For me, 2005 has been the Year of Nonfiction. For whatever reason – possibly because it’s easier to read with constant toddler interruption – quite a bit of it crossed my palms this past year. A month or so ago I read one of this year’s best-sellers, Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I found the subject matter interesting, but it was the prose that really captured my attention. Among other subjects, the book gave a good deal of its attention to crime and criminals, but the authors’ tone was decidedly non-judgmental. They managed to convey both the viewpoints and the humanity of their subjects while clearly illustrating the negative consequences the crimes they committed precipitated. This intrigued me, so I went looking online for other books either author might have written. And I found Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return To His Jewish Family.
As the title states, this is a conversion story – a double conversion story, told in three parts. The author, Stephen Dubner, grew up in upstate New York, the youngest child in a big Catholic family. His parents were the most devout people he knew. They prayed the rosary daily with their children, were very active in the local parish, and were involved in the Charismatic Catholic renewal movement. All of their children’s names included some variant of either “Mary” or “Joseph.” What Dubner didn’t know until he reached adulthood was the story of how they came to be so devout. His parents, Veronica and Paul Dubner, started life out as Florence Greenglass and Solomon Dubner. They were second-generation New York City Jews who, at the end of World War II, both converted to Catholicism and left their old lives behind. Completely.
The fact that Veronica and Paul were Jewish wasn’t a secret, it was simply never discussed. Other than Paul’s fondness for Gefilte fish and matzo and his occasional singing of a Yiddish song, neither Veronica nor Paul seemed at all Jewish. They had left their families, their upbringing, their cultural heritage and their Judaism itself back in NYC. Jews were an “other,” completely foreign to the Dubner children. It never occurred to them that by right of birth they themselves would be considered Jews. Or at least it never occurred to anyone until Stephen grew up and moved to New York City. There he began his journey back to Judaism and his search for the people his parents once were.
One of the more poignant aspects to Dubner’s story is the fact that Paul Dubner died in 1973 when Stephen was ten. Much page space is devoted to spiritual searching, i.e., Stephen’s detachment from his religion of birth, Catholicism, and his attraction to his religion of birthright, Judaism. But though he finds meaning in Judaism and beauty in Jewish cultural traditions, the impetus for his conversion is really a search for his father. His memories of him are few. Paul was a good man, a hardworking one. He loved his wife and his God dearly, and he was a caring father. Knowing these things isn’t enough for Stephen. He wants to understand what made the man tick and, most importantly, why did he turn his back on everything he was raised believing?
Unfortunately for Stephen, the gatekeeper of most of this information is his mother, and she doesn’t know the answers to his questions – either that or she isn’t telling. Veronica is a strong woman, a woman completely defined by her faith. To her Judaism is an antiquated religion superseded by Christianity, and the idea that Stephen would return to it isn’t worth thinking about.
Turbulent Souls is divided into three parts. The first is told in third-person and describes the histories of Solomon and Florence and their immigrant parents. Dubner details what it was like for them growing up. Solomon’s parents were Orthodox, and his father, Shepsel, sat shiva for him when he learned of his conversion. The two never spoke again, and Shepsel forbade anyone to speak Solomon’s name. Florence’s parents weren’t religious, but the family wasn’t close. Florence was a ballerina on her way to fame and fortune, personally influenced by her ballet teacher, also a Catholic convert. Poised on the edge of potential stardom, she broke her foot, which she took as a sign that she was meant for a different, more spiritual path. Soon after she met Solomon, and the two married and began having children.
The second part of the book is told in the first-person and describes the kind of life “Paul” and “Veronica” forged for themselves and their children on a farm in upstate New York. The author depicts his Eden-like childhood in loving detail. In the third section Dubner tells of his attraction to Judaism and the process of his slow conversion. He also addresses the toll his conversion took on his relationship with his mother.
The best nonfiction reads like fiction in that it grabs the reader’s attention and makes her care about what happens to the subject. This is that kind of nonfiction. Stephen Dubner is very sympathetic as a narrator, but he doesn’t hesitate to enumerate his own foibles or personal biases. His parents and other family members are interesting as well. Patterns of immigration and assimilation are fascinating to me, and reading about the progress of the Dubner family as it passed in and out of the socially revolutionary 20th century is particularly so.
In some ways Stephen Dubner’s story resembles that of an adult adoptee searching for his birthparents. Dubner was not adopted, but the break his parents made from their heritage was so complete that it’s almost as if he was. His reunions with his Dubner relatives were very touching to read, as was his genealogical search for his Polish relatives who were lost to the Holocaust.
Conversion stories are not everyone’s cup of tea. Usually, the reasons a person decides to convert from one religion to another are complex and varied, but, generally speaking, during this period emotions are high for everyone involved. However, what makes this story both so convincing and readable is Dubner’s willingness to share all of the thoughts and emotions he had during each phase of his journey. And he remains respectful of his mother and her religious convictions throughout even while expressing his clear preference for Judaism. If Dubner had been less ecumenical or accepting, this would have been just another dogmatic treatise. But he rarely gives himself the benefit of the doubt and constantly re-evaluates his reasons for converting in an attempt to determine if they are spiritually valid or whether this is just a chance to “get back” at his parents for their decisions. As a convert (to Catholicism) I found his journey entirely realistic and could even rejoice with him when he found his own spiritual footing. This book is in no way just another jab at the Catholic Church.
Turbulent Souls is a book I stumbled across, but it was one the best books I’ve read this year. If family histories, family secrets, or spiritual searching are subjects that appeal to you, do yourself a favor and check this one out.
|Review Date:||December 7, 2005|
|Book Type:||Non Fiction|