Anouk Markovits grew up as part of a Jewish Satmar Hasidic family in France, running away at 19 to avoid an arranged marriage. Drawing on her experience, she tells the story of two girls brought up in Paris after surviving the Nazi war in Transylvania. Atara asks too many questions, wants more and leaves, while Mila embraces the restrictions of religion and goes to New York to marry.
If this was merely a memoir about rebelling against a community where the lot of women is to procreate and leaving is to stop existing for your family and friends, it would be fascinating. However, Markovits has written a deceptively simple novel that jumps off from her own life to pose questions about the damage wrought by fundamental religions.
“For a long time, I felt obliged to remain silent about fundamentalist Jews because of how vulnerable they had been during the Holocaust. But in Israel and, increasingly, the US, in towns where they are a majority, there is nothing immediately vulnerable or neighbourly about Jewish fundamentalism. There has been physical violence against disobedient congregants. Forcible interference with personal freedom. Language that demeans and dehumanises: orthodox rabbinic language can be quite demeaning in its descriptions of non-Jews and Jews emancipated from rabbinic rule.”
Markovits interweaves three strands in this novel: the rebellion of Atara against a rigid life of unquestioning obedience; the struggle of Mila to live according to the tenets; and the controversy behind the founding of the Satmar suburb in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It’s a forensic examination of Hasidim rather than a rant, with devout characters who are sympathetic. When Atara runs away, she is dead to her family and only reappears at the end. It is Mila we follow through marriage and 10 years of barrenness until she takes matters into her own hands and has sex with another to conceive, like Tamar who began the line to King David.
God is punitive rather than merciful; pogroms a punishment for sin. Pleasure is denied, suffering exalted. A woman’s period is a curse for corrupting Adam. Rules govern when sexual intercourse is allowed, and if a woman goes with another man, she is forbidden. This is another deeply misogynistic religion, with women little more than wombs. Markovits shows that the danger of fundamental religions is not restrictedto Islam.