I used to be in a local book club, and I even ran it for a while. I fell out of sync with it when I found I wanted to read whatever I wanted to read, and was feeling stressed about reading book-club books.
Unrelated to that, I fairly recently reconnected with an old friend on Facebook1. We met when we were teenagers, as members of a Jewish youth group. It does not cease to delight me that I love Robin as much now as I did then, even as we haven’t laid eyes on each other in almost twenty years. Also, Robin writes two of my favourite blogs – one about parenting her three kids, and one about her new-found sewing hobby.
When I saw that Robin participates in this book club, I thought, Robin’s one of the most thoughtful people I know, I bet that’s a great group. I’d like to read as part of a group again. Maybe I’ll join. And I did. And this is my first post about a book we’ve read.
I often think about my high-school days as my Jewish days. The youth group was a good outlet for me. I hated school and didn’t have many friends there, and the youth group was where I got to really learn and grow socially. I was quite active in the governing of my local chapter, and also in the greater Upstate New York region. Because it was a religious organization, there were expectations surrounding how the youth leaders were to behave. We were, in essence, to walk the walk of our religious sect – to keep kosher (at least outside the home, where people could see us), to observe the Sabbath and holidays, to regularly attend religious services, etc.
Things began to fall apart for me when I was sixteen, though, when I finally realized I’d just never believed in god, and beyond that, that the organization’s insistence that I behave in ways that were different from my family’s implied that my family was doing something wrong. We didn’t keep kosher at home, for example. Did that mean I wasn’t being raised right? Fuck that, was pretty much my adolescent response (it remains my adult response).
I distanced myself from the youth group my senior year in high school, and continued to struggle with my religious and cultural identity, and wasn’t really comfortable outing myself as an atheist until I was in my mid-twenties.
It’s a great coincidence that the first book I’ve read as part of this book club, then, is I Am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits. It’s a new novel, about two girls growing up in a Hasidic family. Hasidism is one of the most fundamentalist sects of Judaism, and this is very much a book about the rigidity and isolation of fundamentalist religious practice.
Reading this book left me in a tailspin, thinking about all those confusing religious-identity things again. In my thoroughly secular life, I’ve wondered more and more about my Jewish identity – which is very strong in a cultural sense – since Owen came along. I want Owen to grow up in a Jewish home, because that’s our culture. And that means I need to resurrect some practices I’d long ago abandoned. Like we lit Hanukkah candles last winter, for the first time in over a decade.
But, wait. This is not what I was going to write about.
I’ve been thinking almost non-stop about what I’d write about my experience of this book, because it was such a rich read for me. I related to it, even though I’ve never come close personally to experiencing fundamentalism in my religion.
So I’ve decided to write about this:
The book focuses, as I said, on two girls. One is Atara, eldest daughter of Zalman Stern, a very pious Jew. The other is Mila, who was adopted into the family as a young child after her parents were killed during the Second World War. Mila’s life was saved by a boy whose parents had also been killed. He had been taken in by the family’s housekeeper and hidden in her Christian home, as a Christian boy.
The boy had lived for seven years as a Christian when he saved Mila’s life and helped her to find the Sterns. By then the war was over, and Zalman Stern went to get the boy so that he could live amongst Jews, his people. Florina, the boy’s adoptive mother, had known (I think) that the day might come. And the boy had loved her, his second mother. Still, he went to live with the Sterns until it was time for him to go to America to study with the Rebbe, who had fled Europe during the war.
Atara and Mila were the best of friends, and were raised as sisters. As adolescents, though, Atara became skeptical. She wanted to read secular books and question religious interpretations. Mila was devout. She wanted to live a Jewish life in all the ways of her family.
One of the ways this book made my head spin was its treatment of children being raised by adoptive families. About how the boy was taken from his second mother and it was expected that he couldn’t have properly loved her, because she wasn’t Jewish. As he tried to live the most pious of lives, he still struggled to have her in his heart.
Mila, the adopted daughter, also struggled to live the most pious of pious lives.
Atara, the biological daughter, eventually left, because the pious life was suffocating her, and her family mourned her as if she had died.
The double standard of Jewish second mothers being mothers, but goyishe second mothers not counting rekindled the anger I feel toward organized Judaism of any sect.
We have not converted Owen, even though most synagogues would have us do so for him to be considered a proper Jew. The way I see it, I’m either his mother or I’m not (Judaism is a
maternalistic [oops; corrected] matriarchal religion – if your mother’s Jewish, you’re Jewish, as far as Jews are concerned). If the synagogue doesn’t fully recognize me as his mother, it’s not something I want to be a part of, ever.
This is a very rambling post. More rambling than usual, even. My head still spins from this book, and I think that’s part of why I came out of my rut – it feels good to be so confused about something I want to figure out.
I recommend the book regardless of your religious experience. It’s a tale of love as much as it’s a tale of religion, of skepticism, of devotion.This post is inspired by I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits. Though not sisters by blood but through their Hasidic faith, Mila and Atara view the rules and structure of their culture differently. Mila seeks comfort in the Torah while Atara searches for answers in secular literature she is forbidden to read. Ultimately, each must make an irrevocable decision that will change their lives forever. Join From Left to Write on May 8 as we discuss I AM FORBIDDEN. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review.
- I made a big deal about quitting Facebook, I know. And I did quit, for a while. But I missed keeping up with my parents and my brother and my cousins, and so I eventually went back on, unfriended a few hundred people, deleted my fan page, and use it as I’ve always wanted to use it – for my own personal stuff and nothing else. ↩