IN CONSIDERING A NOVEL or memoir that emerges from an insular culture, the outsider is inevitably tempted to discuss the depicted community as much, if not more than, the success of that depiction. Using the work as a tool for understanding the world from which it comes, the errant reviewer relates to it not as a work of art but as an archeological or anthropological report. In this way, the novel points to the community’s eating habits; in this way to how they prayed; here, to how they slept; here, to how they slept with each other. In some instances though, the fact that such a novel exists is more compelling than the novel itself, and the reader’s emotional satisfaction falls short of his or her voyeuristic fulfillment.
This, unfortunately, is the case for ex-Satmar-Hasidic Anouk Markovits’s I Am Forbidden, one of the inaugural novels of Hogarth, Random House’s latest fiction imprint, and one of a triad of books by formerly Hasidic women to be published by major houses in the last two years. (The other two are Hush, a devastating young adult novel about childhood sexual abuse published under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil [“Woman of Valor”] by Judy Brown, and Deborah Feldman’s New York Times-bestselling memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.) Ex-Orthodox women’s literature is becoming an unlikely subgenre of its own, but the quality of the writing is not quite keeping pace with its popularity.
The most poetically written and emotionally reserved of the three, I Am Forbidden traces four generations of the Stern family in this most impenetrable of Hasidism’s sects. Starting in Szatmár, Transylvania at the outbreak of World War II and wending through Paris and Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the novel centers on two girls who grow up as self-proclaimed “best friends, sisters for life” before growing inexorably apart. Mila Heller, the younger of the two, is adopted by the Stern family as a child, after witnessing her parents’ murder at the hands of Hungarian fascists. Both she and Atara Stern are subject to the edicts of Zalman, the family patriarch, as well as to the strictures of their community. Initially, after the family moves to Paris for Zalman to accept his post as cantor of a small synagogue, the girls adhere to the restrictions even when outside their father’s watch. At their progressive Jewish school they “press…into the back wall, to meld into it,” when their “impious” schoolmates celebrate Israeli independence (the anti-Zionist Satmars hold that Jews must not return to Israel until the Messiah brings them there himself), and they comply with their parents’ restriction against taking the baccalauréat exam for university matriculation. But whereas Mila considers these strictures a comfort, Atara starts to feel them as constraints.
We feel Atara’s yearning for education and “courage for a bigger self” most strongly in Markovits’s masterly atmospheric descriptions of Paris. The threat and power of Atara’s love for her newfound home and her growing intellectual curiosity come together as a lyrical elegy to the city she is doomed to leave:
At fourteen, Atara found her way to the Bib...