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What’s Not There: Soul-Searching in Israel

On a plane ride to Israel, an academic, feeling alone, enters into a conversation with a professor of Talmud who encourages her to seek answers in Jerusalem

Beth Kissileff
November 11, 2016
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
A Palestinian man walks past the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compoundin Jerusalem's Old City, November 11, 2016. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
A Palestinian man walks past the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compoundin Jerusalem's Old City, November 11, 2016. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

“Who is asking?“

“No one’s ever questioned that. I’m the one who grills the subjects,” Wendy responded.

“So we’re reversing it now,” Jacob Lamdan added, smiling. “How did you get to your dissertation topic?”

Wendy looked at him and sighed gently, trying to suppress the queasiness she’d been feeling since the plane’s take-off in New York, still with her in the air, now somewhere over Europe. “I almost didn’t. I’m studying newly religious American Jews in Jerusalem, to see how they discuss changes they’ve made in their lives. What they feel they’ve gained, what lost, what is constant, what radically new in their religious incarnation. I can’t believe I’m finally on this plane; I only got a dissertation Fulbright late last spring, after being rejected from everything else. So,” she said pausing, both hesitant to declare her pride in an as-yet unwritten project and proud of her achievement thus far, “I guess it was basherte.” Her use of the Yiddish word was unnatural for a third generation American in her twenties; it was solely to impress Lamdan, a professor of Talmud at Princeton, where she was a graduate student in Religious Studies.

He gazed at her, sitting next to him, closer together than they would be anywhere other than the cramped seats of an international plane flight. “I have a hard time with this thing fate. If everything is so basherte, why am I here, when so many others who deserve to be alive more much more, are not? I can’t accept that all is foreseen. Humans have free will. Sometimes, we make terrible mistakes.”

Wendy’s left arm was on the armrest of the seat to his right. She could see the indelible mark of the six blue digits on his left arm even in the hazy dimness of this not yet morning hour. “But you’re religious? Do you really mean there’s no basherte, no… greater power… behind it all?”

He was surprised by her question; students weren’t usually bold enough to challenge him. Most held him in awe, and approached him with reverence, distance. Lamdan never had Wendy in class; even though she was a student in his department, she didn’t have the Hebrew background to take his type of courses. Had they been somewhere else, he would probably never have thought to answer her seriously.

“No simple answers, young lady.”

She decided, glancing sideways at him, not to let go of the matter. “The people I’m studying don’t seem to think so. The prevailing view is that once you make a leap of faith, it’s all easy.”

Halivei, would it were so. Listen, I’ll tell you a story.”

Wendy liked the soothing cadences of his voice, the soft accent his first languages, Yiddish and Hungarian, lent to his English. His voice and tone were melodic, as though he would begin to chant a sacred text at any moment. She had never sat so close to a professor; their knees were aligned, virtually touching. His frail skinny body, forty or fifty years older than hers, wasn’t attractive. His stomach was practically concave, skin pale, and his clear blue eyes as sharp as the laser of his intellect, able to bore into unprepared students and terrify them, she had heard from departmental chatter. His soft smile and the crinkles at the edges of his eyes made her want to imagine what he’d looked like as a teenager, at ease, before he was taken to Auschwitz. Her qualms about being on the plane, whether she’d be able to do this project, how it would be to live in a foreign country, seemed insignificant and minor when she thought of the difficulties he had faced in life. She was ready to listen.

“There were two men, a robber and a rabbi. The rabbi was famed for his beauty, so much that he would stand outside the ritual bath as women left it and tell them to look at him and wish for children as beautiful as he.”

She listened and felt entranced by the lyric singsong of his voice telling a story. But she couldn’t stop her rational self from asking questions. “What kind of person would do that? It’s so… arrogant?”

“Maybe. Or, he knew the impact of his beauty? In any case, one day he was bathing in the Jordan River, and a robber jumped in after him, an incredible athletic leap. From afar, the robber thought the beardless rabbi was a beautiful woman, perhaps he wanted to rape her. When the robber got close to him, the rabbi said marveling, ‘your strength should be for Torah.’ The robber said, mocking him, ‘your beauty should be for women.’ The rabbi said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. You like my beauty? Come, repent, use your strength for Torah in my yeshiva, and I’ll marry you to my sister who is more beautiful than I.”

Wendy, intrigued, asked, “Did the robber take the deal?”

Lamdan continued, “Absolutely. He went and studied, and married the rabbi’s sister.”

“So, the robber saw the light. That’s it?”

“Everything is fine until one day in the study hall, they’re discussing weapons and how to determine whether a weapon is ready to use. The rabbi turns to the former robber and says, ‘share your expertise. You’re a thief, you know your weapons.’”

“But he hasn’t been a thief for years now, right?”

