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.