Wendy Goldberg has it all planned out. She’s going to Israel to research and write on newly religious American Jews who live there. She will ask them difficult and unsettling questions about their life path and motives to get the raw material that will pave the way to her future academic glory. All she has to do it write it up and she’ll have a provocative and fresh dissertation, sure to win kudos and land her a plum job.
On the plane to Israel, she has a conversation with a staunchly critical yet fervently religious professor from her religious studies department at Princeton. Suddenly, questions seem to find her. What kind of person and Jew is she? Can one have doubts and hold on to faith at the same time? Can a skeptic connect to some kind of religious identity?
Questioning Return is a novel that follows the progress of Wendy’s year abroad, the immersive experience of Israel and the rhythm of life there proving both disorienting and satisfying, in turn. Over the course of the year, her desire to remain an outside observer in her new surroundings slowly fades. Abruptly, she is forced to realize that her fate isn’t separate from that of people around her, when a student she interviews commits a horrible act right after their conversation. Tragedy leads Wendy to unforeseen places to seek knowledge and love.
Though Wendy Goldberg planned to ask questions of others, she finds the ones that truly matter are those she asks of herself.
“Can people change? It seems they do, but how and why? In Beth Kissileff’s lovely, widely-learned, and brooding debut novel, Questioning Return, Princeton graduate student Wendy Goldberg sets off to Jerusalem to propose these questions to others. Unexpectedly, the young scholar finds herself the one questioned while returning to things at once ancient and always new: the porous boundaries between love and passion, the possibilities of transformative faith, and the mysterious nature of holiness in a place that itself seems a living thing to those who have eyes for it.”
—Aryeh Lev Stollman, author of The Far Euphrates and The Illuminated Soul
“The year in Jerusalem you never had! I opened this book intrigued by its skeptical question: why do people become religious? But as Kissileff guided me on my year abroad, I discovered, along with her complicated characters, that the only stupid question is one that has an answer. A sensitive, nuanced, and believable journey to a place, both physical and spiritual, that feels utterly real.”
—Dara Horn, author of A Guide to the Perplexed
“The brainy, conflicted heroine of Beth Kissileff’s heart-stirring debut novel Questioning Return goes to Israel to interview baalei teshuvah, Jews who have come home to a tradition once lost to them. The process launches her on an intellectual, spiritual, and romantic adventure that will change your understanding of what it means to truly belong. An eloquent and absorbing achievement.”
—Steve Stern, author of The Pinch: A History/A Novel, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, The Wedding Jester, The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi
“Questioning Return is a fiercely intelligent and, yes, wise novel. The story of a young woman’s attempt to understand the meaning of ‘return’ becomes a tale of complex, memorable, and transformative beginnings. This is a novel as rich in the questions it probes as it is in the characters it renders. Beth Kissileff is a fearless, wonderful new writer–a gifted storyteller whose novel is as strong as it is tender.”
—Jay Neugeboren, author of Max Baer and the Star of David, and 1940
“Questioning Return brilliantly portrays the intellectual and religious life of Jerusalem, as an aspiring young scholar grapples with the tension between academic study and traditional Jewish learning. No other novel so vividly portrays the religious life of young Americans seeking a life of traditional Jewish observance and Torah study in contemporary Jerusalem. Sabbaths, holidays, and daily rituals spring to life through a coming-of-age story of a young woman’s struggle to combine her academic aspirations with a quest for spiritual fulfillment.”
—Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Skirball Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, New York University, author of Stories of the Babylonian Talmud and Rabbinic Stories.
“Sex, death, Torah, more sex. This book’s got everything and then some!”
—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super-Sad True Love Story
Review in Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Laura Malt-Schneiderman writes, “a journey worth taking” and “The narrative has an almost Russian-novel quality, following each thought of the protagonist.” Posted December 3, 2017.
Recommended summer reading by Judy Bolton-Fasman in Jewish Boston. “Life in Jerusalem animates this novel of ideas, which Kissileff perfectly captures in all its gorgeous complexity.” Posted June 27, 2017.
Interview on TC Jewfolk site by Eliana Schreiber about the novel and Kissileff’s Minneapolis connections. Posted June 14, 2017.
Review by Sandee Brawarsky in the New York Jewish Week “This is a novel of ideas about academic life, returning to tradition and Jewish observance; Kissileff writes with originality about Americans abroad in Israel, Jewish identity and heavenly and earthly Jerusalem.” Posted June 21, 2017.
Review in the Reporter Group by Rabbi Rachel Esserman “The inclusion of a wide variety of voices – from a Reconstructionist rabbinical student to Modern Orthodox Jews to ballet teshuvah – makes the discussions fascinating, as all struggle to discover a religious path that speaks to their spiritual needs.”. http://thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=4601
Review by Howard Freedman in J-Weekly opines the novel is “a memorable story of personal challenge and change set against the city’s unique spiritual landscape.”
Review by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein in the Jewish Standard/Times of Israel. “Kissileff does an excellent job of conveying the intellectual and cultural depth of Wendy’s world.” March 2, 2017.
- Review by writer Risa Miller in the Lehrhaus says, “Kissileff captures the city’s high notes.”
- Interview in The Wisdom Daily with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield http://thewisdomdaily.com/questioning-return/
- Excerpt in Tablet Magazine http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/217749/whats-not-there-soul-searching-in-israel
- Bookshelf of Columbia College authors in Columbia College Today Winter 2016-2017. Others on list include Paul Auster and Robert Gottlieb!
- Review in Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle Kissileff is “an obviously gifted writer” and “quite skilled at diving into her characters’ minds and writes with insightful precision.”
Review at Jewish Book Council “Kissileff’s love of literature, culture, and religion is evident in her work.” http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/questioning-return
- Article by Rabbi Paul Jacobson in his synagogue bulletin about Questioning Return
- Review by Amos Lassen http://reviewsbyamoslassen.com/?p=53674 posteed November 2016
- Listing as one of the “best books for bookworms” by U Penn affiliated authors http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v63/n15/holidaybooks.html
- Mention in The Pennsylvania Gazette, University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine http://thepenngazette.com/briefly-noted-19/ October 2016
- Mention in New York Jewish Week Fall Arts Preview http://www.thejewishweek.com/special-sections/arts-preview/fall-arts-preview-september-2016 September 2016
- More at Mandel Vilar Press
- Interview with Beth Kissileff about Questioning Return
- Essay on it – What does it take to really write a dissertation? http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/_blog/The_ProsenPeople/post/what-does-it-really-take-to-write-a-dissertation/
- November 9, 2017. Reading and interview with Nili Gold at Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Video of event.
- June 20, 2017. Reading at Magers and Quinn bookstore, Minneapolis, MN.
- April 29, 2017 Book Club at Sisterhood Shabbat Temple Israel Natick, MA
- January 24, 2017 Red Dog Reading Series Carlow University Pittsburgh, PA
- December 10 Beth Shalom Synagogue Pittsburgh PA 12:45 PM
- November 17 Rodef Shalom Author Series, Pittsburgh PA
- November 15 Book Launch Classic Lines Bookstore. 7 PM Forbes Avenue Pittsburgh, PA
- Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, Pittsfield, MA (August 22, 2016)
- Ansche Chesed Synagogue, NY, NY (July 25, 2016)
Kissileff at Kelly Writers House University of Pennsylvania November 9, 2017
Beth Kissileff and Professor Nili Scharf Gold at Kelly Writers House
Books for Sale!
Book launch at Classic Lines bookstore. Pittsburgh PA November 15 2016