Kissileff, Beth. “Questioning Return”, Mandel Vilar, 2016.
The Return to Israel and to Observance
Almost 700,000 Americans visit Israel every year. Of those numbers there are those that return to the land and those that return to traditional Judaism. Beth Kissileff’s novel “Questioning Return” is the story of graduate student Wendy Goldberg who spends a year in Jerusalem and questions the lives of American Jews who “return” both to the land of Israel and to traditional religious practices. She explores the questions of whether they have changed themselves at all and if they are sincere and happy with their choice. Wendy’s own experiences that year included a bus bombing, a funeral, an unexpected suicide, a love affair, and a law suit and these lead her to reconsider her own Jewish identity and values. In the return to Israel and Judaism, Wendy also has questions and they are about her identity and her faith. So much of what I read here reflects my own life and personal experiences. Most of us who go on aliyah to Israel are unaware of many aspects on the country and of Judaism, the religion and as we discover these, our lives change.
As Wendy becomes part of Israeli life, her sense of distance lessens and her ability to be an observer ends. Israel does that—the country pulls people into the daily life (which is quite different from American daily life). With Wendy, the catalyst for that was when a student committed a horrible act immediately after his interview with her. Wendy questions if she is implicated in his action and she soon finds that she is on a journey. She needs to find answers as to who she is and how she feels about Israel and herself.
The people that Wendy interviews are those Americans who are known as “baalei teshuvah”, Jews who have come home to a tradition that has been lost to them. During the interviews, Wendy finds herself on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic question challenges not only her but also the readers of the book as to what “belonging” really means. The novel not only looks at the changes made but how and why these changes come about. Writer Kissileff explores the “possibilities of transformative faith, and the mysterious nature of holiness in a place that itself seems a living thing to those who have eyes for it.” The characters are richly drawn and we often see ourselves in them. We are made aware of the tension between academic study and traditional Jewish learning.
Wendy questions her motives and sincerity of her work as she talks to those who take religious life and Torah seriously. In fact. We can see that the Torah, itself, emerges as a character in the novel. Be prepared to face some very serious questions.