Turbulent Souls

Stephen Dubner and I met on the first day of graduate school and established a kind of friendship based on obvious likenesses. He was from upstate New York and so was I. We had both been messing around with music but now we were going to be serious about learning how to write. Neither of us had thought we would wind up at a fancy university, and we didn’t know whether to call attention to our surprise or keep quiet about it. And it gradually emerged that both of us were religious. I was a Catholic and Stephen was a-well, he wasn’t sure what he was, but he was animated, even agitated, by the question. He had been brought up Catholic, the youngest child in a big Catholic family. Before that, his parents had been Jews. Those days, he and his wife went to Episcopal services in Greenwich Village. What was he? And did it matter?
Judaism, the subtitle of his book suggests, is where he finds his answers. Really, though, Judaism is where he finds his questions. The big question turns out to be not What am I? but Who am I?, and the nearest thing to an answer he can give is the book itself. It is the story of his parents’ lives as Jews and their conversions to Catholicism during World War II. It is the story of their marriage and family life on a farm near Albany, a happy time until Stephen’s father died after having a stroke during a charismatic prayer service when Stephen was ten. Finally, it is the story of Stephen’s dogged investigation into his family history and his own return (or conversion) to Judaism, against his mother’s insistence that Catholicism is the one true faith.

"Until not so long ago all I knew, and dimly at that, was that my parents had once been something called Jewish," he recalls early in the book. "We lived in the back of beyond; ours was an existence circumscribed by Mass and catechism, rusting hay rakes and muddy fishing ponds, the kids you could play with (the churchgoing Catholics) and those you couldn’t. For all I knew about Jews, my parents might have just as well been Baptists, or Elks, or carnival workers."

But they were Jews-had been Jews -and in the early chapters Stephen recreates their lives as Jews in Brooklyn before the war, an account so solid and recognizable that you forget it is made up of facts he had to coax out of long-lost relatives with a notebook and a tape recorder. His mother, Florence Greenglass, studied ballet in Manhattan with an instructor whose Orthodox Christian faith stirred her to convert to Catholicism, "the true church." His father, Solomon Dubner, the son of a sternly Orthodox shopkeeper, an ambitious young man but one prone to depression, was converted on Hawaii during the war and returned home in high spirits, but when his father found a rosary in his pants pocket he sat shiva, never to say Solomon’s name again. Sol and Florence met at a Catholic Action meeting and were married soon afterward, taking the Christian names Paul and Veronica to symbolize their conversion to the faith that, they now believed, fulfilled Judaism and superseded it, end of story.

On Long Island, then in upstate New York, they raised a family according to Catholic Worker farming principles of "cult, culture, and cultivation," and with some of the joyful eccentricity of the family in Cheaper by the Dozen. Paul Dubner, not a farmer but a newspaperman, went nowhere without his scapular-or his Associated Press Stylebook. It was a house rule that no two children (there were eight of them) could root for the same baseball team. Processed sugar was forbidden. So were television, open religious dissent, and questions about the family’s Jewish ancestry.

Stephen, the youngest, was an altar boy-"the policeman of the Catholic world: vaguely above the law, a uniformed executor of ceremonial duties, with special access to the highest authorities, if necessary." He was so terrified of divine retribution that he vomited in his sleep one night after giving wrong directions to some nuns who were passing through town. As "a natural pleaser," so he recalls now, he went along with his family’s religion even when he began to lose faith in it; when his father died and the Catholic charismatics said God had taken him somewhere better, Stephen stopped believing in the Christian faith once and for all.

When I see Stephen nowadays-after the book tour, after all the nice reviews, after the Christmas episode of "Nightline" devoted to his conversion-he sheepishly describes himself as a guy who happened on a good story that happens to be his own story. His modesty is appealing, but a little misleading, too. There’s more than a good story here. After all, the conversions of Jews to Catholicism aren’t altogether uncommon; nor is the Dubner family’s extra-strength Catholic devotion; nor is his falling away from Catholicism. Nor is his conversion to Judaism, for as he pointed out in a piece in the New York Times Magazine, many people his age are "choosing their religion," throwing off the faith of their childhood and claiming a different one as adults.

No, what is remarkable about this story is the deep religious yearning Stephen brought to his search for his origins-the way he followed the story all the way to its conclusion, and now has refashioned it as a classic conversion story in his book. "Nightline" made Stephen’s story look like a search for his lost father; sociology makes it look like a swap of a religion of answers for a religion of questions. Another convert to Judaism, David Klinghoffer, has accused Stephen (on Slate) of being indifferent to the notion of religious truth-and Stephen reports that he gave himself "many a headache" worrying about his motives: "Had I embarked on nothing more than a glorified search for my roots?"

But my own impression, reading the book, is of how driven Stephen was to find a way to know God and know the truth about himself, not merely to choose a religion or fill in the blanks in his family story; and the book conveys a feeling that he is in the grip of something, that "the blood is calling." Yes, but that God is calling, too. On a college road trip, he feels a sharp, abrupt, sexual attraction to a Jewish woman thirty years older than he is. In New York, his girlfriend Abigail, an Episcopalian, introduces him to a drama teacher who makes him feel that his family’s Jewish past is unfinished business. "Son, you’d have been plenty Jewish for Hitler," Ivan Kronenfeld says. "Not that you should let the Nazis define you, or anyone else. But you should figure it out. So you’re not really Jewish and you’re not really being a Christian....You think your parents did what they did just so you’d walk away from it?" He goes to morning Eucharist with Abigail on Ash Wednesday and then to teach a writing class, worried what the student who is an Orthodox Jew will think of the smudge on his forehead: "I was quite sure he took me to be a Jew. I had certainly encouraged this perception; in what sort of warped flirtation had I trapped myself?"

