Reviewed by Jack Riemer ~
This could have been an easy novel to write. The author could have written the story of a free spirit who broke loose from the constraints of the Haredi world and found fulfillment in the outside world, or she could have written the story of a dedicated Haredi family who stayed loyal to the tradition despite the blandishments of the outside world. If she had told either of these stories, this would have been a trite and a predictable novel.
Instead, Anouk Markovitz has written a novel in which we are drawn to the partial truths on both sides of the struggle between the Haredim and those who break away from them, and in which your heart goes out to all of the characters that are caught in the tension between the law and life. It is because she portrays her characters as real human beings, caught between two worlds, that I was hooked by this novel from the first page.
Anouk Markovitz has written a powerful novel that enables us to pierce the curtain and go inside this hidden, isolated community. What we find there is a community that is deeply committed to its faith, prepared to preserve it at any cost. The questions that confront them: are there any limits to the sacrifice one must make for one’s faith? What do you do when the law and the community are on one side, and the welfare of your family and your own conscience are on the other? What do you do when your mind and your soul challenge the answers that the community lives by?
This is a fast moving novel that goes from Transylvania to Paris to Brooklyn, and shows how four generations of one family struggle over how to live a life of faith with all that it costs. The author sympathizes with those who choose to stay inside this world as much as she does with those who dare to break out. The Satmar world comes across as sometimes cruel in its insistence on total obedience to its way of life, and as sometimes beautiful in its loyalty to its faith. The question at the heart of this book is what happens when life and law collide. What happens when the price of believing and belonging is the destruction of your family?
The book tells the story of two step-sisters who go different ways. One breaks out of the Satmar world by going to the library in search of the wisdom of the outside world, and from there makes her way out and away, at a terrible cost both to herself and to those who love her. The other sister stays within the community and raises pious children and grandchildren.
Then something horrible happens. A secret that has long been repressed bursts out and the integrity of the family is threatened. The sister who stayed home reaches out in desperation to the one who went away in the hope that perhaps she can heal the breach and save the family from disintegrating.
This book should appeal, not only to Jews, but to all those who want to learn what life is like inside one of these sub-communities – and there are many in America; to all those who want to know how people struggle to balance the tension between Law and life, between conscience and community, and between strict obedience and the right to question, inside them.
Anouk Markovits was raised within the Satmar community in France, but broke away in order to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to receive a B.A, in science from Columbia, an M.A. in architecture from Harvard, and a PhD in romance studies from Cornell. That is quite a range of interest for someone who grew up in a community that is shut off from the rest of the world. Now, she has gone back to explore the world from which she came in this extraordinary novel. It is well worth going on the journey with her in order to learn what happens when strict faith and the need for compassion come into conflict, and when people of goodwill try to reach out to each other across the walls that have been created in order to separate them.
This is a novel that the reader will long remember.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is reviews books of Jewish and general thought in America and abroad. His prayers appear in the prayer books of the Conservative and Reform movements in America, Israel, Europe and South America.