A Catholic Son’s Return
to His Jewish Family.
By Stephen J. Dubner.
Illustrated. 320 pp. New York:
William Morrow & Company. $24.
The excitements of religious conversion continue to exert a dramatic hold on the contemporary imagination. In 1996, when Stephen J. Dubner, an editor and writer at The New York Times Magazine, published in that magazine an abbreviated account of his parents’ choice of Catholicism over Judaism and his own subsequent return to the Jewish fold, he was deluged with mail: letters of approbation and disgust, accounts of parallel stories and so on. John Cardinal O’Connor quoted from the article in a Sunday sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (albeit against the grain of the narrative), and Dubner quickly became, in his own words, ”a sort of Jewish poster boy,” a speaker in demand at synagogues, Hanukkah candle lighting ceremonies and even a Hasidic bar mitzvah.
All this he recounts in the final chapters of his intense, acutely observed and, in its documenting of both his intimate and extended family’s move through history from intolerance to open-mindedness, exigent memoir. ”Turbulent Souls,” in a manner appropriate to the spiritual oscillations of the personalities under scrutiny, features two distinct narrative voices (third person for the parents’ story, first person for Dubner’s own), each of which manages to incorporate and elucidate a number of points of view, including those of Dubner’s grandparents and siblings.
The first half of the book charts the constantly fascinating journey of Brooklyn-born Solly Dubner and Florence Greenglass, as, at first independently and then in powerful compromise, they move away from the rigid Jewish orthodoxy of their parents to embrace what frequently appears to be an equally uncompromising set of Roman Catholic dogmas. Elated by their crossover, and freshly transplanted to a rambling, Spartan farmhouse in upstate New York (the rundown place and its nonetheless ”magical” ambience are splendidly evoked), Florence and Solly emerge as Paul and Veronica Dubner, pillars of the local church, and the spiritually charged, if materially impoverished, parents of a thriving brood of eight.
Stephen Dubner, the youngest of the children, separated by 16 years from his eldest sibling, Joe, characteristically knows the least about his parents’ former lives. Inevitably, perhaps, he surfaces as the most inquisitive of the children, the one who in later life comes to fill in the cultural spaces that ultimately explain why, on Sunday afternoons, his father would occasionally break into ”My Yiddishe Mama” as he danced through the kitchen to ”grab a hunk of gefilte fish from the refrigerator.”
What Stephen learns as an adult, from both his mother and other relatives (frequently new discoveries) as they approach or inhabit old age, engages a story that is at once enlightening and baffling, as the ways of the spirit tend to be. It is not that his parents have ever hidden the fact that they were once Jews; quite the contrary, but the major players in and the texture of their pre-Catholic lives have remained a secret history. Among the secrets are the facts that his mother was first cousin to Ethel Rosenberg (Communism was, of course, anathema to the strictly devout Dubners, and his mother’s reaction to the electrocution of her cousin is both subdued and conflicted) and that, after learning of his son’s conversion, Stephen’s grandfather, Shepsel, rent his clothes and sat shiva, mourning Solly/Paul as if he were dead.
Solly’s and Florence’s roads to conversion are laid out carefully and sympathetically with the mystery at their heart, especially where Solly is concerned, both respected and carefully guarded. Has the Holocaust played a part in influencing decisions? It isn’t clear. Years later Stephen’s Uncle Sam trenchantly remarks that ”the why is a never-known.” Solly comes to Christianity after the death of his mother and via the loneliness and depression that accompany him through his experiences as a G.I. in the Pacific, where he is the only Jew stationed, suggestively enough, on Christmas Island during the last years of World War II. Florence’s journey begins with an existential childhood experience during sickness: lying in bed with a cold she hears her friends playing outside and thinks, ”Boy oh boy, life goes on all by itself whether I’m there or not.” But the meanderings of her spirit are truly shaped by two Catholic mentors: her ballet teacher Mme. Asta Souvorina, and a priest, ”a tall, handsome young Irishman,” Father Conroy of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Manhattan.
The pattern of ”Turbulent Souls” has Stephen Dubner echo the steps of one or the other of his parents as he turns from Catholicism to Judaism. His mother, after a moment of profound revelation, abandoned a promising future as a dancer to embrace the church. Similarly, Dubner deserts a rock band on the edge of stardom because he takes stock and finds rock life empty. His father, it seems, was at the deepest level drawn to the Virgin Mary by the loss of his own mother, for whom Mary is a replacement. Stephen Dubner, although he never quite wants to acknowledge it, appears pulled to Judaism, which he feels instinctively like a melody in his soul, as at least a partial substitute for his father, whom he lost to death at 10.
Along the way on his spiritual excursion Dubner is nudged, and sometimes shoved, by powerful mentors and guides, like Ivan Kronenfeld, his girlfriend’s acting teacher; Simon Jacobson, a Hasidic rabbi for whom Dubner ghost-edits a collection of teachings by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitch leader; and, most bizarrely, a high-gloss matron from Miami whom he meets at a party.
Stephen Dubner’s Jewish incarnation is, however, strikingly moderate in comparison to his parents’ radical Catholicism. Where Paul and Veronica pushed the envelope of religious experience both spiritually and politically by organizing groups of charismatic Christians to practice glossolalia or, in his mother’s case, picketing at abortion clinics, Stephen is content to learn a little Hebrew, study a little Talmud, utter a few prayers, light his Shabbos candles, amiably discuss Jewish issues with Upper West Side friends and yearn for a Jewish wife who will give his mother ”her first Jewish grandchild.” Nothing wrong with this picture unless you believe that the Truth must come in blows. Indeed it is Dubner’s admirable and relentless pursuit of the middle road (a calling that leads him to Cardinal O’Connor for advice on how to handle Mom’s persistent objections to his newfound faith — she presses on him a coffee-table book called ”The Living Gospels of Jesus Christ”) that ultimately secures a poignant gathering of both the Catholic and Jewish members of his family: those alienated from one another by the events of the distant past and those who for years have simply been unaware of the others’ existence. The family reunion, a model of religious harmony and mutual respect, looks like progress, and it is. It also looks like a personal resolution for Dubner.
But the story doesn’t end there: slipping into the Church of the Blessed Sacrament for a Jewish look-see at midnight Mass last Christmas Eve, ”I instinctively dipped my hand into the holy water and crossed myself,” Dubner writes. Habit, he thinks, not heresy. It’s O.K. Nevertheless, while it is clearly better for Stephen Dubner if his turbulent soul stays quiet, I think readers of this wonderful book will rather hope that a continued measure of unsettlement inspires him to write more.
Jonathan Wilson is chairman of the English department at Tufts University. His most recent books are a collection of stories, ”Schoom,” and a novel, ”The Hiding Room.”