Genre: Literary fiction
Review in a word: Provocative
“I am forbidden, so are my children and my children’s children, forbidden for ten generations male or female.”
During World War II in Romania, five-year-old Josef’s parents are killed by the Iron Guard. Although his family were Hasidic Jews, he is adopted by his parents’ elderly Christian maid who loves him and raises him as her own. Five years later he watches as a young Jewish woman runs toward a train where their Rabbi sits in safety, hoping to board with him and escape the Nazis. She is shot and her husband is publicly beaten to death, leaving their daughter Mila an orphan. Josef rescues her and takes her to Zalman, a pious leader in the Jewish community. Zalman also persuades Josef’s caretaker to let him return to the Jewish community.
Zalman raises Josef and Mila along with his own daughter, Atara. A few years later, Josef moves to America to study under their beloved Rabbi, and Zalman’s family moves to Paris to escape persecution. The children each respond to their faith differently. Josef and Mila accept it, willing and desiring to obey what they have been taught by Zalman. Atara, however, thinks critically about everything she is taught; she reads voraciously (from forbidden books) and questions the traditions of the Hasidic community. She is criticized for thinking too much like a boy—being too curious, asking too many questions. When Atara is caught riding a bike on the Sabbath, Zalman chastises her, disciplining her with a belt. Of course, he believes that what he is doing is good for her. But it completely turns her away from God.
If God cared that Atara Stern rode a bicycle on the Sabbath, then Atara Stern did not care for—
Atara runs away to America, not discarding her faith, but determined to lead a different kind of life. Isn’t it interesting how the bicycle has done so much for feminism?
Mila and Josef unite again and are married, but for ten years they cannot conceive. Mila undergoes heartbreaking, unsuccessful fertility treatments. Josef cannot get himself tested because of the Law that forbids men from “spilling their seed on the ground.” That is from the story of Tamar and Judah. Mila is terrified; after ten years, if a woman doesn’t bear children, her husband can divorce her. She is also obsessed with the story of Tamar and Judah—she sees that when Tamar’s husbands refused to impregnate her, Tamar dressed as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah. She took what was hers.
In a moment of heartbreaking irony, Mila decides to do what she has to to avoid Josef divorcing her, and Josef decides to get himself tested anyway. Mila becomes pregnant at the same time Josef learns he is infertile. Mila is now forbidden in the community, and so is her daughter, Judith. But Josef, out of love for Mila and Judith, keeps the secret for years. It literally kills him.
Of course, nothing can stay a secret forever, and when the secret is revealed, Mila, Atara, and Judith are all united and torn apart.
Clearly, this is a long, complicated book. It has to be, when such deep, rich characters struggle with their faith in such a real way. That was my favorite part of the book: that there was so much respect for the Jewish faith. For those who have been raised with those kinds of traditions, they are simply a part of you. You can’t deny them or forget them, even if you struggle against them. I’ve always admired the Jewish tradition of never reading Torah alone; you always read it along with the Talmud, a collection of commentary from wise Rabbis. You never try to read your own meaning into the Holy words; you humbly accept them and meditate on them. In every way, through every tradition, you are encouraged to interact with the Scripture, to think about it in a way that it impacts your life. Of course, in this community, it was only the men who were allowed to know Scripture in this way.
I also loved the theme of the importance of books. Each woman—Atara, Mila, Judith—learns the truth about their lives and their faith in a library. Though forbidden, she seeks out knowledge in books.
When I was a little girl, our kindergarten teacher asked what everyone wanted to be when we grew up. One girl cried out, ‘A fireman! With a red truck!” The teacher scowled, the right answer was not, definitely not ‘fireman.’ She turned to me. ‘Judith, what do you want to be?’ I didn’t know the right answer… ‘A mother?’ I asked. The teacher kissed me, she smiled, other little girls yelled, ‘A mother, I want to be a mother!’
Sometimes the only way to bring more holiness into the world is to shroud an act in sin, so that Satan will not notice its goodness and interfere, and I knew this from school but it is never something we decide to do, only God and his angels.
Recommend? It’s a challenging read, but so worth it. You can read more about the book at Anouk Markovits’s website.
The Literary Wives book club is reviewing this on December 1st! Join us for a story filled with delightful shenanigans.
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