Wher­ev­er You Go

  • Review
By – September 26, 2011

The lives of three New York­ers look­ing for per­son­al mean­ing in Israel col­lide trag­i­cal­ly in short sto­ry writer Joan Leegant’s debut nov­el, a quick and grip­ping read. Dis­il­lu­sioned with reli­gion and fam­i­ly, each vis­its the home­land in search of a per­son­al con­nec­tion with Judaism — and finds more than he bar­gained for.

Orphaned Yona Stern arrives in Israel with plans to rec­on­cile with her estranged sis­ter— now a rad­i­cal set­tler and moth­er of six — who proves tougher to win over than Yona expects. Tal­mu­dic schol­ar Mark Green­glass fights twin impuls­es to aban­don his orig­i­nal call­ing and res­cue a love lost. And Aaron Blind­er, a col­lege dropout who joins a mil­i­tant fringe group under delu­sions of grandeur, ulti­mate­ly departs the coun­try in hand­cuffs for insti­gat­ing a ter­ror­ist attack that entan­gles the oth­er two. 

Though the inter­twin­ing plots are spry and cap­ti­vat­ing, the novel’s real mer­it comes from Leegant’s adept por­tray­al of her cen­tral char­ac­ters’ hearts and minds in a tale that rings true. The neb­u­lous but time­less theme of search­ing for pur­pose in life is dif­fi­cult to com­mit to the page in a sym­pa­thet­ic and engag­ing way, but Lee­gant does it.


By Nicole Levy

Joan Leegant’s nov­el Wher­ev­er You Go (W. W. Nor­ton, 2010) and short sto­ry col­lec­tion An Hour in Par­adise (W. W. Nor­ton, 2003) are about present day seek­ers in the Holy Land. While her char­ac­ters search for Judaism that feels authen­tic they alien­ate them­selves from their fam­i­lies and fel­low Jews. 

Wher­ev­er You Go fol­lows the wan­der­ings and spir­i­tu­al strug­gles of four young Amer­i­can Jews in Israel just after the dis­en­gage­ment from Gaza. Mark Green­glass, an ex-drug user teach­ing Ba’alei T’Shuvah (return­ers to Judaism) at yeshiv­as in Jerusalem, returns state­side because he has lost his reli­gious fer­vor and feels like an imposter. He then takes a job at a non-Jew­ish art school back in Jerusalem. 

Col­lege drop-out and lon­er Aaron Binder, son of a pro­lif­ic Holo­caust writer, search­es for com­rade­ship among West Bank set­tlers believ­ing, The sons of Ish­mael sim­ply need to be giv­en the incen­tive to move to a more hos­pitable locale.” Although for­mer­ly cyn­i­cal about his father’s work, Aaron uses the Holo­caust to jus­ti­fy explod­ing Arabowned build­ings. 

Always pas­sion­ate about caus­es, for­mer social work­er Dena Ben-Zion lives in anoth­er West Bank set­tle­ment. With five chil­dren and anoth­er com­ing, she responds to a ques­tion about fear­ing for her children’s safe­ty, 

What kind of sac­ri­fices?” Dena repeat­ed, look­ing around at the assem­bled, tak­ing her time, let­ting the ques­tion sink in. Did Abra­ham ques­tion G‑d when He told him to bring Isaac up to Mount Mori­ah and bind him to the altar? This is how it is. Being ready to give up life for the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Holy Name. Even if the life you have to give up is more pre­cious than your own.” 

Dena’s estranged sis­ter, Yona Stern, comes from Amer­i­ca to make peace with her, ask­ing for­give­ness for a mis­deed com­mit­ted a decade before. 

These lives inter­sect in Yona’s search for jus­tice. 

Lee­gant was her­self a seek­er. Though she attend­ed ser­vices and learned Jew­ish ethics as a young­ster dur­ing the 1950’s and 1960’s, it wasn’t until she was fin­ish­ing Boston Uni­ver­si­ty Law School in 1975 that she want­ed to learn some­thing about what it means to be Jew­ish.” She read about the Holo­caust. It became part of my iden­ti­ty as a Jew,” Lee­gant said. 

From age 28 – 31, she stud­ied part-time at Pardes Insti­tute of Jew­ish Stud­ies in Jerusalem and worked on legal research in envi­ron­men­tal­ism for the Min­istry of Inte­ri­or. She now spends half the year teach­ing cre­ative writ­ing at Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty in Tel Aviv. 

Nicole Levy: Are char­ac­ters of Wher­ev­er You Go from real life? 
Joan Lee­gant: Ba’alei T’shuvah I met in Jerusalem seep into my fic­tion. A net­work of friends from dif­fer­ent yeshiv­as would meet at Melaveh Mal­ka (Sat­ur­day evening gath­er­ings). Since I was thir­ty and set­tled into my career, while the oth­ers were in their ear­ly twen­ties, I had a bird’s eye view, ide­al for research, of what these young Jew­ish Amer­i­cans were going through. I met peo­ple like Aaron, Dena, and their fam­i­lies, but not exact­ly. 

I also had friends in the anti-war move­ment who lived for the cause, but not for the self. 

NL: How did you devel­op the char­ac­ters? 
JL: I immersed myself in jour­nal­ism regard­ing set­tlers. I read inter­views of those active in set­tle­ments [to get at] the way they speak. It is hard to avoid [por­tray­ing] a black and white per­son­al­i­ty, but not to soft­en it either. Dena may seem harsh, but also admirable as she is com­mit­ted to a cause. 

In Wher­ev­er You Go I present peo­ple who don’t fit in, and explore how they are going to live their lives. I am inter­est­ed in peo­ple who have a pas­sion and are involved in caus­es. I want to know how they become vio­lent, what push­es them to cross the line. In Aaron’s case, it is his psy­chol­o­gy. 

NL: Are you mak­ing polit­i­cal state­ments through the book? 
JL: I am not speak­ing of my opin­ions of any par­tic­u­lar issues in Israeli soci­ety. If there is any polit­i­cal state­ment, it is about those like Naf­tali Schroed­er [spir­i­tu­al leader of Aaron’s group], who exploit people’s desire for vio­len­cepeo­ple who like to live in a state of dan­ger and adher­ence to a nar­row and intol­er­ant ide­ol­o­gy. 

NL: Are you crit­i­ciz­ing aspects of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life? 
JL: Like Mark Green­glass, I formed my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty through study­ing the Holo­caust. But there are risks of too great of an obses­sion with the Holo­caust. It should be remem­bered. How­ev­er, mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust can be used as a con­stant jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for view­ing Arabs as the suc­ces­sors to the Nazis. Aaron is exploit­ing the Holo­caust, turn­ing it into a hatred of Arabs. The ques­tion is What is the appro­pri­ate way to deal with the Holocaust?”


URJ recent­ly des­ig­nat­ed Wher­ev­er You Go as one of eight Sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish Books” of 2010.

Discussion Questions