Ques­tion­ing Return

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

The act and art of ques­tion­ing and the essence of the ques­tion­er are cen­tral to Beth Kissileff’s new nov­el, Ques­tion­ing Return.

Wendy Gold­berg, a Ph.D. can­di­date at Prince­ton, has been award­ed a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship to study baalei tshu­vah—the new­ly reli­gious — who immi­grate to Israel. She arrives for her year in Israel know­ing lit­tle of her own reli­gion, and is imme­di­ate­ly plunged into a new land with new rit­u­als and peo­ple. Wendy strug­gles to find her own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and place in 1990s Israeli soci­ety as she nav­i­gates love inter­ests, friend­ships, bus bomb­ings, and an interviewee’s suicide.

Wendy’s objec­tive is try­ing to see what it means for peo­ple who didn’t grow up with Jew­ish rit­u­als to sud­den­ly declare this is the only pos­si­ble path they could have tak­en, their return to reli­gion inevitable, which can be seen as an absurd claim. What does return’ tru­ly mean when it is to some­thing nev­er expe­ri­enced?” She strives to find the deci­sive moment of change in her inter­vie­wees’ lives and dis­cov­er how they reframed them­selves after­ward. Once she hears their sto­ries, she tries to find a way into the cracks and fis­sures” of their argu­ments. Their unshake­able cer­tain­ty that one set of answers will work for every­one affronts her; she feels that there must be things they dis­like about their new lifestyles and miss about their for­mer ones — or that they must have issues with the fam­i­lies they have left behind. Her dis­ser­ta­tion is all about ask­ing, and not every­one will like the questions.

Though Wendy can be blunt, over­ly ambi­tious, and head­strong, she often pro­cras­ti­nates while sec­ond-guess­ing her­self. The read­er becomes privy to the pres­sures, pol­i­tics, and peck­ing order of acad­e­mia as Wendy strug­gles to pro­duce the dis­ser­ta­tion that will secure her future. Her ques­tion­ing of one men­tal­ly unsta­ble baal tshu­vah who sees his real­i­ty as far from his ideals leads to his sui­cide. Wendy feels guilty that she didn’t pick up on his depres­sion and pre­car­i­ous posi­tion, and her future is jeop­ar­dized as a law­suit is threatened. 

Ulti­mate­ly Wendy real­izes how ques­tion­ing can affect a life. On the flight from Amer­i­ca, a Holo­caust sur­vivor tells her the sto­ry of Rab­bi Yohanan and Reish Lak­ish, which warns of the con­se­quences of ques­tion­ing a repen­tant one about his for­mer life. The theme of this tale is thread­ed through­out the nov­el. Wendy even­tu­al­ly seeks guid­ance from a psy­chi­a­trist and begins torah lessons with his wife, Atarah. She also exam­ines her grow­ing fond­ness of not-so-frum” Uri, and won­ders how such a dis­parate cou­pling could sur­vive and form a partnership. 

Jerusalem and the rhythms of Israeli life pro­vide the atmos­pher­ic back­ground for the sto­ry. Wendy has nev­er before been in a place where she is part of the major­i­ty, and now she is exposed to all facets of Jew­ish life and all types of Jews. Jerusalem’s archi­tec­ture, neigh­bor­hoods, syn­a­gogues, restau­rants, mar­kets, ter­ror attacks, and deaths are all cru­cial to the sto­ry. Wendy is par­tic­u­lar­ly affect­ed by the rites of Shab­bat, and comes to under­stand why they are so impor­tant to the baalei tshu­vah. The quiet­ness, the abat­ing clam­or, the emp­ty­ing streets, the reli­gious rit­u­als, and the peo­ple com­ing togeth­er are sooth­ing and entranc­ing to her. 

Kissileff’s love of lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture, and reli­gion is evi­dent in her work. She quotes Vir­ginia Woolf, Shake­speare, Robert Frost, and Dick­in­son, and weaves in the sym­bol­ism of Babette’s Feast as well as many bib­li­cal and reli­gious ref­er­ences. Near the end of Ques­tion­ing Return,Wendy’s friend and teacher, Atarah, pos­es a quote to her: When one is asked a ques­tion he must dis­cov­er who he is. Peo­ple have moments of recog­ni­tion and trans­for­ma­tion.” Wendy real­izes the ques­tion­ing is just the begin­ning, and that answers are often com­pli­cat­ed and not eas­i­ly reached. 

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Beth Kissileff

It’s No Acci­dent the Final Com­mand­ment Is to Write

What Does It Real­ly Take to Write a Dissertation?

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions