Yona Stern has traveled from New York to Israel to make amends with her estranged sister, a stoic ideologue and mother of five who has dedicated herself to the radical West Bank settlement cause. Yona's personal life resembles nothing of her sister's, but it isn't politics that drove the two apart. Now a respected Jerusalem Talmud teacher, Mark Greenglass was once a drug dealer saved by an eleventh-hour turn to Orthodox Judaism. But for reasons he can't understand, he's lost his once fervent religious passion. Is he through with God? Is God through with him? Enter Aaron Blinder, a year-abroad dropout with a history of failure whose famous father endlessly--some say obsessively--mines the Holocaust for his best-selling, melodramatic novels. Desperate for approval, Aaron finds a home on the violent fringe of Israeli society, with unforeseen and devastating consequences. In a sweeping, beautifully written story, Joan Leegant, winner of the PEN New England Book Award and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, weaves together three lives caught in the grip of a volatile and demanding faith. Emotionally wrenching and unmistakably timely, Wherever You Go shines a light on one of the most disturbing elements in Israeli society: Jewish extremist groups and their threat to the modern, democratic state. This is a stunningly prescient novel.
Joan Leegant’s novel is set in Jerusalem and introduces three main
Wherever You Go takes a hard look at faith, religion, religious zeal, and the senselessness of violence in the name of God. Leegant takes her time developing the characters, and this was an aspect of the book I appreciated. Each of the characters shares a struggle with faith, although they come to it from vastly different places.
Mark Greenglass is perhaps the most sympathetic character. He has pulled himself free of a drug addiction and become a Talmudic scholar, but he cannot let go of his past. Greenglass struggles to understand why he feels empty despite his strong faith. He regrets that the one woman he has loved is in a spiral of despair and drugs, and that he is unable to help her. As Greenglass looks deep within his heart, he begins to understand what he is missing.
There is was, right in front of him. The truth: Love. He had avoided love his whole adult life. He’d told himself it was because of the religion, that he’d be with a woman only in the proper way, with chaste dates and a correct betrothal, or else that his life was uncertain, too unstable, that it wasn’t the right time or the right place. – from Wherever You Go, page 99 -
Yona is a woman who has made terrible mistakes in her life – one of which has separated her from her sister, Dena, and caused her to devalue herself. She seeks forgiveness from her sister, but is unprepared for what she finds in the West Bank settlement. Dena is living a life of blind faith and radical beliefs, yet her heart is coldly closed to Yona. Through Yona, the reader comes face to face with the sacrifice which people who are dedicated to radical causes make.
Dena gave brisk, unapologetic answers. No, she was not afraid to drive anywhere. Five kids plus a job was not unusual there, children learned early that they were required to help. She was not fearful for them; they were part of something bigger, a higher purpose. What will happen, will happen. What mattered was having a life with meaning. Sometimes sacrifices had to be made. - from Wherever You Go, page 139 -
Finally, there is Aaron. A young man who has grown up in the shadow of the Holocaust through the work of his father – an author who only writes about the hatred of the Nazis toward the Jews. Aaron longs for his father to see him and accept him for who he is, but he feels unworthy. For Aaron, the violence of a fringe group makes him feel he is doing something important.
But the real God was here, in this place, and Aaron knew it. He felt the hand of the Almighty Avenger guiding him, touching him on his very shoulder, looking down at him from this cracked ceiling in this miserable outpost on the edge of the scorpion desert where a hundred battles had been fought and where so much blood had soaked into the earth that even the mountains had turned red. – from Wherever You Go, page 85 -
There is a feeling of relentless inevitability in Leegant’s novel – a feeling that we are on an unavoidable collision course. As the characters move closer together, their paths about to cross, the reader begins to sense doom. It is a feeling all too often experienced when we turn on the nightly news and watch the violence, terror and fear unfolding around the world. What Leegant does in this important novel is give the reader a glimpse into the minds of those who carry out violence in the name of a radical cause. She demonstrates the senselessness of violence; shows us the faces of the victims; and forces us to consider the issues that divide nations and people.
