Questioning Return

A Novel by Beth Kissileff (USA)


A year in Jerusalem questioning American Jews who "return" to Israel and to traditional religion changes Wendy Goldberg's life forever

Every year 700,000 Americans visit Israel. Graduate student Wendy Goldberg spends a year in Jerusalem questioning the lives of American Jews who “return” both to Israel itself and to traditional religious practices. Have they changed themselves at all? Are they sincere? Or happier? The unexpected answers and Wendy’s own experiences in Israel (a bus bombing, a funeral, an unexpected suicide, a love affair, and a law suit) lead her to reconsider her own Jewish identity and values.

Initially the ambitious graduate student is certain that she’s on the path to academic glory. But from the moment her plane takes off Wendy is confronted with unanswerable questions of faith and identity. As she becomes immersed in the rhythm of Israeli life, her sense of distance from it fades. Her ability to be a neutral outside observer terminates abruptly when a student commits a horrible act immediately after his interview with her. Wendy is not sure how or if she is implicated in his action, but in her search for understanding, she is led to knowledge and love in unforeseen places.

BETH KISSILEFF is a fiction writer and journalist who spent two years studying in Jerusalem and continues to visit Israel regularly. Her writing appears regularly in publications including the New York Times, The Forward, Tablet, Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. She has received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Humanities and taught at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College. She is also the editor of an anthology in which academics write on the Bible, Reading Genesis: Beginnings. She lives in Pittsburgh and is at work on a volume of short stories and a second novel.


"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 for the Perplexed, A Novel, The World to Come, All Other Nights, and In the Image, A Novel.

"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 Novel, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, The Wedding Jester, The Book of Mischief, and The Frozen Rabbi

"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

"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, Imagining Robert, Stolen Rabbi, and You Are My Heart and Other Stories

“Sex, death, Torah, more sex. This book’s got everything and then some!”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super-Sad True Love StoryQuestioning 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

October 2016 | 372 pages
ISBN: 978-1-942134-23-7; Paperback with Flaps $19.95