Monthly Archives: September 2012

Dear Anouk Markovitz,

I Am Forbidden

Thank you for I Am Forbidden. It can’t have been easy for you, a born and raised Satmar Hasidic, to write this astonishing saga that spans 70 years and two continents, two worlds really. One is our modern world where, in an orgy of free will, we confront a myriad of choices about everything from what to


eat, wear, read, and believe to what to teach our children. The other world is a medieval theocracy where a manipulative rabbi manufactures a convenient miracle and preys on the fears of his traumatized congregants to coerce them into unquestioning obedience to outdated laws. Unlike the critics who have praised I Am Forbidden for its evenhandedness, I see it as a beautifully written and imagined condemnation of the Satmar Hasidism for what amounts to fanaticism fostered by deceit, ignorance, and desperate longing for the families killed in Satmar, Hungary during WWII.  To me your novel is a poignant critique of fundamentalism.

But it’s more interesting than most such critiques because you turn to history to explain the origin and staying power of Satmar Hasidism. And you focus not only on how


women suffer in this community, but also on how Satmar beliefs affect the intimate lives of men. You open your story during World War II in Satmar where a devout teenaged boy has a wet dream in spite of having lashed his hands and feet to the bed frame to prevent him from committing this sin. Semen is only for procreation  to speed the repopulation of this community decimated by the Nazis.  A rabbi has decreed that “He who emits seed deserves death.” Decades later this same taboo makes it sinful for another male character to have a test to determine the viability of his sperm after his wife has not conceived during ten years of marriage. Not content with supervising men’s emissions and women’s menstrual cycles, the rabbis mandate positions and sexual pleasure limiting the former to missionary and forbidding the latter.

You’re generous to your characters when they endure, indeed, demand this way of life because you show how most of them suffer from what,

today, we know as post-traumatic stress. You describe one little boy watching his toddler sister killed with a pitchfork inches from him and hearing his mother’s final screams as she too is killed. A little girl sees her pregnant mother shot down while trying to board a train and finds her father tied to a post and left to die after being tortured by the dreaded Iron Guard. It’s not surprising that these two orphans grow up desperate to believe that if they are very, very good, when the Messiah comes, they will be reunited with their pierced, shot, and castrated relatives who will be whole and healthy once again.  You don’t blame the survivors and this reader doesn’t either.

Well, I do, a little. The small girl, who never forgets watching her parents die at the hands of Jew haters, grows up in the Satmar community where her father arranges her marriage to the young man who recalls seeing his sister impaled and hearing his mother’s dying screams. In spite of the love these two have for one another and in spite of their faith, they run afoul of the regressive Satmar reproductive rules with predictably tragic results. It is not their faith in God that is the problem, but their faith in these rules. This misplaced faith is a kind of mass delusion brought about by the trauma of seeing their parents and community cruelly annihilated. This delusion flourishes in mandated ignorance and fears of modernity and masquerades as faith in God. The Satmar are like children who seek safety under the bed while their house burns down around them. If they don’t look at the fire, it cannot destroy them.

Another of your characters, the young daughter of the nocturnal emitter, suffers a brutal beating from her father, now a rabbi himself, for riding a bicycle on the Sabbath.


Not surprisingly she grows up to question rabbinic authority, to read forbidden books, and, when she reaches marriageable age, to leave her home, family, and the Satmar community in Paris for the United States. Here she goes to college and becomes a film maker and professor living alone in a New York studio apartment and a country home. Does she miss her family? Yes. Would she return is she were allowed? No. Can she live a rewarding and meaningful life estranged from her family of origin and childless and, perhaps, manless as well? Yes.

It’s scary to think of an entire community of PTSD sufferers just across the bridge from Manhattan and determined to remain separate from the evil influences they think are rampant only in the outside world. At a time when globalization, scientific breakthroughs, climate change, and wars waged in the name of religion are changing the way we all live, these people’s muddled medievalism is ill-timed and even dangerous. Like many other fundamentalists, the Satmar Hasids seem ill-equipped for life in the diverse democracy that took them in. I admire the courage you show in taking readers into the hearts and minds of the Satmar and then taking us out again. You make that journey memorable.

Firecracker Exploding

There is a lengthy, complicated tale I want to tell, and in I Am Forbidden you show me how to make a long, complex story quick and explosive like a firecracker going off in the reader’s head. Thank you!


Jane Isenberg


Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Amanda Coplin,

The Orchardist

I read The Orchardist because I, too, plan to set a novel in eastern Washington. But unlike you who were raised there, I’ve been there only twice years ago,

Nez Perce Warrior

to visit my daughter at WASU in Spokane. I figured your book would give me a quick tour of the sunny side of my new state before I visit there again. But I got a lot more than I bargained for, and I’m very grateful. Your gripping tale of Talmadge, an orphaned orchardist doomed to mourn his sister Elsbeth who disappears when they are both children took me to a time and place tourists no longer get to visit. Talmadge lives on alone in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains at the turn of the last century. His only visitors are some Nez Perce men who hunt wild horses in the mountains and come each fall to help Talmadge harvest his fruit.

His solitude is disturbed when Jane and Della, two very young, very pregnant, very hungry girls, appear on his property. Their backstory complements Talmadge’s own, and you weave these entangling tales into a gripping narrative which they tell one another only in broken snatches reluctantly shared. These are not chatty people. So yours is partly a story about stories, about controlling narrative, sharing, or not sharing family secrets. You use no quotation marks to indicate where characters do actually speak aloud, perhaps because they do so rarely. Elsbeth has trouble putting her thoughts into full sentences. Cle, a leader of the Nez Perce, stops speaking altogether when his mother is snatched from their tepee by white raiders. Della barely speaks. Even a character’s internal monologues are terse as in “Why are we born?”


These are not people of the book, the café, or the salon; they are people of the earth, the forest, and the mountains. Homely, humble, patient, quiet, protective, and content with small pleasures, Talmadge himself seems an unlikely hero. He’s a kind man, an excellent orchardist, and, perhaps, a tragic figure, for he fails in imagination. With a bit more imagination, he might have predicted Della’s behavior more accurately. But maybe not. The local herbalist and midwife Carolyn Middey, a more communicative and worldly character, appears better attuned to the potential for disaster lurking in the many silences in Talmadge’s household. Talmadge, Middey, Cle, Jane, Della, and Jane’s child form a family marked by the blood of birth and the knowledge of death, but a kinship nonetheless.

Apples on the Tree

Talmadge’s mother wanted him to know life on the land was hard and his life certainly is. But it is not without deep pleasures: the joy of hard

Forest and Mountains

work, discovery, and omnipresent beauty. The orchard, surrounding forest, nearby canyons, creek, and mountains are glorious and your prose does them justice. “Then they came through dense forest, and stood on the rim of a valley illuminated as if it was the end or beginning of the world. A valley of yellow grass. Still but for a ribbon of water moving at the bottom of it.”  The characters savor the smells, sounds, and colors around them all the time. When they are in town, they miss the fecund loveliness of the orchard. They lose or find themselves in the forest. Cle and his men materialize from it and Elsbeth literally loses herself there. Jane and Della hide there and Della often chooses to sleep in the woods rather than in the house or the lumber camps where she finds work. When Cle and his band of horse hunters emerge from the woods with their snorting, stomping unbroken herd they seem like vestiges of a forgotten time when wild creatures roamed unfenced peaks and Native Americans, also unfenced, hunted them.

Thanks for this moving and powerful book. I will see eastern Washington more clearly because I have read it.


Jane Isenberg


Filed under American classic, feminist fiction, Uncategorized