Joan Leegant is a talented writer – a writer who does not shy away from the uncomfortable emotions that arise from religious conflict. Wherever You Go is a provocative novel which will leave readers wondering where, in fact, we are going when it comes to faith and religion. This is a reflective novel and an important look at Jewish extremist groups, although its message could extend to any religious extremist group.
Readers who enjoy historical and literary fiction, or who are interested in the Israeli conflict, will want to pick up a copy of Wherever You Go.
Questions like these make me appreciate novels that offer a glimpse into that world, books that speak with authority and insight about what it is really like there. Joan Leegent’s Wherever You Go is one of the better books of this type I have read in 2011.
Wherever You Go is the story of how three very different American Jews, strangers all, converge in Israel only to have their lives forever changed by circumstances none could have foreseen. Yona Stern is there in hopes of reconciling with the sister who has not spoken to her for ten years but finds that Dana, by now a hardcore West Bank settlement zealot, wants nothing to do with her. Mark Greenglass, a respected Talmud scholar who initially returned to his religion as a means of escaping the addiction that was killing him, is back from a family visit to New York and wondering where his religious fervor has gone. And young college student, Aaron Binder, finds himself drawn to a radical fringe group and its charismatic leader after deciding to stay in Israel a while longer before returning to the U.S.
Leegent tells their individual stories in alternating chapters, building each character layer by layer until they seem very real to her readers. They have very different lives, and at first do not seem to have much in common until one realizes that the three of them have come to Israel seeking the same thing: a fresh start on the rest of their lives. Yona needs her sister’s forgiveness if she is to move on; Mark needs to reconcile his inner religious turmoil before he can do the same; and Aaron is desperately seeking an affirmation of his self-worth, something his overbearing father has long denied him.
Just about the point at which some readers might begin to wonder what Leegent intends for her characters, one of them will make the fatal decision that brings them together for the first time. It is a tragic choice, one made for all the wrong reasons, and it has the potential to ruin the futures of Yona, Mark, and Aaron.
Wherever You Go is a gut-wrenching look at how one brief moment can change lives forever. Three people: an unobservant Jew, a Jewish religious scholar in the process of losing his faith, and an unstable radical, come together in a collision authored by sheer chance. None of them will be the same.
Rated at: 4.5
Yona Stern travels to Israel to seek forgiveness from her sister for a past sin. The book opens with Yona’s arrival at the airport, and the novel in many ways is about why Jewish Americans travel to Israel. “The metallic clanging. The loudspeakers blaring in five languages. The luggage carousel coughed up its half-digested suitcases.” Leegant is masterful with descriptions throughout the novel, and this opening scene will undoubtedly be familiar to many readers who have made the journey.
This is not Yona’s first trip to Israel. In fact, her grievous sin against her sister was committed on a past trip. The reader learns from the customs agent that the name Yona means dove in Hebrew. Her sister’s name, Dena, means judgment. Dena, a mother of five and pregnant again, is part of the settlement movement, which is viewed as radical by some. She is stoic and unrelenting. The symbolism in the novel is clear.
The second character the novel follows is Mark Greenglass, an ex-drug dealer turned talented Talmud teacher. While the novel opens with Yona arriving in Israel, the first time the reader meets Mark he is stepping off a train in New York having come from Israel to deliver a series of lectures. Leegant writes:
"He was a fake. An imposter. It was all falling apart and he couldn’t stop it. He ought to pull off the yarmulke, the tzitzit fringes, throw them into the trash. Everything was unraveling and he didn’t know why, only that it was slipping away from him like so much water from his fingertips. One day it’s the organizing principle of your life, and the next it’s nothing. Gone, evaporated."
