A family is torn apart by fierce belief and private longing in this unprecedented journey deep inside the most insular sect of Hasidic Jews, the Satmar.
Opening in 1939 Transylvania, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard and is rescued by a Christian maid to be raised as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, after her parents are killed while running to meet the Rebbe they hoped would save them. Josef helps Mila reach Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman’s daughter, Atara. With the rise of communism in central Europe, the family moves to Paris, to the Marais, where Zalman tries to raise his children apart from the city in which they live. Mila’s faith intensifies, while her beloved sister Atara discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore.
Aside from reading some Chaim Potok back in high school, as well as Night by Eli Weisel, I have really not read a lot of fiction books in the past where religion, and specifically Judaism, play a huge role. However, after seeing I am Forbidden show up as a highlighted book on goodreads, as well as on another website, I was intrigued enough to pick it up.
Words can’t really describe how much I enjoyed the book, as well as how much I learnt from it. While I had heard of the Hasidic sect of Judaism before, I had never heard of the Satmar’s which is a movement within the Hasidic branch. The majority of Satmar jews come from the Hungarian/Romanian part of the world and many were Holocaust survivors. The book itself, started off in Romania during World War 2, followed the Stern family to Paris where the majority of Mila’s (one of the Stern daughters) takes place and then travels to Williamsburg (in New York, not Virginia, like I was expecting), when Mila Stern marries Josef. There was so much detail about life in a Satmar household, that a simple book review cannot cover it all. From the preparations that a woman goes though when she gets her period, traditions governing wedding night protocal and so many other glimpses into the daily life.
It came of no surprise to me, when I read the brief bio of the author on the dust-cover of the book, that she grew up in a Satmar household and then left when she was 19. As a reader, following this discovery, I had to wonder if she had modelled any of the characters on her family, whether Atara (Mila’s sister) was supposed to represent her in some form. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about Judaism as a whole, as well as the various movements within. As well as anyone that is looking for an intriguing family saga that encompasses over 50 years of living and multiple generations. The writing style is easy to get sucked into and I had a hard time putting it down.