Book Review: Questioning Return: By Beth Kissileff


Questioning Return

By Beth Kissileff

Mandel Vilar Press, 2016, $21.95

The two words of the title of this book, “Questioning,” and “Return,” are the two poles between which the protagonist, Wendy Goldberg, moves in this sensitive, brainy, and surprisingly learned novel. Wendy, a Ph.D. student from Princeton, is on a one-year fellowship to study American ba’alei teshuvah in Jerusalem. Her academic pursuits, as well as her experience of a year in Israel, seem as much about questioning as about return.

The novel opens with a quotation from seventeenth-century poet George Herbert, who wrote, “When one is asked a question he must discover what he is.” The questions Wendy asks the newly religious as to why they have turned their lives upside down lead her to a deeper discovery of who she is. And she finds a few wise teachers who help her along the way.

Wendy’s journey is both interior and exterior. Jerusalem of the 1990s is realistically portrayed—the bus bombings but also the new minyanim, shiurim, and communities sprouting all over. The Shabbat mealtime conversations, with their lively discussions of concepts of God and individual life choices, ring true to a certain time and place. This is the life-altering year in Jerusalem that so many have experienced.

The year, of course, makes its impact because of matters of the heart as well as explorations of the mind. Wendy goes through the ups and downs of romantic relationships and learns that “who is asking” is as important as what is asked. She finally comes to a “fuller sense of myself” as an intellectual but also “someone who wants to enjoy the sensual delights given to us as humans.”

Likewise, this sensitively written novel will delight the reader by appealing both to the intellect and to one’s appreciation of the senses.

Roselyn Bell is the editor of the JOFA Journal. She recently completed an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Rutgers.

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