Today’s post is penned by From Left to Write member, Robin of The Not Ever Still Life. She helps unravel a bit of the mystery behind Judaism and Satmar Hasidism that is mentioned in I Am Forbidden. Come back tomorrow as our members discuss our latest book club selection by Anouk Markovits.
Interested in reading I Am Forbidden? Our readers found it to be mesmerizing and provocative, but also steeped in a religious tradition that’s unfamiliar to many. Here are a few concepts to get you started:
- The urgency of childbearing: traditional Judaism teaches that Jews are God’s chosen people. The first commandment in the Bible comes from Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve are told to “be fruitful and multiply.” There is an ancient and strong-rooted tradition that Judaism-as-lineage is extremely important and to be perpetrated. A Jew should marry another Jew, have many children, and teach them each to marry another Jew and have lots of kids. Until a generation or two ago (and this is still true in some facets of Judaism today), if a Jew married “out,” i.e. to a non-Jew (Gentile) or a secular Jew, parents and family would act as if the person was dead, including by completing rituals of mourning.
- Within the sanctity of marriage: because marriage is sacred, an extra-maritally conceived child such as Mila’s bears the burden of being a mamzer. The word mamzer comes from the Hebrew phrase mum zar, meaning ‘strange defect.’ The child is considered spiritually wounded because of the actions of his parents. And the defect is eternal: a mamzer can only marry another mamzer or a convert. Any child of a mamzer will also be a mamzer, carrying the stigma forward generationally.
- Which is protected by mindful contact: I Am Forbidden spends a lot of pages discussing when a husband can or cannot touch his wife and when she should invite him to resume contact. The laws of niddah (explained clearly and thoroughly here) address a woman’s purity, and therefore her husband’s, as well.
- And by modesty: The laws of tzniut, which as a word translates to something between ‘modesty’ and ‘privacy,’ emphasize that a woman’s focus is inward, on her spirituality, and shouldn’t be on her physical form. There are a lot of important pairs in Judaism: heaven and Earth; Adam and Eve, man and woman; his external foci (learning, business, community) and her internal ones (compassion, nurturing, family). Under tzniut, a woman’s inward focus begins with herself and her own spiritual growth. The female characters in I Am Forbidden fastidiously dress modestly, covering their limbs and collar bones, and, once married, their hair, as well. (Learn more about marriage and hair covering here.)
- Satmar Hasidism is one of the most theologically conservative sects of all of Judaism. Its members practice these rituals emphatically. They are an insular community who speak to each other casually in Yiddish, pray in Hebrew and only use English for dealings with the “outside” community. As a belief system, they adhere closely to these and all Jewish laws; oppose the existence of political state of Israel; and await the arrival of the Messiah, who will herald an era of redemption and of the creation of a modern Israel by God and not governments.
Robin, a middle-of-the-road Jew who has never covered her hair, feels entirely unqualified to write this summary but hope it helps you understand this compelling book. You can usually find her writing much more lightheartedly at her personal blog, The Not-Ever-Still Life; or on Facebook or Twitter.