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book review

My great-grandfather was headed for life as a rabbi until he started disbelieving. He'd only learned Hebrew writing in school, but taught himself to read the languages he actually spoke, Yiddish and Russian. What he read furthered his doubts.

In a way, that's the theme of Anouk Markovits's I Am Forbidden: the tension between being People of the Book, and being forbidden to read, interpret or think.

Of course, books can entrench an orthodoxy, even if the interpretation of this changes heavily over time. But books also bring change, as with the King James and Gutenberg bibles, or the works of Locke or Rousseau. Judaism saw its own "Reformation" in the Hasidic movement – actually reaction to and against the Enlightenment.

Rather than welcoming new ideas, Hasidic sects tend toward insularity, few more so than Satmars. The group's founder, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), and his followers set up an intentionally closed community in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn shortly after the Second World War: "Jews reconstructing a world that never was before" in the words of Markovits, who was raised Satmar, a sect originating in the Hungary/Romania border regions.

But how did Rabbi Teitelbaum make it to Williamsburg? In 1944, he was arrested and taken to a ghetto. He was later on a train routed through the Bergen-Belsen death camps to neutral Switzerland. Reszö Kasztner, a lawyer and Zionist activist, had bribed Adolf Eichmann to spare the train's 1,700 passengers. The Satmar Rebbe preached heavily against Zionism and accused the movement of causing the Holocaust, making his a deal with the Devil.

The moral dilemmas of Markovits's characters are similarly writ large, but they are the sort of troubles that money cannot fix.

As a young boy, Josef Lichtenstein witnesses his family being butchered, and is rescued by their Romanian housekeeper, Florina. She renames him Anghel, alters his appearance and dons widow's clothes, claiming the boy as her own. The farm boy in turn rescues a girl, Mila Heller, from the clutches of death, even as she sees the Satmar Rebbe on Kasztner's train.

Mila finds her way to the home of Zalman Stern, a family friend and former child prodigy, whose daughter Atara is about the same age as Mila. The two bond as sisters. After the war, Zalman tracks down Anghel and ships him off to Williamsburg, to the now-Catholic boy's ambivalence, while the Stern family, including Mila, move to Paris.

But Zalman is haunted more by égalité and liberté than by the ghosts of the Holocaust. In the late 1950s, the two girls – now older teenagers – are shipped off to a girls' seminary in England. As the students get engaged almost daily, Atara's rising doubt crests when she reads about the Satmar Rebbe's escape in a newspaper.

Atara flees for the secular world, and is cut off from her family, while Mila is engaged to her childhood saviour, Josef, who has firmly embraced Satmar life. At first, their marriage seems perfect, but after a childless decade in Williamsburg, both become emotionally strained. Josef and Mila are each forced to consider an episode in Genesis from different angles, and their different approaches result in the crucial forbidden event in the book. Much later, Atara must make sense of this from Mila's journals: secular and biblical reading, two sisters, reunited, if not happily.

This is Markovits's second novel and her first in English: her debut, Pur coton, appeared with the storied French publisher Gallimard. Here she offers a well-paced interplay of many "forbidden" things, including Kasztner's and the Satmar Rebbe's negotiations; the secular world; being female; reading; childlessness; expressing doubt; and adultery. Most of all, under the author's humane lens, it is unquestioning dogma that is forbidden.

People may compare this to Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox, since the two books cover the same community, but Markovits presents a sympathetic portrait of an entire group when she could easily have been judgmental. In this sensitivity, I Am Forbidden is reminiscent of Chaim Potok's work. Evocative and readable, the novel offers keen insights into the ultra-orthodox world, as well as those who are compelled to leave it.

A. J. Levin spent the mid-1980s avoiding classes in a Hasidic school in Montreal, instead bicycling and reading in public libraries. He is the author of Monks' Fruit.

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