“This is where the story gets interesting. The robber says, ‘how have you benefited me? I was called ‘rabbi,’ master, among the thieves, and here I’m called ‘rabbi’ too. You’ve done nothing for me.’ The rabbi became depressed about the robber’s anger, and the former robber became sick, physically ill. His wife, the rabbi’s sister, remember, asked her brother to pray for her husband, so she wouldn’t be a widow, and his nieces and nephews orphans.” Lamdan looked over at Wendy and added, “The rabbi refused.”

“That’s terrible. Shouldn’t he have some responsibility for his student, his brother-in-law?”

Lamdan shrugged.

Wendy demanded, “What happened? Did the robber get better?”

“He died.”

“And the rabbi?”

“He mourned him. He died soon after, grieving for his friend and student.”

“But it was his fault, his insult led to the man’s death.”

“Yes, a hundred percent,” agreed Lamdan.

“But…” Wendy was frustrated, “Why? A rabbi tried to change the life of a thief and then threw his past back in his face. I don’t see a lesson.”

Lamdan said, gently, softly, in his European inflected accent, “It’s not simple. It seems to be a lovely narrative, one man convinces another to change. It turned tragic. Being religious, asking others to be…. it’s not simple either.”

“In the narratives I’ve come across, subjects say once they decide to be religious, everything else falls into place.”

“Your task should be to question that.” Lamdan looked at his seatmate. “Find the places where they doubt. Being a returnee is never simple. Even when someone has been religious a very long time, something can come along and disturb him.”

Wendy said, “I see.” She added, “That is part of what I am trying to do, to see how people talk about themselves and the changes they’ve made in their lives, to capture the faultlines and fissures in their identity.”

“Be careful. A rabbi caused a tragedy by throwing the past at his student and friend. You are asking people to tell their stories.”


“Be aware of the effect you have on others.”

Wendy was unsure what it was that he was implying. The passenger around them were sleeping, the plane dark, and she was sitting incredibly close to him. He added, “It takes training to get someone to speak about his life. That’s why we value psychiatrists, they help their patients create healing narratives. You aren’t trying to heal people, but the power you have in asking them to tell their story, it can’t be measured. You don’t want to remind a person he was once a thief, in the language of the story.”

Wendy shrugged her shoulders quickly. “You’re making me nervous. I’m talking to people but I’m not …well I’m asking their life stories, but…” she stammered.

“I’ll tell you my story. I began life as a Hasid, I learnt with my grandfather. I was a prodigy, wealthy men would come and give me a lei, a coin, for reciting Gemara. When I was deported, I kept learning and teaching others in the camp. My learning wasn’t the same, I could never go back to what I did as an innocent child. Before the war, when I learned with my grandfather, I heard the voices of the souls who commented on the text float out of the page and fill the room. After the war, instead of the gemara niggun of study I used to hear, I’d hear the screams of my grandfather and the others who were murdered. I study the same texts, but I take a critical approach now. I had to see the text differently. It helped me remain in the framework of tradition, but without the mute relationship to the text I had in my early life. I needed to be critical to stay religious, to remain accepting of a God who could create a world in which evil wields such great power.”

Wendy decided silence was the best response.

“Religion is never an all or nothing proposition. There are cycles, ups and downs. The story I told you, the rabbi and the thief, things are fine until the rabbi insults the thief. Those careless words result in both their deaths. For me, religion.… there’s no basherte …. there is something to hold on to. I have faith in God, it’s a relationship. I can feel angry at God, furious, resentful. My wife has been gone, almost a year now, she suffered so much at the end. I don’t know how or why a merciful God could inflict a painful illness on someone who had a lifetime of suffering before her teens were over. I can’t answer all my questions, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ask them, can’t be thinking and religious. I need my faith as an anchor, it ….I can’t have faith in humans, I need another power. And Israel…’ll see spending a year in Israel, every day there is truly a miracle.”

“I guess. I’ve been thinking more about how it will be to be writing my dissertation, finally, launching my academic career. Much less about being in Israel itself, odd as that sounds,” she confessed. She didn’t want him to see her as ungrateful for her opportunities, so she hastened to add, “I am taking ulpan this year to improve my Hebrew. I’ve done French and German, but haven’t had a chance to work on my Hebrew yet.”

“A good start. Try to do some learning too this year.”

“I’m a graduate student, of course I’m learning.”

Lamdan laughed, “No, I mean lernen, in the Yiddish sense of the word, learning Jewish texts. It isn’t central to your dissertation, but … you might find what you need, as a Jew.”

“Maybe. I liked your story about the rabbi and the thief.”

