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50 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written but oh, so depressing!, April 24, 2012
This review is from: I Am Forbidden: A Novel (Hardcover)
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This book reminded me why I dislike organized religion so much, especially any religion where the clergy believe they are the sole interpreters of god's word. To be sure, the Hassidic world it depicts is especially rigid, insular and intolerant, but I spent most of the book feeling absolutely suffocated. And given the subject matter, I'm not sure there's anything the author, who knows that world intimately, could have done to address it. I didn't find the book fascinating, as some might--it was bloody depressing.

I Am Forbidden traces the lives of an extended--and broken--family that has been ripped apart and reassembled by the Holocaust. It describes the endless rituals and restrictions that are part of everyday life in Hassidic communities, along with the guilt, brutality and destructiveness that can result when a member of the community, especially a female one, violates its numerous stifling laws and traditions.

Initially, the book is about the friendship and coming-of-age of two young stepsisters, Atara Stern and Mila Heller. Mila's parents are killed by the Nazis in Transylvania, but she makes her way to the home of her father's friend, Zalman Stern, where he and his wife take her in and raise her as their own. The friendship is reasonably interesting, set against the backdrop of Paris, where the family moves to to escape the Communist crackdown on Jews and religious practices generally. But most of the book is about Mila and her marriage to Josef, whose parents had also been killed, and who had been raised as a Christian for several years by the family's housekeeper. He is spirited back to his Jewish roots and sent to study the Talmud in Brooklyn's Hassidic community, where Mila joins him once they marry. Mila is desperate to get pregnant, but Josef refuses to take a fertility test because it would require him to masturbate, an activity that is considered a grave sin, even in a medical context. There are various subplots involving betrayal by the Rebbe that the community had on a pedestal, and Mila's memory of the train her parents were trying to reach when they were shot, but that doesn't really go anywhere. And there are endless descriptions of the laws governing sexuality within a marriage, which made me want to scream. Hassidic women are little more than baby-making machines.

Markovits is to be commended for extricating herself from this oppressive community and for becoming such an accomplished woman--she has a master's and a Ph.D. She's also a good writer. It's just that this book is ultimately an indictment of the unyielding world she came from, and it was frustrating to read it because the characters, save one, are all so blinkered, close-minded and trapped.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 9, 2012 5:07:47 AM PDT
I sure do hear you! You could not have said it better.

Posted on Aug 30, 2012 1:07:46 PM PDT
bobster says:
Based on your own comments, instead of blaming organized religion for the discomfort you suffered reading this book, perhaps you should blame the regrettable-but-human impulse to take as objective realism a novel written by one person with an obviously subjective viewpoint, having herself opted out of that life.

The story this book tell is engrossing and to some, perhaps even moving. But it's not the definitive account of Life Among the Hasidim. Its characters & situations are way too sensational, extreme & melodramatic to make any such claim.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 17, 2012 9:05:19 AM PST
Haleh B says:
Had it not been for the 'subjective viewpoint' there would have not been a publication to begin with. Have you ever tried to publish a book these days? You better buckle up!
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