Wendy Goldberg, the protagonist in “Questioning Return,” is a Jewish-American grad student and Fulbright scholar studying religion at Princeton in the mid-1990s. To fulfill her Ph.D. requirements, she is studying the question of return, of baalei teshuvah — secular Jews who have returned to Israel and become observant in their practice of Judaism. She is interested not only in why people become returnees, but how they themselves view their returns, and what stories they tell.
To complete her dissertation on this topic, she travels to Jerusalem for a year, planning to interview a crosssection of subjects. Knowing only a few people, Wendy, a secular Jew herself, sets about adjusting to her foreign surroundings while forging new friendships and relationships as she embarks upon the project. The heart of the project is asking questions, and as she proceeds with her interviews, questioning people about how they came to be returnees, she herself is fraught with her own questions: Can she date a religious man? What does she want to do career-wise? Can she see herself staying in Israel?
Wendy is a frustrating and not overly likeable protagonist, which, in part, made the book somewhat difficult to digest, at least initially. When she first arrives in Israel she is blunt, brash, frequently irritated by people and situations, and has little filter over her words, a negative characteristic for someone who is supposed to be conducting objective interviews for a dissertation. For example, Wendy is annoyed when a bombing, heard outside when she’s safe inside a movie theater, casts a pall on her date.
Spirited discourse and conversations often lead to misunderstandings, either because she is not used to the way things are done in Israel or because she is coming to the project as a nonreligious Jew.
Other characters in the book provide a balance to Wendy’s blunders and misperceptions. There’s her friend, Orly, who is struggling with some of her own relationship and career issues. Wendy also has several romantic relationships in Israel, including a confusing sexual encounter that leads to heartbreak.
A pivotal point in the book is when one of her interviewees, who had a propensity for depression, commits suicide just after the interview. Wendy’s guilt as she questions her responsibility in the incident is transformative for her project, for her relationships, and for herself as a human being, as arrogance gradually gives way to self-realization.
While the book engages the reader’s intellect, as the characters wrestle with philosophical and religious questions, the story was often overly detailed, particularly as the author delved deeply into the behind-the-scenes minutiae of Wendy’s dissertation requirements. Also, Wendy overanalyzed many situations, which led to long, internal narratives. The majority of the book, however, was thought provoking, and there are plenty of interesting and engaging scenes; the reader is transported to Jerusalem through lush descriptions of its sights, sounds and culture.
Kissileff, who lives in Pittsburgh, is an obviously gifted writer who conducted painstaking research into her subject matter, incorporating references and comparisons to modern literature, poetry and film. She is quite skilled at diving into her characters’ minds and writes with insightful precision.
“Questioning Return” is not your typical mainstream fiction. It is more likely to appeal to audiences looking for a more philosophical and intellectual subject rather than a light and breezy read.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.