When Florence Greenglass and Sol Dubner converted from Judaism to Catholicism during World War II, it was as though a gate banged shut; neither looked back. Embracing Catholicism zealously, they broke with their families as well as their religion; Dubner’s father sat shiva. The pair met and married after each had converted independently; they became Veronica and Paul Dubner. Decades later, their son Stephen, the youngest of their eight children, unlocked the gate, opening to a renewed Jewish future.
While it’s true that you need a great story to write a great memoir, more importantly, you need to be able to tell it well. Dubner has remarkable material in his family’s dramas and mysteries, but it’s his fine writing and novelistic style that makes Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family (Morrow) stand out among many recent memoirs. With respect toward both religions, he recounts his parents’ stories and his own, finding an authentic and natural voice to talk about Heaven and souls and faith as well as things mundane. “It became a book I had to write,” Dubner explains in an interview with The Jewish Week, and that urgency is apparent on the page.
“Family is the best subject to write about,” Dubner, 35, a writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine, says. “It’s rich in every way a writer wants; it’s a container that holds every curiosity.” The memoir opens with Dubner’s family piling into the car to go to church, as they would every Sunday, from their farmhouse in upstate New York. After mass, they’d come home to a big breakfast, having fasted until receiving communion. The author’s father would skip the waffles and fix himself some matzah topped with gefilte fish. Although the children knew something about the fact that their parents had been Jewish, it meant nothing. “For all I knew about Jews, my parents might well have been Baptists, or Elks, or carnival workers,” he writes. He didn’t know of his extended Jewish family, or that Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953, was her mother’s first cousin, or even the names of his grandparents.
Paul and Veronica, then Sol and Florence, were each born to parents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century; their childhoods in Brooklyn sound like the stories of many first-generation Americans, growing up in a world altogether different from the one their parents left behind. Sol, who had a difficult relationship with his religious father, found Catholicism while serving in the Army, while Florence was influenced by a ballet teacher, and found comfort and meaning in Catholic teachings. The author’s mother’s path to conversion is told with clarity, as she was interviewed extensively. But his father died when Stephen was 10, and the reasons for his conversion remain something of a puzzle.
In the life Paul and Veronica built together, Catholicism was at the center. The family held evening rosary on the front lawn. They had little money, and their home was one of Godfulness, with a sense of purpose, rightfulness and safety. “In that regard (and that regard alone),” the former altar boy writes, “our parents spoiled us: We expected the world to be as pure as they were.”
Stephen recalls that after his father’s death, his mother and her religious friends would tell him how much God loved his father to have taken him from them. That was the moment his own Catholicism became empty-hearted. “For while I wasn’t interested in blaming God for killing my father, I certainly wasn’t about to thank Him for it either.” The years between his father’s death and his leaving home for college were lonely, with his siblings out of the house. He describes he and his mother — alone in a house where 10 lived loudly and joyously — “rattling around like the last two coins in some old man’s pocket, or maybe God’s.”
A musician in college, he was astounded to learn that Bob Dylan was born Jewish and became a born-again Christian. He wondered what Dylan and his father might have had in common, and began noticing things Jewish. When he moved to New York City in the 1980s, many assumed that the Semitic-looking Dubner was indeed Jewish, and he was drawn to learn about the religion his parents left. Attending synagogue with a friend, he was moved, deeply. When the Torah was walked through the congregation, it was as though something clicked inside of him. “It is the book they are venerating here. They are not eating the Body and drinking the Blood of the Christ, that sad-faced messenger and martyr of my youth.” He felt gratefulness, a relief, hope: “The way a Jew greeted the Torah — as though it contained everything he would ever need, everything that had ever been known and everything that could never be known.”
Dubner accelerated his explorations of Judaism, both professionally and personally. While working at New York magazine, Dubner covered a number of Jewish stories, leading to work with Rabbi Simon Jacobson on a book of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s teachings. He reconnected with relatives of his parents, who embraced him and shared family stories; he also traveled to Poland in search of further details.
When asked how he now understands his father’s motivations for conversion, he says, “He fell in love. I really believe that he fell in love with the idea of a religion that was a salve to his wounds. He had real wounds. … The Judaism he knew provided no comfort.” It’s something the younger Dubner thinks about all the time. “It’s both frustrating and comforting to know that I’ll never know the answer. There’s a lot of mystery within faith.” He adds that he grew to be very inspired by his parents as he learned more about them.
Readers may recall a 1996 cover story for The New York Time Magazine, “Choosing My Religion,” in which Dubner began this story. That article received a tremendous response, and Dubner heard from many relatives and childhood friends of his father’s who were instrumental in piecing together his family history. The article also led to the author’s relationship with Cardinal O’Connor, who read an excerpt during services on Good Friday. While his Jewish explorations brought the author closer to his late father, it also created strain with his mother, a passionate Catholic. Through a consultation with O’Connor, he was able to work out their conflict. Dubner praises the cardinal for the “mitzvah.”
Now, Dubner, who lives on the West Side of Manhattan, attends various synagogues and studies Judaism in several settings. He prays “irregularly and intensively” and finds that it’s easier to pray as a Jew than a Catholic. Sometimes he thinks of becoming a rabbi.
“I think of myself as an inchoate Jew, in formation in some ways, particularly religiously.” Quite comfortable in the Jewish tradition of asking himself questions and then answering with more questions, he continues, “Am I a Jew? Yes. A Jew with complication. What is a Jew without complication? I’d like to think that I never know the answer to what kind of Jew I am. It’s always evolving and evolution involves acquiring new knowledge.”
“Do I wish my parents hadn’t converted? Sometimes yes. I would have liked to have grown up in the Jewish tradition. If they hadn’t, would I exist? How many Jewish families had eight children? Would I have the same love I have for Jewish tradition as an adult, given the history of second- and third-generation American Jews?”
Dubner will speak about “Turbulent Souls” on Nov. 4 at Barnes & Noble , Broadway at 82nd Street, Manhattan, at 7:30 p.m. Also, he’ll be speaking at Chartwell Books, 55 E. 52nd St. (lobby of Park Avenue Plaza building) on Dec. 1 at 7:30, and at KGB, 85 E. Fourth St., on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m.
A new public program featuring books and authors in an interactive setting begins next week at the New York Kollel at Hebrew Union College in Greenwich Village. Once a month, the distinguished rabbi, writer, theologian, editor and professor, Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz will engage in a conversation with an author of a new book, followed by a discussion with the audience.
On Monday, Nov. 2, Borowitz will speak with Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner about their recently published work, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness.” The second program, on Monday, Dec. 7, features Chava Weissler, author of “Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women.”
Rabbi Leon Morris, director of New York Kollel, a center for adult Jewish studies, explains that the program adds a contemporary dimension to the Kollel program, which deals with ancient Jewish texts. The series is the brainchild of Borowitz, founding editor of Sh’ma and professor at the college. “To spend time learning from Dr. Borowitz in any situation is a tremendous blessing,” Rabbi Morris says. “To have an opportunity to combine everything he brings to any text, together with the experience of sitting with the author, will make for a rare evening.”
The programs begin at 7 p.m. at Hebrew Union College, 1 W. Fourth St. Admission is $5. The list of future subjects will be updated on the Kollel web site, www.huc.edu/kollel.