Mark is struggling with his faith, but like Yona, the internal struggle is tied to the aching need for atonement. As he thinks about how he has skipped the morning and afternoon prayers, he muses:
"And now he was going to skip them all again. In the place where the whole business began. New York. Where he’d descended with Regina and climbed back out alone. The irony was not lost on him. He was giving it up in the place where all that hot desire for the holy had first taken root."
While in New York, Mark wants to help Regina, his first love. Religion saved him, but he left her behind. She is caught in the nightmare of drug addiction, and now he is wavering in the very thing that took him away.
Also like Yona, Mark feels ostracized by his family. Mark’s father, Lenny, is all business and money. He has no interest in religion or art or anything remotely emotional. Yona and Dena are polar opposites, as are Mark and his father.
The third main character in the novel is the one that ultimately brings them all together. Aaron Blinder is a young college dropout, lost and lonely in the world. As I said before, the symbolism is clear. Aaron is appropriately named.
He, like Yona and Mark, is a family outcast. His lack of ambition and series of failures embarrasses his father, a famous Jewish American writer whose books focus on the Holocaust. Aaron desperately wants to be a part of something important. He wants to be a success. He wants his father to look at him with pride. While living in an extremist commune on the edge of Israeli territory, not fitting in, not respected by the Israelis:
"He felt the hand of the almighty Avenger guiding him, touching him on his very shoulder, looking down at him from this cracked ceiling in this miserable outpost on the edge of the scorpion desert where a hundred battles had been fought and where so much blood had soaked into the earth that even the mountains had turned red."
Aaron’s naiveté and desperation blindly leads him to violence, which brings the characters together and becomes the denouement of the novel.
I really enjoyed the novel because there are so many layers of themes, symbols, and character conflicts. There are the main characters with their personal conflicts and stories- the theme of atonement through sacrifice. On another level they represent Jewish Americans who feel drawn to Israel for political and religious reasons. They want to be a part of something bigger and more important than themselves; yet, as a taxi driver tells Yona in the novel:
“Americans will always be new. No matter how long they’re here… They could be here thirty years, even fifty, and they’ll still be new. Except maybe if they shed blood. Then maybe someone might say they belong.”
At one point Eyal, an Israeli, tells Yona:
“The radical settlers I know, and believe me, I have a few in my family closet, they need black and white. They don’t like the gray… they like absolutes. And drama. They don’t want to be ordinary people thinking about car payments and bank overdraft. They want a big life. Historical, theatrical.”
And this ideology drives Aaron to action. It is the tension between the epic history of the land and everyday life in a democracy. Leegant captures the nuances and themes in beautiful prose.
Wherever You Go was published in paperback in July 2011 by W.W. Norton. Leegant won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction for her collection of short stories, An Hour in Paradise. She lives half the year in New England and half in Israel where she teaches at Bar-Ilan University. I look forward to reading more of her work.
Mark's family has a hard time accepting his new beliefs. Aaron has a hard time accepting his father's work and fame. Yona hurt her sister deeply ten years earlier and is now trying to reconcile with her. The three individuals are incredibly different and remain separate for the majority of the book. At times I felt like I didn't get to know them as well as I would have liked because it does bounce between the stories so quickly.
Leegant focuses on the role religion plays in a person's life. Should it justify any behavior? Should it come between personal relationships? What are the driving motivations behind our actions that we often attribute to faith? All of which are fascinating questions, though I don't think the books' goal is to answer any of them.
At times, the story reminded me of Nicole Krauss' Great House or Everything Beautiful Began After. Both books feature multiple characters who are, at first, unconnected and are brought together by a major event. The difference, for me, was the writing. Both of those books rely heavily on beautiful prose and that's what made me connect to them in the end.
So, overall, an interesting read and one that's perfect for anyone who's particularly interested in Israel or looking at the role religion plays in your life. I wish I could have connected more with the main characters, but I'm still glad I read it.
