In the erudite novel Questioning Return by Beth Kissileff, Wendy Goldberg, Princeton grad and Fulbright scholar, is writing her doctoral thesis in the best of all places: Jerusalem. Kissileff captures the city’s high notes: the seductive sound of Shabbos meals as Wendy eavesdrops through the open windows; the cafe culture; “[t]he wordless melody” of the devotional music and “the pent up buzz of the congregation”; the spiritual flirtations with New Age necromancy; the Ticho House; the Wall. Kissileff also captures the unfortunate and necessary low notes: terror, lives snuffed out too soon.
Wendy Goldberg is too solid a character to be the victim of Jerusalem syndrome the way we usually know it. But, like many of the city inhabitants she is highly opinionated, takes herself and her work very seriously, and is convinced that her way is best. Her thesis topic involves newly religious American Jews studying in Israel . She is “looking for fault lines in the new identities.” Though her subjects might appear to be Orthodox and observant, she is convinced that “fissures exist in their belief systems.”
Her research lands her inside the ba’al teshuvah culture. Unfortunately, Wendy hardly meets the healthy, balanced ones except for the lovely harpist Rahel and her husband with the 100 watt sex appeal. In real religious life, this couple who Wendy is smitten with might well be considered off the mainstream (they are moving to one of those hippie moshavs). But Wendy is still learning her way around the varieties and shades of dosim, Israel’s observant Jews; she even has awkward sexual encounters with some newly-minted ones. Poor Wendy: these men are trying (and the key word here is trying) to manage their newly acquired celibate lifestyle.
For the sake of her thesis, Wendy refines her interview skills with religious rigor. Nevertheless, she sends a psychologically fragile boy into a tragic tailspin after her interview session with him. Legal repercussions follow, as do a few social perks.
In spite of Wendy’s growing conviction that dramatic lifestyle changes are specious and religious life can involve a numbing conformity, Jerusalem gets under her skin and inside her soul. Wendy much prefers being an” analytical observer” but she begins to feel “so … connected … [a] network of nerves [lurks] underneath the stone.” Wendy eventually becomes ambivalently Sabbath-observant and finds a religious boyfriend. Kissileff coyly bucks the questions of ‘are they or aren’t they?’ when Wendy’s Orthodox paramour catches up on his sleep on Wendy’s sofa and not in her bed.
This is Kissileff’s first novel, and the fact that she holds a PhD in Comparative Literature is obvious. Cultural references and quotations abound, from Grace Paley, Jacques Derrida, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Barbara Pym, E. M. Forster, and others. When Wendy becomes a regular at the Torah class of a brilliant and inspiring woman, the reader gets an abundance of Torah content as well. One wonders if this woman is a reference to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a renowned Torah teacher who Kissileff has written about and who she thanks in the introduction to her non-fiction anthology Reading Genesis. Liberties are taken, factual left turns—perhaps to further dramatize Wendy’s academic inclinations. For example, Wendy translates the term ba’al teshuvah as ‘master of the answer,’ which is an idiosyncratic translation. The phrase is always—or in deference to Wendy—almost always translated as ‘master of return.’ Additionally, when Wendy ruminates on the street names in the Rechavia neighborhood of Jerusalem she loses the opportunity for solid religious ballast. Instead of describing the rabbis for whom the streets are named—Ibn Ezra, Alfasi, Radak—as the Torah scholars, Jewish philosophers, and poets they are—she minimizes their Torah and Talmud and legal scholarship and groups them under the heading, simply, as “grammarians of the Hebrew language.”
There are many ways to consider whether a novel has succeeded or not. Certainly one sign of success is that the reader wants to continue the conversation with the protagonist after the book is through. Personally, I wanted to be interviewed by Wendy for her thesis. I especially wanted to introduce her to the tradition of the ba’al teshuvah maker par excellence, the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, of blessed memory. The Rebbe, who lived in Boston and Jerusalem, was famous for advising ba’alei teshuvah to make slow changes and to integrate their old life with the new. I would tell Wendy one story where a young woman sculptor came to talk to the Rebbe. She was interested in Orthodox Judaism but was well aware of Jewish tradition’s critique of sculpture, especially of the human form.The Rebbe was nonplussed. “Why don’t you sculpt yourself,” the Rebbe said, challenging her talents with the metaphor of personal growth.
There are dozens of Bostoner ba’al teshuvah stories that Wendy might want to hear about and that might help her along with her thesis. I’d invite her to my house any Shabbos; she has an open invitation.