Author, journalist and social commentator, Beth Kissileff, has a new book out this week, Questioning Return: A Novel. Among the things I liked most about it was how easy she made it to read, while inviting us to think about some really deep issues regarding faith, identity, sexuality, and how we try to create the lives we most want to lead. Today we get to beyond the page and talk with the author about those very questions.
Hirschfield: The book is called Questioning Return and in it, you invite us all to see the importance of questions, but I am curious what makes questioning so important to you, especially in a culture which often loves answers, even poor ones, more than it does questions, even good ones?
Kissileff: I don’t like simplistic answers and want to live in a culture that values complexity so I am trying to promote a valuing of questioning as much as answers. And the pressure for a young person to find answers all at once in his or her twenties – it is an impossible task. It takes a long time to achieve success in the different realms of one’s life; our culture prioritizes those who seem to be able to get to answers right away, as young people, something we can’t all do. To me, there is a kind of heroism in asking questions.
I had the privilege of interviewing a wonderful Israeli writer Shimon Adaf and asked if I should ask him easy questions. His response? “I think it is up to the one who is going to answer, not up to the question itself. Every question can be pushed to its limit. For me all questions can be complicated. I prefer them this way.” I have to say that I agree.
Hirschfield: What about answers? Where do you think we need those in our lives, and how do we balance the need for both questions and answers, be it personally, intellectually or spiritually?
Kissileff: When I was in high school I had a very hard physics teacher and I wished she would just give me the answers sometime –“here, that’s it. You have them.” Of course, Dr. Stearns never would, as her goal was to get us to learn, but I think we all have that temptation and some of us give in. It is harder to live in a world of openness, when one is not sure of answers, whether one is doing things the right way, with no one validating you.
It is important for people not to shoehorn themselves into a set of answers that does not feel right, or into community that demands only certain types of adherents.
I think balance is necessary in anything — Maimonides’ golden path of moderation is a reasonable guidepost. Spiritually I think there are people who try to take on too much, too soon, and it creates difficulties for them and their connections to observance. Personally, whenever I open a Jewish text, I find some kind of meaningful answer. It may not always be exactly what I am looking for, or what I want the text to say, but will always hold meaning that stands up over time.
Hirschfield: Sex and sexuality plays important roles in the book, and not simply to titillate your audience. Why is that?
Kissileff: I’m glad you think the writing was not simply to titillate since my goal is to show fullness of character. Just as Judaism has something to say about all facets of human life, including sex, I wanted to say things about sex and have my characters say things about it. Besides, it will help get the movie rights sold!
Seriously, sexuality is one way character is revealed and is also a place where different types of desires conflict. Can one be religious and as a single person not have physical contact with the opposite sex? How does that play out? What if one has desires for members of the same sex and wants to also be part of a religious community in the 1990’s?[ I am pleased to say this aspect of the book feels dated, as I think it is much less of a stark conflict in the religious community, at least the more modern segments, where there is much greater acceptance today] Can that work? How? What if an older person might desire a younger one? There is a line from Jane Eyre, a book I have taught many times and know well that I use in the novel, “passions are true heathens” and I believe that. We can’t always control our passions and how we deal with them is an important topic to explore in fiction if one wants to create characters that are honest with themselves and with the world they live in.
I wanted to write about real people with real desires, whether they are complicated and create problems for them or they are able to be fulfilled. People are surprised that I have a scene where Wendy thinks an older Holocaust survivor may be checking her out on the plane; the character may be learned and religious, but he is also human. It is important to show all with their human aspects, not to make anyone into a saint. Even our greatest Biblical heroes are completely and openly flawed.
Hirschfield: One particular rabbinic tale – the story of the Sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish – is told and retold a number of times in the book, each time by a different character. What is that all about for you, and which of those tellings speak most to you personally? Or, is that like asking you to choose which is your favorite child?
Kissileff: I’m not sure at what point in the writing I realized that I had to cover it from so many angles, but I think as I read different interpretations of the story of the robber and the rabbi I thought how interesting it would be to rework the story and uncover various aspects of it in a range of situations. I wanted to have each situation would uncover a new angle of the story since like any tale in the Talmud, it has so many facets and can’t be seen only through one lens. My method, deploying the story for different ends in each situation, showcases how complex and powerful a story it is.