Yona, Mark and Aaron are all at a point in their lives where they are looking for something more. After floating, trying to figure out where they belong, they end up back at their roots looking for answers. These three lives are different, but similar enough to tie together beautifully. The questions of faith and commitment are deeply ingrained in this book, along with both personal and external reflections. Although this book revolves around Jewish faith, there is a lot here that expands beyond that other religions. It is definitely a reflective read that will cause you to mull over the bigger picture.
What really hampered my enjoyment of this book though was the pivotal event that ties all of these people together. I won't spoil it, but it really felt rather convenient and forced to me. After that I felt like the characters were just rushed into the ending. All the growing, learning and introspection that they had accomplished just seemed to fade, as the ending loomed. It's not that I didn't understand why the book had this turn, I did. I just felt like the first half of the book was so much more fascinating and deep than the second half.
Unlike anything else I've read lately, this story was laden with insights about Israeli and American culture, as well as humanity as a whole. These characters are deep and well portrayed, but their lives seemed to never come to a nice closure for me. Overall I enjoyed Wherever You Go enough to finish it and keep thinking about it even after. I quite honestly would have loved it even more if the climax hadn't been so rushed.
Wherever You Go is that rare literary gem that seamlessly takes the reader through tough times and complicated emotions from the perspectives of multiple characters.
The novel highlights three main characters, each vastly different, but all compelling. First is Yona
Mark Greenglass is a Jewish scholar, an American living in Jerusalem, briefly home in New York to teach a series at a Jewish institute near his parents' home. But Mark feels like a "fake", his enthusiasm for religion waning:
"Still into religion. Though religion's not helping me much these days. A temporary salve, it appears. Had a good long run, but something's happened, I don't know what. I go through the motions, but I don't feel it. Not anymore" (pg. 31).
Another catalyst in Mark's life is his past and his first love, Regina, for whom he's never stopped feeling responsible.
The third main character is Aaron Blinder, the son of a well-known writer of Holocaust-centered historical fiction. Aaron comes to Jerusalem from the United States to study abroad, but soon fails out of his courses and begins to wander. He takes up residency at Adamah, a radical collective dedicated to ensuring Israel belongs to the Jews. He quickly determines to prove himself to Schroeder, the group's leader, by planning and enacting his own "planned incident" against the Arabs.
Each character comes into the story with emotional baggage that they will either rise above or succumb to as the story progresses. Leegant makes this clear from the beginning: each character is on a trip, and each thinks s/he has "brought too much".
The stories unfold beautifully: building suspense, rearranging the reader's first impressions of the characters, and bringing them together seamlessly. The final message is one of hope amid violence, extremism, and political turmoil. The novel champions life over death, love over hate, and hope for the future over the despair of the past.
Overall, Joan Leegant has created a captivating novel that transports its readers into Israel's political and ideological struggles on the micro level, showing how such conflicts affect individuals and their families. I highly recommend Wherever You Go to readers who enjoy literary fiction that tackles thorny issues and the human condition.
When I first read the description of Wherever You Go, it was instantly a book that I wanted to read. When I
It’s no secret that when I read a book I look for great characters. I must say that reading this book, I grew to care for each of the three main characters almost immediately. They were just so human with faults and worries and they were all looking for something. Yona, Mark, and Aaron could be any of the people we pass on the street any given day and that fact only made the book easier for me to read.
As for the story, and the lives of these three people who find what they need in a place they never really expected to end up… Well, that is just another one of the pieces of the story that makes the book unputdownable. Wherever You Go is realistic in a way I don’t always see in literature, and it was quite honestly, refreshing.
I also couldn’t end this without saying that the writing is absolutely beautiful. Even if the story or characters hadn’t grabbed me I would’ve kept on reading because Leegant’s writing was simply stunning. I highly recommend reading Wherever You Go, simply because it’s a great novel. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for other works from Joan Leegant.
**I received a copy of this book from the publisher as a part of TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.