“There are many more where that came from. Look, you’re a bright person, spend some time thinking about who you are, a Jew. You have time now, as a graduate student, without the burdens of teaching and family responsibilities.” He paused taking just a bit too long to look at her, the glance more penetrating than she preferred. She remembered hearing something about how female graduate students fared under him, but wasn’t sure what it was. She tried to move away from him slightly but couldn’t go far because she was wedged into the cramped seat of the plane, “You are asking things of others, but the questions may turn back to you, Wendy. Sometimes questions help you decide who you are. Or might be.”

The lights went on in the cabin and an announcement about when breakfast would be served came over the plane’s speaker system. Their heads had been quite close together, speaking softly so as not to disturb the surrounding sleeping passengers. They were both startled by the light and began blinking, as if they had shared some kind of intimacy that was less appropriate in the illumination.

Wendy was at a loss for words now, in the light.

“Do you mind getting up?” he asked. “I need to daven shaharit.

“Nice to talk to you, thanks for the advice,” she said rising from her seat and moving into the aisle.

He followed her and rose also, stepping into the aisle. “May I ask you a favor? I have a bad back and can’t reach up. Can you get my tefillin, that blue velvet bag, out of the overhead bin?”

Wendy nodded and reached above her, pressing the latch of the compartment in. As she did, she felt his eyes on her chest, close. She shifted to the right, away from him, and reached up to find the bag. Fortunately, it was at the edge of the compartment. She plucked it out quickly and handed it to him, closing the hatch. He hadn’t done anything inappropriate, maybe it was her imagination, feeling vulnerable and exposed, reaching up. I should stop being suspicious of people, she thought. But her musing continued, gazing at Lamdan, sometimes suspicions were warranted. Even in the Talmud, two men trust each other for years, and then with a few words, betrayal.

“Thank you Wendy,” he said, and called out in Yiddish to a passing Hasid in black hat, peyot, long black jacket and pants. The man replied in Yiddish and nodded, as Lamdan started following the man to the end of the plane, where Wendy could see a group of men, beginning to gather in the limited space, to don tallis and tefillin.

Watching, she felt left out, alone. Not that she wished to be one of them, but it seemed cozy, the little group of men, sharing the same activity, binding themselves with the black leather straps to God, to their faith. It was something she could never be part of, though she did see a woman in the back, standing at a respectful distance from the men. She had blond curly hair, very frizzy and thick, like a mane ringing her pretty round face, holding a prayer book and intoning her own prayers. The woman’s face looked like something out of a Dutch painting, Rembrandt or Vermeer, precise but lighted well, the light from the windows of the plane landing on the white of the prayer book which then seemed to reflect up to her face. What had Lamdan said about the Torah being a source of light, bouncing out, and being reflected back? A painter would depict this scene well, she mused, showing the holiness coming off the books into the faces. Wendy though noting the woman’s loveliness still had to conjecture cynically whether the fervor emanating from her face at prayer could last over time.

Her gaze turned to Lamdan himself. Wendy was suddenly embarrassed by the unnatural proximity of the plane, seeing religious men so fervent, so close up. Lamdan looked sincere, binding himself in his tefillin. As he had departed with the Yiddish-speaking Hasid, he said to her, “I can’t study with them, but I can pray with them. That’s the most important thing.” She wasn’t sure quite what he meant. She wanted to connect it to what he said about his need to be questioning of the tradition, yet nurtured by it. Critical in study, comforted in prayer; it seemed like a nice balance.

The men at the front of the plane bound themselves in their leather straps, kissing the boxes, putting them on their heads, opening their prayerbooks, their expressions changing as they opened the books, she couldn’t tell exactly why or how. They all looked raw, exposed, like someone had rubbed off a layer of skin that is usually kept on the outside, camouflaging true expression, and now their emotional selves were on public display. The face of a man about to come during sex came into her head. She tried to get rid of it, such a profane analogy, but she saw in the daveners the same fervor, concentration, rush of emotion, the total being in the moment that nothing could intervene to break the focus. Usually during sex, she kept her eyes closed, but sometimes, she liked to see her partner’s face, to fathom who he was, what he wanted.

These men did not expect to be watched. Lamdan didn’t glance her way once, his frail body encased in the group of men around him. As more men, from other parts of the plane gathered, it was harder for her to see him. She wondered what it was like to have that trancelike state, connection to a higher power, as she remained by Lamdan’s seat and stared at the men at prayer.

Dossim, what you want with them?” said the Israeli guy with the nose stud and tattoos who had been sitting in the row in front of her as he walked past on the way to the bathroom. He didn’t stay to hear her response. There were other people trying to get by her in the aisle. Finally the flight attendant with the breakfast cart needed to go by. Wendy was embarrassed both to be caught staring and to be in the way of so many people.