No, I can’t really choose, but if you force me, when Wendy and Uri are walking home from the seder and Uri tells her that what Rabbi Yochanan means by “strength for Torah” is “Remain who you are but use your strength for Torah, instead of for crime.” That to find a place for yourself in Judaism you can stay the person you are, whether it is a person of strength or an artist or poet, whatever it may be, not change it entirely.
I’ve long had a conflict between wanting to write and to be involved with Judaism – should I spend all my time on Jewish texts if this is something I am really committed to? Isn’t that the best use of my time? But my inclination is to write and to read and be involved with other types of texts too, so felt it like a very personal and satisfying answer when I read that interpretation.
I just reviewed a terrific book of stories of the Talmud by my friend Jeff Rubenstein. He said to me before I read it, that he loved these stories so much and wanted to get others to see what is in them, what they are about, why they are valuable. I hope I have done something similar in the stories I showcase.
Hirschfield: Where have you made returns in your own life, and how, if at all, have you, or do you, question them?
Kissileff: Probably the biggest for me was deciding to keep Shabbat when I started college. I told myself I would do it for a year and see what I would do after that but that I needed to try it for a year. It shaped the way my college experience was framed. I would have loved to go on the outdoor orientation experience with camping and hiking, but it would have meant going over Shabbat so I didn’t. Now, I think there is a Shabbat friendly way to experience this at my college, but then, I didn’t get to have some experiences because I was keeping Shabbat. But on the whole I’ve gained more from keeping Shabbat than I have lost. I can honestly say there are very few things I feel I’ve missed out on beyond that outdoor orientation trip.
I try to question being part of a Sabbath observant community by not remaining enmeshed only within it, but having Shabbat guests and friends and acquaintances at a variety of levels of observance, not just the same or similar ones to my own. I think there has to be an intellectual component to growth as a person and a religious person; it is a mistake to make any kind of religious group just a social one, be it social Orthodoxy or any other segment of Judaism. Judaism is more than a social club to exclude others. It is hard to be committed to something if you aren’t educated about it and most American Jews lack a deep education about their own religion.
In terms of a return in the Jewish community, it is not all it is cracked up to be at times, I see from inside some unpleasant aspects of it, being married to a rabbi. There are so many stories of rabbis treated terribly, horribly by congregants and congregations and certainly hearing them can make you question the system at times.
Hirschfield: Some say that authors write for themselves and others that they write for specific audiences. For whom did you write this book and why?
Kissileff: The question of for whom you write is like the debate I’ve had with a friend over whether having children is selfish or altruistic. It is altruistic to bring others into the world and care for them, but at the same time there is something profoundly selfish about having kids, since it is my genes that remain in the mix, preserved, and there is someone will care and remember me when I am gone. So yes, one writes for others to share something with them, let them know they are not alone, but at the same time, one does write out of personal need and desire.
I think when I started the novel, I wanted to write for people like those who went to my high school, smart and educated but not Jewishly connected, to show that it is possible to approach Judaism in an intellectual way. That religion isn’t only for those who go to extremes of religiosity but that there is a value and a place for Judaism in the lives of those who are modern and intellectual, and cynical and snarky and suspicious of the whole enterprise too. In a way, my book has an examination of what liberal religion is, as opposed to fundamentalist religion.
I write for anyone who wants to read me, and it has been so exciting to begin to connect with readers and discuss their ideas about what I’ve done and why, but at the same time I am grateful to have had a number of other writers read my work too. When other writers, who know what goes into creating a character and constructing a plot, can complement specific details about things I’ve done, I find it incredibly satisfying when they connect with my work. I certainly feel like I’ve succeeded if any reader finds the work meaningful.
The real reason I wrote? When I began to write, I was stuck in Raleigh, NC with a small child and a spouse working long hours, and I wanted to go back to a different time in my life, when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities. I missed Israel, and wanted to find a way to return and spend time there if only in my imagination. My teacher, the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, told me my first year in college that one writes to explore the path not taken. I didn’t get it then, but I certainly do now.
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