In 1996, Stephen Dubner, a young writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine, contributed a cover story to that publication entitled, “Choosing My Religion.” The piece attracted wide attention and made Dubner a well-known figure both in Catholic and Jewish circles in New York City. Turbulent Souls is an expansion of that article into a book of unusual drama and thoughtfulness. Sensitive readers will react to it much as have many of Dubner’s interlocutors: “If you hadn’t told me this yourself, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Born in upstate New York in 1963, Dubner was the youngest of eight children in a robustly observant Catholic family. His parents were Veronica Winters Dubner and Paul Dubner; each of the children had either “Mary” or “Joseph” as part of their names. A veteran of World War II and an aspiring newspaperman, Paul spent much of his working life in blue-collar positions and farmed on the side. Veronica maintained the large household and enthusiastically promoted Adele Davis’s ideas on nutrition. In different settings, both members of the couple had converted to Catholicism during the war. While they made no secret of their Jewish origins, neither did they dwell on them. The center of their lives was the Church—the “Catholic fullness” in all its glory and (to the outsider) oddity.
Our Lady of Fátima was beloved of the Dubners before they entered the parish of that name in 1958 in Duanesburg, New York. There, Paul started a parish library, led the St. Vincent de Paul Society, gave catechetical instruction, and served as lector at Mass. Veronica “taught catechism, baked pies for church suppers, and held down a link on the parish’s prayer chain. . . . As the legalization of abortion crept near, she reacted as if war had broken out.” Their family grew along with their ardor. Instead of watching television, the children knelt in the living room to say the Rosary and pray for the conversion of Russia. “On holy days, they marched through the yard in a procession to honor the Virgin Mary, their little necks draped in scapulars, their little hands pressed together just beneath the chin in perfect prayerful formation.” Stephen, like his brothers before him, became an altar boy, delighting in the intricacy of the task and memorizing the entire Mass.
In leaving the city and—in imitation of Catholic Worker farms—establishing themselves on the land with a large family, the Dubners felt themselves to be living out a special vocation, one no less important than holy orders. They were preparing their children for a heavenly destination; in so doing, they fought the twin evils of Communism and materialistic secularism. As Stephen would later come to see it, the farm was “Eden,” a protective Catholic familial paradise from which difficult temptations were banished. Even after most of the children had left home, the Dubners’ piety grew in intensity. Already devoted to Mary, the Infant of Prague, little St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and the Rosary, they joined the Charismatic Renewal movement as well. In glossolalia-laced prayer meetings, “[M]y parents went wild. They were the chief clappers and shriekers, and then, riding home through the dark, they were totally calm.”
A script had thus been written for Stephen Dubner’s life, casting him in the role of an obedient son to his father, the pope, and God-in-Christ. As things turned out, the script had to be tossed out completely. It had papered over huge problems, most of which centered around Paul Dubner’s identity, his bouts with severe depression, and the larger meaning of his conversion. The precipitating crisis came during a charismatic meeting, when he collapsed from what seemed to be a heart attack. He died in an Albany hospital in December, 1973, at the age of fifty-seven. Stephen was then ten, unaware of the sort of loss he had suffered or the search he would have to undertake.
By the late 1980’s, Dubner was a writer for New York magazine. Behind him lay Appalachian State University in North Carolina, a fervid six-year career with a promising rock group, the fiction-writing master’s program at Columbia University, and a failed marriage to an Episcopalian. Despite Bible reading, his mother’s prayers, and church attendance, he was now only a tepid Catholic, absorbed in his career. He had abandoned both Heaven and Hell as items of belief, thus undermining (he thought) the entire basis of his parents’ theology. At the same time, the intense Jewishness of the city had made old questions insistent: “More and more, I was finding Jewish stories. Jewish actors, Jewish cops, Jewish hustlers: I studied their names and their faces, and I listened to their stories, wondering all the while if even the slightest strand of connective tissue linked me to them.”
When he moved to The New York Times, he found himself in an environment charged with Jewish concerns. His friendships increasingly were with Jews, one of whom—in response to Dubner’s saying, “I’ve never been to a synagogue. I’m not Jewish”—retorted:
Son, you’d have been plenty Jewish enough for Hitler. You’ve got the map of Poland written all over your face. You could have worn a crucifix down to your knees, and they still would have thrown you in the oven, you understand?
Thus challenged, he reluctantly and clumsily began attending synagogue services and studying Maimonides, Abraham Heschel, and Martin Buber. Remarkably, his position at...
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