbe court associating with the most pious of Hasidic men.
The story revolves around Josef, Mila and Atara with all other characters branching off from them. When Mila and Josef are permitted to marry by the Rebbe, the Jews spiritual leader, Atara does the forbidden and leaves her family and the orthodox life to set out on her own. Gradually, Atara had been immersing herself in the world outside of the Jewish community, reading newspapers that claimed the Rebbe had negotiated his escape with the Nazis while knowing other Jews were being sent to concentration camps to be killed. What should have been exposed as a grave sin against the Jewish people had been covered up by a myth that a dream carried the Rebbe away from the Nazis and into the bosom of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The myth abides by the community’s principle that one must die for another more important to live, a principle which Markovits threads throughout the story.
The bond which Atara and Mila forge makes a strong impact on readers but Markovits drops Atara’s story after the character leaves her family concentrating the scenes on Mila and Josef’s marriage. Atara does not come back into the book until five decades later when she and Mila are seniors. By then, Atara has established herself as a filmmaker in New York City. Although the reader is not taken along Atara’s journey, it has the potential of being insightful and engaging the reader’s interest.
Instead, Markovits takes readers through Mila and Josef’s life together. Childless after ten years of marriage, Mila does the forbidden and beds another man, a stranger, a non-Jew whose child she has. Josef does the forbidden and keeps Mila’s secret hidden from the Stern’s and the Hasidic community. The secret becomes a wedge between him and Mila, then between him and the child, and later between him and the children of the child while all along he continues the pretense of being pious. Markovits describes how the secret tears at Josef’s insides and his ideals of family.
The author digs beneath the surface of Mila and Josef’s façade. Their fallibility makes them human becoming people who not only represent the Hasidic community but could be any husband and wife anywhere in the world. It’s a story with multiple layers to it and characters that show more depth than what societal strictures allows for in its code. The author opens the reader’s mind expressing compassion for those who fail to meet expectations imposed on them.