‘Questioning Return’ Author To Speak at Magers & Quinn

Although not a native Minnesotan herself, author Beth Kissileff has spent plenty of time here. Kissileff’s connection to the Twin Cities actually started with her year in Israel, where she met several Minnesotans. Next week, Kissileff is back in Minneapolis at Magers & Quinn (3038 Hennepin Ave. S.) on June 20 at 7:30 p.m., where she will be reading from her new novel, Questioning Return, the story of one woman’s year-long stay in Israel.

Kissileff, who now lives in Pittsburgh, stopped to chat with TC Jewfolk ahead of her tour stop.

What’s your connection to Minnesota?

The first time I think I became aware of the notion of the “Frozen Chosen” Jews from Minnesota is when I spent a year in Israel in ’87-’88 and there were a few people on my program from the Twin Cities and they seemed to have a very strong and positive Jewish upbringing and just had great things to say about Jewish life in Minnesota, so it was always something I sort of knew was a good thing. One of them, Joel Baskin, was living in Minnesota the summer of ’92, we came out to visit him and then we came back later, probably ’97 and we came out for his wedding in ’97.

So I guess I’d been to Minnesota twice, and only in the summer, of course so I had a good feeling about it. And then, my husband had a job opportunity in 2006. He interviewed for a job at the Sabes JCC as Director of Jewish Arts and Humanities. And then they wanted us to come out; they wanted him to start in the middle of the year, so we came in Feb. 2007 and we lived in St. Louis Park from Feb. 2007 to Aug. 2010, about 3-and-a-half years. So that is my Minnesota experience. but it actually started with meeting people from Minnesota in Israel.

Can you tell the readers of TC Jewfolk a little bit more about the story of Questioning Return?

It’s the story of a woman who goes to Israel for professional reasons, she’s a graduate student in American Religion, and she wants to go to Israel to write her dissertation. Her plan is to interview newly observant American Jews in Israel, and what she’s interested in is how they talk about their stories. You know, what interests her is the ways they see their stories and how they tell their stories because different people have different ways that they talk about themselves and their religious changes. She’s interested in situating the journey of American Jews who become more religious within a larger American context that is part of an American religious journey, people looking for self-discovery and a way to access something important that’s going to guide them in life that isn’t necessarily from a traditional understanding of what Judaism is about. In Israel, a number of things happen to her. Her relationship to Judaism and Israel and herself, her idea of herself, all change in ways she didn’t expect.

So, the main character in the novel, Wendy Goldberg, is on this journey in Israel–

By the way, I should say there is a Wendy Goldberg who lives in St. Louis Park, and I started writing this before I met her and it was just a name I chose and has no connection to her.

Are any of the events in the book inspired by real events from your own life?

A: Yeah, I mean I spent time in Israel and I have a Ph.D., so some of it is sort of about a coming-of-age story and the process of being in graduate school, and grappling with that and what it means to spend a year in Israel. But she’s a lot more committed to her career than I was; I finished my Ph.D. and I decided I wanted to write a novel. So I have had academic positions; while I was in Minnesota I taught at the University of Minnesota in the English department and I taught at Carleton College in the religion department, I taught Jewish studies for a year, and I taught at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul, I taught Jewish studies there. So I have had teaching positions but what I really wanted to publish was fiction.

My character is much more committed to academia than I was. It’s more the path not taken that she does something different than I’ve done. I was an English major in college and I studied comparative literature in graduate school, and my character studies religion, which is something that’s always interested me. Although I taught in religion departments, I never majored in religion. I’ve taken religion classes but never majored in religion. It’s something I’ve always been interested in but didn’t pursue to the same extent I pursued other things. So I would say it’s a little less autobiographical and more the path not taken. But I should also add that it’s not a dry, academic book. It’s about the drama and the emotion behind her studies.

Do you have a favorite part in the book?