Wendy returned to her seat and looked out the airplane’s small windows to see sunrise, lavish pink streaks extending across the sky, the glory of the sun only glancing out carefully through the clouds. The miniscule size of the airplane window only heightened the vastness of the vista. She was startled by the unexpected beauty; she wished she had her camera. She remembered something the photographer Diane Arbus wrote, “I really believe there are things nobody would see unless I photographed them.” That was the essence of what Wendy hoped to do this year: see fascinating and beautiful things, and help others see them by writing about them.

What she’d said to Lamdan was true, this trip, her whole dissertation almost didn’t happen. She came to her doctoral dissertation topic in a totally meandering way, completely by indirection. Her senior year in college, she needed a thesis topic and decided to write on the changes American life wrought on the practice of Buddhism. She loved the process of writing a longer research paper–the time for rumination and digestion of facts, the ability to take the time to consider and re-arrange one’s work, the digging in books for nuggets of information that will encapsulate a thesis, provide it with the necessary verve and philosophical underpinnings. She found her time in Columbia’s Butler Library thrilling, exhilarating even. Writing a thesis made her certain that graduate school was the right path.

Doing the work of her senior thesis Wendy loved, but the topic itself, not so much. She felt apart from it, not quite invested in the why of its importance. She didn’t understand entirely the schisms that led to different strands of the religion, Mahayana versus Theravada Buddhism, and the regions of the world where it was practiced. It just wasn’t her, she finally concluded, though she loved examining the impact of America on a religious group. Once finished, she had decided she would continue to work in the field of American religion, to be able to teach about the Shakers and Quakers, Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, and how individualism and democracy in America impacted religious identity. She almost went to study with a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis. When Wendy went up to Boston to meet him, he told her that he himself had trained not in Jewish studies, but American history and that he saw his work on lives of Jews in America as a subset of American history. So, she decided to do the same and study Judaism within American religion at the best department in the field, to work at Princeton, with Cliff Conrad. The work behind choosing a dissertation topic was how to put issues she found fascinating into a dissertation that would position her as a saleable commodity in the limited academic job market. This made her subject to the vagaries of hot topics that students would flock to take courses on, thus increasing departmental enrollment and clout within the university. Her dissertation topic needed to demonstrate her command and understanding of the field as well as establish a base for her future scholarly work. Wendy wanted to do a Jewish topic. It couldn’t require extensive Hebrew knowledge that she did not have, and needed to equip her for positions in American religion, not Jewish studies. One day, complaining on the phone to Nina Distler, her best friend from growing up in Westchester, Nina said, “Debby. Write about her.”

Nina’s sister Debby was now Devorah, morphed with the vowel shift from casual English “e” to the Hebraic long “o” from a tennis playing, roller skating all American kid, to a sheitel wearing, Torah studying mother of children with impossible to pronounce names. Yerachmiel Zvi was followed by Baila Bracha and Sheindel Menucha. In high school, Wendy had accompanied Nina for Shabbos in Crown Heights to help her friend deal with it all on more than one occasion. At Nina’s suggestion, the dissertation was born, and its title was similarly lifted from the speech patterns of Devorah’s newly religious cohort. Wendy’s magnum opus-in-progress was titled ’It was Basherte’:Narrative and Self-Identity in the lives of Newly Religious American Jews.’ Little did Debby Distler know, back when she left for Israel before college, that she was going to inspire her kid sister’s friend to spend a year studying people like her.

There was something at stake for Wendy in writing this dissertation, different from her senior thesis. Wendy was curious about whether Debby, or other returnees, had changed at all. Her scholarship came with a sense of nosiness and voyeurism, wanting to snoop into corners of belief that their adherents would prefer to leave untouched and unexamined. But still it was something she had to know–was there something left behind, some remainder of who Debby had been before, or was it all as covered as her naturally strawberry blond hair? This driven inquisitiveness, the need to know if anyone can really change, went beyond the professional.

What Wendy wanted above all, what every graduate student desired, was to know whether all this effort, all this seemingly endless deferral of anything besides graduate school, would ever pay off. Would she work hard at her dissertation, get a series of one year jobs, and then end up living with her parents and going to law school? She hoped only that if she kept going, continued on the path she’d set down, following the steps, courses, research, dissertation idea, fellowships, she would have a sense, eventually, of the rightness of it all. But if she were entirely sure, it wouldn’t leave room for new possibilities. She had to hope going forth into the unknown would lead to something good.

A decisive moment. A moment when the viewer realized she was seeing something that was there, was actual, but unable to seen without the photographer’s lens. Wendy Goldberg hoped, in writing her dissertation in Jerusalem this year to perform a similar feat.

Excerpted from Questioning Return. Copyright © 2016 by Beth Kissileff and reprinted by permission of Mandel Vilar Press.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at