Most of you are probably familiar with Dubner as the co-author of Freakonomics, the quintessential popular economics book turned blog turned SuperFreakonomics. Dubner is a prolific writer with impressively diverse interests; his writing has covered everything from economics to sports to Israel, and Freakonomics shares its place in his book oevre with a children’s book.
Dubners first book, however, is a highly unusual memoir –a memoir of a highly unusual family and personal journey, and a testament to its author’s truly impressive and inspiring desire and ability to understand his own parents and see the world from their point of view while finding himself in profound disagreement with them.
Dubner’s parents, Paul and Veronica – in their past lives, Florence Greenglass and Solomon Dubner – were born into Jewish families in Brooklyn around the time of the Great Depression. Solomon’s family was ruled by a tyrannical father, dogmatic and strict to the point of obsession in religious observance. Florence’s household was largely secular. Solomon received a Jewish education and was deeply familiar with the Scriptures, while Florence’s exposure to her ancestors’ faith was largely limited to the insistence that she marry Jewish. In their twenties, both fell in passionately with Christ and the Catholic Church, to the consternation of their families – particularly in the case of Solomon, whose father, followed by most of his siblings and other relatives, declared him dead. Soon after their conversions, the two met and fell in love; they married, moved to rural upstate New York, had eight children, and spent their lives – Paul’s far shorter than Veronica’s – as pillars of the Catholic community, unswerving in their devotion and their commitment to a life of simplicity in things material and richness in spiritual works. That their steadfastness and sheer goodness is inspiring even as portrayed by their no-longer-Catholic son is a testament to all three Dubners.
The Dubner children, in Stephen’s telling, did not inherit their parents’ fervor. Some of them lost their faith entirely, others eventually returned to a lukewarm Christian practice. The youngest, Stephen himself, wandered away from the Church, the New Israel, only to find himself re-joining the Israel to which his parents once belonged.
If the first part of the book is devoted to Paul and Veronica, the second half is an account of Stephen’s own journey – his learning, through a series of encounters, that his parents’ Jewishness, seemingly forgotten, was alive in him; followed by meeting scores of Jewish relatives whose existence he’d never heard of; and by finding in Judaism a spiritual wealth that he had been unable to recognize in his parents’ Church. Both parts are beautifully written – the first feeling like a good novel, the second a thought-provoking spiritual memoir – and I cannot say enough about how warm-hearted, engaging, and powerful this book is. So I won’t say anything other than just that, and hope that you will read it for yourself. But, setting aside the book’s artistic virtues, three things struck me as significant in this two-part movement.
First, the Dubner story is a reminder of the critical importance of how we – as Christians, and as humans – understand death. For both Stephen and his mother, the spark that led to their respective rejections of their families’ religious views and their own conversions was the way in which death was dealt with by these families. As a child, Florence Greenglass wanted to understand why her family feared death so deeply that they never talked about it – indeed, never told her that her own grandfather had died – while their Catholic neighbors marked the house of the dead with a ribbon and their children freely discussed whether the newly deceased had gone to heaven or purgatory. In becoming a Catholic, she embraced Christ’s victory of death, pinning her hopes on the joys of heaven: death no longer needed to be feared. But ironically, it was a very similar frustration that led Florence’s reflective and intelligent son away from Catholicism. When his father died, the ten-year-old Stephen was deeply uncomfortable with the way in which his death was treated almost as a joyful occasion in the family, with much talk of the happiness of the deceased in Heaven – and little room for the living to grieve on earth.
It’s worth noting that Stephen did not know – at the time – that his father had been profoundly depressed, struggling for days to get out of bed; he thus could not understand what must have been very genuine feelings on his mother’s part that the long-suffering Paul was indeed in a better place. At the same time, his Catholic household failed in the same way that Florence’s secular Jewish one did: forgetting – in the adults’ resolute decision that death was, respectively, either a terrifying evil or almost a non-event – to make room for a child to make inquiry of the reality of death and to come to terms with it.
Second, this family story illustrates the way in which the fervor of a personal conversion can render it a bit too personal, making it difficult to pass on to one’s children. The Dubners put their old life behind and lived and breathed Christ alone; the family pictures in their living room showed no generations beside them and their children. The children they saw as an opportunity for sanctification, and a missionary opportunity; in an essay he’d published, Paul described a child’s soul as a masterpiece to be created by an artist – the parent – with the help of the Church.
The Dubner parents escaped unhealthy homes in which they were not allowed to ask questions, and found their own answers; but they left little room for their children to ask questions of their own. At one point, Dubner begins to speak of “our Godfulness”, but corrects himself to say – “the Godfulness of my parents, I should say, for while none of us would dare disobey, we were essentially actors working with an immutable script.” It was probably this – more than the strict discipline, more than their parents’ commitment to healthy living that involved wheat germ and care of farm animals, more even that the narrowing of the children’s social circle to those peers deemed to come from good-enough Catholic families – that made all the Dubner children reject their parents’ ways, even if some of them eventually returned to a measure of Catholic practice. The Dubner’s parents’ enthusiasm for Christ was so great that it made Dubner awkward about the Man; he remembers, as a child, shuddering at the thought of Christ actually entering his body in the Eucharist.
Finally – to little surprise for readers of this blog, I am sure – this is a story that highlights the “genetic” power of Jewish identity. The conversions of the Dubner parents sparked an explosion of such magnitude in their families, particularly Solomon’s, that the sheer force of resentment blew them far onto the margins of the Jewish world. Between their own rejection by the Jews, the rejection by the Church of Jewish law and custom, and their desire to live “on the land” in a rural area (with, naturally, a sparse Jewish population), the Dubner parents accepted it as a given that their Jewish identity must be set aside – though, it is important to note, they never made a secret of it. They were in love with Christ, and for His sake setting aside all things Jewish seemed a sacrifice worth bearing.
All this, we may assume, was far too complex to explain to Stephen and his siblings. What would be the use of telling children who had never met a Jew that, while they were primarily Catholic, they were also something called ‘Jewish’, if everyone and everything ‘Jewish’ in their parents’ lives had rejected them?
But the voice of blood proved strong for at least one of their Dubner offspring. He was deeply grieved to discover his deprivation of his Jewish patrimony; and once he learned of it, it resonated with his rejection of Catholicism and provided him with an alternative. Dubner discovers that not only his body but his very soul is Jewish, and it changes his life. That it proved so different from the Catholic soul which his parents attempted to educate in him – that, indeed, it led to an almost insurmountable conflict with his Catholic mother, which only love was able to heal – is a sad reminder of how far the Church in her practice has wandered from its own inherent Jewishness.