The Hebrew word teshuvah can mean “return,” “repentance,” or “response.” By extension, a chozer b’teshuvah is a penitent, literally someone who returns to a sense of having the answers. Conversely, a chozer b’sheilah, someone who returns to question, is modern Hebrew for someone who once was religious but now is more skeptical. In her debut novel, “Questioning Return,” Beth Kissileff, a Pittsburgh writer who was raised in Teaneck, explores the roles of questions and answers as people develop and adjust their identities.
The novel’s protagonist, Wendy Goldberg, is spending a year in 1990s-era Jerusalem, writing her dissertation on the self-perception of ba’alei teshuvah. In particular, she is researching whether ba’alei teshuvah truly feel that they have changed fundamentally after becoming religiously observant. Her own hypothesis is that they have not, and she seeks to confront them with the “cracks and fissures” through which their original identities remain, beneath the certainty they express in their new lives.
Wendy has been on an academic track her entire adult life. Despite being a Princeton graduate student abroad on a prestigious Fulbright fellowship, she is fearful of failure and prone to overthinking, questioning her qualifications and career prospects. As she struggles to repress her own self-doubts, she resists moving forward to avoid making the wrong move, which would expose her as a fraud, even to the point where she has trouble actually beginning her writing. As she interviews ba’alei teshuvah, Wendy struggles to empathize with their ability to recognize turning points in their lives and then their ability to reorient themselves once they do.
Wendy’s own turning point comes when one of her interview subjects, a troubled young man struggling with feelings of failure in his chosen path as a ba’al teshuvah, kills himself in his yeshiva dorm room. As she copes with grief and guilt, she begins to realize that the most critical questions about life don’t require definitive answers, and what she had previously thought of as “cracks” in a facade actually are shifting attempts at living with purpose despite life’s uncertainties. As she spends time in Jerusalem and she becomes more aware of the wide range of observance and ideology she and her friends live out, she becomes more comfortable, both in her academic work and her personal life.
Coming to Jerusalem with little in the way of Jewish background, Wendy’s black-and-white perceptions of what it means to be more or less religious gradually begin to give way. She finds teachers and mentors who accept her for who she is, and for whom Torah study and religious life are frameworks for thoughtfully living life, not guidebooks that contain all of its answers.
Though not ritually observant by the end of the book, she enjoys the Jewish rhythm of Jerusalem, especially around Shabbat and the holidays, and is figuring out the contours of a relationship with a modern Orthodox psychology student. Her identity is more fluid and less defined, more question and less answer, but she is all the better for it.
The world Wendy lives in is an authentically recreated, if barely disguised, version of the vibrant and diverse scene a young aspiring academic would find in Jerusalem. Those who are familiar with the characters and cultural touchstones of that world will smile as she encounters Professor Lamdan, a stand-in for JTS/Columbia’s David Weiss-Halivni and the preppy, condescending reputation of graduates of Manhattan’s Zemer (“Ramaz,” backwards, almost) School. The characters are a bit typecast, though, and the Shabbat meals sometimes seems as much an exercise in allowing each character to express a particular subgroup’s viewpoints as a group of young people chatting around a table.
Kissileff does an excellent job of conveying the intellectual and cultural depth of Wendy’s world. The Torah thoughts delivered at meals and lectures she attends are substantive, though they tend to be a bit preachy in a way that always directly relate to what is happening to Wendy at the moment. References to canonical philosophers, Shakespeare, and Yehudah Amichai abound and make sense in context.
The talmudic story of Reish Lakish, a 3rd century thief who became a ba’al teshuvah and eventually the brother-in-law and study partner of his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, is a theme that recurs throughout the book. After inspiring Reish Lakish to move from the robbers’ den to the study hall, Rabbi Yochanan eventually destroys first their relationship and then both of their lives by pointedly asking whether he had truly changed.
At first, the story is a warning to Wendy about the destructive power of questions that force ba’alei teshuvah to confront the inauthenticity of their transformations. By the end, she realizes that the truth about Reish Lakish’s innermost identity was always less important than the friendship and kinship he and Rabbi Yochanan found together. As the year comes to a close, Wendy still does not know who she is, but she has found a place, professionally, socially, and within Jerusalem itself. She is in the study hall, having found her own Rabbi Yochanan, and is thriving.
Like her main character, Kissileff’s tone throughout is skeptical toward the ba’alei teshuvah who found religion in outreach yeshivot, whom she generally characterizes as smug, if not condescending. On the other hand, she elevates those characters whose transformations were more organic. If the most Jewish answer is another rhetorical question, she is saying, then the best teshuvah is the kind that leads to ever more she’eilot.