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 Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as if she had always known that such a space must exist […] In the hushed, tall reading room where lamps of milk glass inside green shells cast bright ellipses of light on rustling pages, she read contemporary authors [...]When words or concepts escaped her, she did not put the book aside; the more enigmatic the formulation, the richer the promise of freedom. When she left the library, pearly threads linked roof to roof, dormer to dormer, a luminescent web under which everyone was equally chosen.
In this passage, Atara’s romance with Paris seamlessly emerges from the curiosity she dares to unleash, and the exhilaration of even this fleeting independence is so eloquently painted that we feel that, for a mind as hungry as Atara’s, intellectual freedom is as vital as water and air.
Markovits is at her best when it comes to weighing the costs of this freedom against the rewards. As the two girls grow up and apart, Mila leaves for married life in New York, and Atara disappears from the text into the secular world she had previously been forbidden to enter. Before she does, we can imagine Atara’s shame over her own “selfish heart,” her concern for her family’s reputation, and most abidingly, the pain and fear of leaving the only world she has ever known. Markovits convincingly portrays the terror of coming of age into a void, an existence beyond the structures by which one was once defined. Religious observance in this novel — in this world — is not a matter of devotion alone. Observance is psychological, communal, relational. It draws the line between who is in and who is out.
If only Markovits were as adept at sketching the personal and psychological as she is at the social and environmental. Instead, the same prose style that feels elegantly spare when it comes to place feels frugal when it comes to feeling. Years earlier, back in Transylvania, the Stern family adopts a Jewish boy named Josef from Florina, the Catholic maid who had saved him. The narrative drama is high, but the omniscient point of view skips past the boy’s experience, and delivers symbol where emotion should be: “In Josef’s sleep, the black-limbed curlicues scuffled and spun threads he could not unravel, Zalman stories within Christ stories amid which Josef searched for a last letter, a first letter, that spelled a lost word…” How did the boy feel toward the family that called his forced adoption a rescue, that wrested him from the woman who had been raising him as her son? The wooden dialogue only exacerbates the emotional inhibition of the symbolism. Here, Josef talks to Zalman:
“I will not see Florina again?”
“Only the Riboïne shel Oïlem knows such things.”
“What’s Riboïne shel Oïlem?”
“Why—the Master of the Universe Who saved you once and Who will save you again by returning you to a world of Torah. Be grateful, Josef Lichtenstein. In time, you will send the woman money, parcels. You’ll send her coffee, sugar, but a boy your age belongs in yeshiva. Only Torah study will bring the messiah and only the messiah will return our dead—yes, yes, our martyred ones will live again.”
In the absence of convincing interiority, such conversations feel clichéd, and even Zalman’s passion and religious devotion feel willed.
So, too, does the novel’s handling of what become, in its second half, its central crises: fertility, paternity, and the passage of Mila’s childbearing years in a community that prizes continuity above all else. Though the pace is breakneck, the decisions are devastating, and the stakes are high, emotion is not much more convincing than in the novel’s earlier, less dramatic chapters. Mila begins a dreaded conversation with her husband (the very same Josef), discussing what she has discovered about the Rebbe’s controversial escape from Romania on the famous “Kastner train” in an effort to avoid addressing the issue of fertility testing:
“Our Rebbe asked to be part of a venture negotiated by a Zionist?”
“Begged. And Josef, our Rebbe would never have transgressed the Sabbath if he had not known it was a question of life and death. He knew, Josef, he know about the extermination camps—”
“Our Rebbe transgressed the Sabbath?”
“Atara told me years ago. She read it in newspapers. There was a trial…I didn’t want to think of it…I went to the library.”
“You went inside a library?”
Did the revered Rebbe really ask the Zionist leader Rudolf Kastner to secure him a space on the train to Swiss safety? (He did.) Even knowing that hundreds of thousands of his fellow Jews didn’t have the money or influence to follow suit, even without warning them about what was to come? (Still up for debate.) The ethical quandary Josef and Mila are pondering is real, as is the scriptural impasse regarding their own lives: the edict against spilling one’s seed. Their rabbis’ intransigence about this issue is, Mila tells Josef, the real source of her anger: the Rebbe “allowed himself to compromise, but when it comes to our lives, we cannot do the one test that would permit me to start a fertility treatment”? But the trouble with dialogue as stilted as theirs is that it leaves us outside of these struggling characters, with no way in. Moments like these — moments that should be transcendently emotional — sit clumsily on the page.
In one of the novel’s loveliest passages, Atara watches “the postman on his bicycle [and] envied him, envied his wheels kissing the cobbles, that he knew one language only, one country only, envied his undivided past, undivided from his future.” But this sensitivity toward the burden and the gift that is multilingualism is lost in Markovits’ nonstandard and, frankly, somewhat bizarre strategies for including multiple languages in the text. These strategies pertain to both transliteration (the use of the umlaut in the excerpt above; elsewhere, “t’nach” instead of “tanach”; “zodequa” instead of “tzadekah”) and to translation. Parenthetical translations are gracelessly inserted throughout the text, sometimes mid-dialogue. In one instance, a character relates a devastating episode, but the emotion of her outpouring is interrupted by translation:
“We didn’t stop to speak—es past nicht (it is not proper) […] the curtain was drawn in Grandpa Josef’s study—a meheirah refiheh sheleimeh far mein (a speedy and complete recovery for my) Zeidi Josef.”
Who is this parenthetical translator? Where did he or she come from? Are we to read these interjections as the logical extension of an omniscient narrator? Or is this the expression of a meta-fictional impulse that is elsewhere too subtle to find? These odd choices inhibit the emotional accessibility of the text and create, in its place, a distractingly mottled surface that inhibits our access to the tumult and heartbreak that roils underneath.
Though the novel is hampered by the flatness of its emotional tenor, bold narrative choices go some way toward redeeming what is a largely disappointing read. We can feel, in the nearly 50 years of silence between the two sisters (mapped onto nearly 100 pages of Atara’s absence from the text), the pain of the exiled imagining her way back in. In an interview with Haaretz editor David Green, Markovits offers an explanation for her decision to cut Atara from the page: “Perhaps I wanted the reader to experience Atara's absence — what it means for someone you care about to cease to exist, officially.” Atara’s absence is powerful, but the trouble with absence in literature is that, rendered too completely, it is more effectively contemplated than felt, and the writing it characterizes is more accurately described as “interesting” rather than powerful. In the five decades that Atara is missing from Mila’s life, we do not see the impact of her disappearance on Mila, which would be necessary in order for us to feel her pain: Mila does not appear to think about her missing sister, does not seem to feel her absence like a missing limb. The estrangement is Atara’s and her family’s, but given the faintness of its portrayal, the loss, ultimately, is ours.