Just after he gets a coveted job at the Times-when common sense would have told him to keep his desk clear-he takes the side job of writing a synopsis of the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, eighty thousand words in three months, and he feels the Rebbe’s teachings work their way into him, and comes to feel that Jewish teaching has been a part of him all along. "Schneerson believed that when the soul is in torment (when isn’t it? I thought), it is yearning to be reunited with its divine source...such a soul lay inside me. It always had. Did it come from my parents? From God? What was God anyway? The stern patriarch of my parents’ house? A brilliant invention? A fraud? Or perhaps something I hadn’t yet considered?"

Practically before he knows it, Stephen is an observant Jew and a "poster boy" for the return-to-Judaism movement, having told his story in the Times Magazine. He is invited to give talks, to share Shabbos dinners, to light the big outdoor menorah at a synagogue on the Lower East Side, although he doesn’t know how to say the prayers. "I climbed the ladder, a hundred faces glowing beneath me in the throw of the streetlamps. The opposite side of the street was lined with Indian restaurants, and a dozen waiters watched from the sidewalk, greatly attentive....On the final brucha, I heard a sharp ping: the crooked candle had shattered the glass globe, which fell with a tinkle onto the concrete below. I was not meant, I concluded, to be a light unto the nations."

That passage suggests the literary qualities of this book: a plain style, flecked with Yiddishisms (I suspect he wanted to call the book Noisy Souls); vivid scenes; a strict avoidance of the documentary voice-over; a sense of humor; and a keen eye for all the ways, from the old New York settings to his attraction to religious absolutes, that his story echoes that of his parents. "These past few years I had worked myself into an unhealthy predicament," he explains at one point. "The more vigorously I embraced Judaism, the more vigorously I was inclined to assault Catholicism-and my parents....I could not accept my choice with a full heart unless I rejected theirs with just as much gusto."

So it is. Faithful to his childhood impressions, he gives Catholicism some hard knocks. In a scene set just after his conversion, he compares Judaism’s sense of history and tolerance of rebellious human nature with the supposedly Catholic notions that God controls all our actions and we all must strive to be nothing less than perfect. And although he suggests again and again that his mother’s Catholicism is extreme, he admits that he never sought a different point of entry into the Catholic tradition, one more tolerant of inquiry and paradox, of human freedom and human frailty.

Near the end of the book he recounts an hour he spent with Cardinal John O’Connor, who had admired his Times piece and quoted it from the pulpit on Good Friday. Stephen told the cardinal that his mother was having trouble accepting his decision to be a Jew. In reply the cardinal cited the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the primacy of an informed conscience, suggesting that "if you will tell your mother that you have tried to study this, that you have prayed about it, this is not just a revolt or a rejection, this is not a dismissal of what you don’t understand-that this is where you think God wants you to be, an informed Jew," she would understand.

The doctrine of the primacy of an informed conscience is one of the great doctrinal developments of our time, and many of us could not be Catholics without it. And yet as I read about Stephen’s meeting with O’Connor-the climax of the book-I found myself wishing that the cardinal had pressed Stephen harder on the matter of whether and how he had informed his conscience about Catholicism. It isn’t that I wish the cardinal had urged Stephen to consider Catholicism one last time. No, it is that the episode made me wonder whether deep down, Catholics, even cardinals, suspect that our faith can’t bear the scrutiny of the Stephen Dubners of the world.

Over the last ten years, I watched some of Stephen’s story take place-saw him suddenly start dressing like his wife’s drama teacher Ivan, "woolen vests over thrift-shop neckties," saw him get an ulcer (just like his father) when he tried to study Latin with Columbia undergraduates at the same time that he was studying acting and Judaism with Ivan. Today, I feel lucky to be able to call him a friend, and I’m not sure which I admire more, his authentic search for God and religion or the wise and moving book he has written about it. It’s a book that leaves you with the sense that a life lived religiously is the life most fully lived-that sends you back to your own life, and your own faith, in order to live them more fully. And yet there is something missing in it: there is no scene in which the author encounters the Catholic faith in circumstances apart from his father’s death and his mother’s piety. There’s no exchange with a Catholic counterpart to the friends and teachers who invited him to look into Judaism, if only to deepen his sense of where he has come from and what Catholics and Jews have in common; that’s not Stephen’s fault, and it’s not Cardinal O’Connor’s. I wish, as Stephen was in a religious crisis, pinned between Catholicism and Judaism, that I’d been paying closer attention; and I wish that I’d had something to say to hearten him on and wish him God’s speed. That’s what friends are for, aren’t they?

Published in the 1999-03-12 issue: 

Paul Elie, a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), a group portrait of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. He has contributed to Commonweal since 1990.

Also by this author
From Trastevere to Texas

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads