Turbulent Souls

PDF-file by Stephen J. Dubner

Turbulent Souls PDF ebook download I’ve become a big Freakonomics fan in recent weeks. Not only have I read both books, I’ve watched the DVD, and listened to every podcast on Freakonomics Radio. So when I found out that Stephen Dubner, the journalist half of the Freakonomics team, wrote about a book about his journey to Judaism, you know I was all over it. I read it on Shabbos, which is something I wouldn’t do with Freakonomics because it’s purely secular studies. Turbulent Souls, in contrast, is a spiritual memoir, although – alas – it is not quite frum. There’s quite a bit of Catholicism in it, and for that reason alone, many frum people wouldn’t read it at all, much less on Shabbos. But I loved it. It’s a teshuva story. It’s just not teshuva gamura.

The story of the Dubner family follows the general pattern of American Jewry, but it’s a bit more extreme. Stephen’s paternal grandparents, Shepsel and Gittel Dubner, were frum Eastern Europeans. Shepsel was uncompromisingly pious; Gittel was personally frum but looked the other way when her children slid under American influences. Their oldest son Nat was the first to openly rebel. Stephen’s father Sol, who was the youngest, was not a rebel, which is why his conversion to Catholicism was so shocking. The zaideh Shepsel’s reaction brought tears to my eyes.

Then there’s Stephen’s mother’s side of family, the Greenglasses. They were eager assimilationists who raised their daughter with almost no Torah observance. But when a Jew raises his naturally soulful child without Jewish spirituality, she accepts substitutes. Florence Greenglass, who became Veronica Dubner, was a devout Catholic to the end of the book. She loved prayer and ritual so much, it was clear to me that in a different generation, she would have been a baalas teshuva. But kiruv rabbis were few and far between in the 1940’s. Heck, the Holocaust was going on!

So while millions of Jews were being killed in Europe, two Jewish souls in America converted to Catholicism and married each other. They had eight children whom they attempted to raise in as pure and sheltered an environment as they could. The children knew vaguely that their parents had been Jewish, but that was part of a faraway past that had nothing to do with them. Stephen Dubner was even an altar boy!

In college, Stephen met Jews. When his first job took him to New York City, he began exploring Judaism, and he met some heavy hitters, too – Rabbi Simon Jacobson, scribe to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and on the Litvish side, Ha Rav Avigdor Miller. He became enamored of Pirkei Avos: Ethics of the Fathers whose teachings he sprinkled in throughout the book. Yet for all of that, the Torah lifestyle didn’t take. He married a Jew, identifies as a Jew, and I’m sure keeps some level of observance, but he’s not happily frum ever after.

Even still, I found it a wonderfully uplifting and intimate book. It’s the microcosm of our people in the last century. Half a century ago, the movement was toward assimilation. In recent decades, may Hashem continue to help, there’s been a movement toward return. Sol/Paul and Florence/Veronica Dubner carried assimilation to a further extent than most. So for Stephen Dubner to have grown up so far from Judaism yet still have found his way back to our people seems to me to be a teshuva worth celebrating.

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