Oh, that’s such a hard question. There are a lot of things I’m very proud of that I worked very hard on. I’d say what I really am proud of is that I incorporated all different kinds of art forms. I have my characters go to see an outdoor dance outside of Jerusalem, and my characters see some paintings in a private home and discuss paintings at the home of a wealthy collector; she goes to see a movie that comes up and is very resonant; there’s poetry throughout the book and pieces of the Torah and Torah text and a Talmudic text that comes up a number of times, a story about two rabbis and it means something different in each place. So I think my favorite part is that I was able to incorporate different aspects of both art and of Jewish texts in the book, in what I hope is an integrated and interesting way. But I think that I incorporated a lot of artistic expressions.

What do you hope people take away from this story?

I don’t think there’s any one thing, in particular, I want them to take away. I just think the notion that Judaism is very broad – there’s something very broad about the religion and it’s not just a specific set of observances, but it’s a way to frame and understand the world. It’s something to be taken seriously. There are a lot of ways to do that; I think there’s more than one way to be Jewish, there’s not just one path. My character’s studying people who feel they’ve found a path and this is the one path and the way to practice Judaism; she comes to realize that there’s a lot more diversity than she’s been led to believe or that she knew of at the outset. That is what she learns, and what I hope readers will learn–that Judaism encompasses a lot of ways to be Jewish and there’s a lot of diversity in Judaism, and at the same time it’s important to take it seriously, whatever that may mean.

Why do you think it’s important for American Jews to stay connected to Israel?

I was reading this article today about this movie that’s being filmed in Canada in the Haida language, which is a language that’s almost extinct. And the people who are speaking it are saying “all of our cultures is bound up in the way that we use language.” I think Israel as the repository of a living Hebrew language is so important, and the importance of knowing and understanding Hebrew, that’s been really fulfilling for me in all kinds of ways. It’s enabled me to speak to all different kinds of people I wouldn’t be able to speak to, it’s enabled me to be aware of Israeli culture. I think Israel’s the repository of the living Hebrew language in a way that is not anywhere else – I mean, obviously there are Hebrew speakers all over the world, but it’s totally different in Israel – and just as a place where Judaism is part of the fabric of daily life in a way that it isn’t elsewhere. I think being a modern Jew today and having the opportunity of having Israel there, I think it’s important for us to be connected, to know what’s happening there because it is a place where Judaism can be lived in such a visceral and meaningful way on a daily basis, so different from where it’s lived and experienced elsewhere.

How do you, as an American Jew, continue to stay connected to Israel, living here in the States?

Yeah. I’m a writer but I’m also a journalist; I’m fortunate that I’m able to do journalistic stories that are about Israel or connect to Israelis and I’m constantly in contact by email or Skype with people, or Facebook with people in Israel. It’s really important to me to know what’s going on, both personally and professionally… For me personally, my work, professionally… I just saw this wonderful Israeli movie, The Wedding Plan, I wrote an essay about it and it’s going to be in the New York Jewish Week this week, but I’d really love to interview the director if I can, that would be very interesting.

I just got a book that just came out in Israel in Hebrew, so I’m going to read that. It’ll take me a while – I don’t read as quickly as I’d like to, definitely not the way I read in English. I started on a story about this author in the past, I may do something about this author. Certainly, I read the newspaper, I read several newspapers… now it’s really easy to read things online. I take a Hebrew class once a week, it’s an advanced Hebrew class, and our teacher tells us things she hears that are going on in Israel; I try to visit as much as I can. I have a daughter who’s going to be graduating from high school in a year, and I’m hoping she’ll do a gap year in Israel so I’m hoping to go visit her while she’s there. My oldest daughter did a gap year before she went to college, so I was there visiting her. So I’ve been there in the past, I’m sending my kids to study there, and just visiting.

Also, I’ll say I’ve been working – I’d really love this to come to fruition – but I’d really love to edit an anthology of younger Hebrew writers, a newer generation of Hebrew writers. So that’s another way, professionally, I’m staying connected. I’ve written a number of articles about Israeli writers, and I’d really like to get more English-speakers interested in what Israeli writers are saying and reading their work, that’s something that’s important to me. So both professionally and personally, staying connected is important. But I think one of the places where it’s really important is to start with the language, I think it’s a really important connecting point