Can you know who you are if you don’t know who your God is? To reject your parents’ faith for another is wrenching and liberation, and more American are doing it than ever before.
NOT LONG AGO, I WAS HAVING SHABBOS dinner with three friends. I am still new to all this. As the candles were lighted and a song was sung, I stumbled along. We washed our hands, then said the blessing as we dried them. I did know that you weren’t supposed to speak until the bread had been blessed, so I went back to the table.
As I sat there, another silent ritual came to mind. I was raised in upstate New York and was the last of eight children. When it was your birthday, you had to eat your entire piece of cake without saying a word. If you broke your silence, a penalty awaited: molasses would be poured over your bare feet, then chicken feed sprinkled on, and you’d have to walk through the chicken coop and let the hens peck away.
Although the penalty was carried out a few times (never on me), what I remember best is the struggle to keep the silence, no matter how much everyone baited you. The whole thing was nonsense, and I had never thought about where it came from — until that Shabbos dinner a few weeks ago, when I suddenly wondered if one silence weren’t somehow related to the other.
I did not grow up Jewish, but my parents did. Florence Greenglass and Solomon Dubner, both born in Brooklyn, were the children of Russian and Polish immigrants. On Christmas Eve of 1942, when Florence was a 21-year-old ballet dancer, she was baptized as a Roman Catholic. Two years later, she met Sol, a 28-year-old soldier home on furlough. The son of Orthodox Jews, he, too, was about to become a Catholic.
Unlike St. Augustine or Thomas Merton, my parents did not embrace Catholicism to atone for a wanton past. Unlike Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul, they saw no visions, heard no voices. Theirs were sober conversions of faith, brought about by no force or crises, or at least none visible from the surface.
The fallout was dramatic: no one in their families went to their wedding, and Sol’s father never spoke to him again. They built new lives from top to bottom. They even changed their names. My mother chose Veronica as her baptismal name and has used it ever since; Sol, not surprisingly, became Paul.
They began having children, moved to a rural sprawl outside Albany and continued having children. After Joseph, the first son, and Mary, the first daughter, the rest of us had to settle for Joseph or Mary as our middle names. My namesake was St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who, I remember learning early on, was stoned to death by Jews.
We took our Catholicism very seriously. We never missed Mass; our father was a lector, and both our parents taught catechism. At 3 in the afternoon on Good Friday, we gathered in the living room for 10 minutes of silence in front of a painting of the Crucifixion. On top of a battered bookcase, our mother kept a simple shrine: a large wooden crucifix, a statue of a beatific Virgin Mary and several devotional candles, all nestled on a thick piece of red felt. Once a year, when our grandmother was due to visit, the shrine was packed away in a cardboard box. This wasn’t a sin, our mother assured us, and was absolutely necessary, to keep our grandmother “from getting hysterical.”
It did seem strange that our Jewish aunts and uncles and cousins almost never visited — not that I had the slightest idea of what a Jew or Judaism was. Our neighbors were farmers and auto mechanics named O’Donnell and Vandemeer. Only when our father died, when he was 57 and I was 10, did a handful of Jewish relatives make the trip upstate. Because our grandmother was dead by then, the shrine stayed put.
The matter of our having been Jewish was half footnote, half secret. A jar of gefilte fish sometimes found its way into the refrigerator, and our parents occasionally resorted to Yiddish for private conversation. But their ardent Catholicism allowed for scant inquiry into a different religious past. My brother Dave remembers asking our mother, when he was 7, why they had become Catholic. “Because we were young and we were searching for the truth, and we found it,” she told him.
If I had known then what I know now, I might have recognized the remnants of my parents’ past — for a religious conversion, I have come to learn, is imperfect. At best, the convert is a palimpsest. The old writing will always bleed through. The gefilte fish, the birthday cake routine, the way our father would burst into “My Yiddishe Mama” — it all reminds me of the Marranos, the Jews who were forced during the Spanish Inquisition to convert to Catholicism and wound up practicing their Judaism in secret. Hundreds of years later, some fully assimilated Marrano families still clung to old Jewish rituals with no idea where they had come from.
But for my parents — and now, for me, as I am becoming a Jew — there is a pointed difference. We have chosen our religion, rejecting what we inherited for what we felt we needed. This is a particularly American opportunity and one that is being exploited in ever-increasing numbers. To be convinced, you only need to stick your head into an overflowing Catholic conversion workshop, a mosque filled with American-born blacks, a 5,000-member “megachurch” that caters to forward-looking Protestants or a tiny Pentecostal church packed with Hispanic immigrants who came here as Catholics. “Religious switching is more common now than it has ever been in American history,” says Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who has conducted many religious surveys.
Statistics on religious affiliation are notoriously slippery: the Government isn’t allowed to gather such data, and the membership claims of religious organizations aren’t entirely reliable. But, according to “One Nation Under God” (1993), by Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, perhaps the most ambitious study to date of Americans and their religions, about 30 percent of Americans now switch denominations in their lifetimes. Kosmin and Lachman, who used a survey of 113,000 people, conclude that the most common reason for a switch is, predictably, intermarriage, followed by a shift in religious conviction and a geographical change.
To be sure, the majority of shifts are not particularly dramatic, tending to be from one Protestant denomination to another. (In a study of 500 people from 33 to 42 years old who had been confirmed as Presbyterians, Hoge found that 33 percent had already made a move, usually to another mainline Protestant denomination.) Still, Kosmin says, “There are more spiritual searches now than ever before, mainly because people are freer than ever before to search.”
There is also the common phenomenon of intensely renewing your religion of birth as an adult — an especially strong movement among American Jews and middle-class blacks. Such journeys often fall under what is known as Hansen’s Law, or the third-generation syndrome, noted by the sociologist Marcus Lee Hansen in the 1930’s. According to Hansen’s Law, a person looks beyond his parents’ religion, which was watered down by assimilation, to the religion of his grandparents, splicing traditional rituals and beliefs into his modern life.
Americans born after World War II, simultaneously facing their parents’ deaths and watching their children grow up with a flimsy religious identity, are particularly susceptible to Hansen’s Law. The recent surge in American spirituality has sent even the most secular adults into what has become a religion bazaar, where the boundaries are far more fluid and the rules less rigid than when they were children. As late as 1960, even a Protestant-Catholic marriage might have kept at least one set of in-laws out of the church; since then, the charge toward ecumenism has been relentless.
Jack Miles, a former Jesuit and the author of the recent “God: A Biography,” told me why he thought this is so: because America has long been that rare country where a religious identity, as opposed to a political identity, is optional. As citizens of a country that has absorbed, with a fair amount of grace, so many different religious traditions, we are bound to be more tolerant and experimental. Miles himself is proof: after leaving the seminary in 1970, he considered converting to Judaism, then flirted with Buddhism and is now a practicing Episcopalian.
By now, choosing a religion is no longer a novel idea. And sometimes all the switching can seem comically casual. At the first meeting of a Judaism class I’ve been taking, we all announced why we had come. “I grew up Catholic in New Zealand — Catholic school, the whole bit,” said one earnest young man, who was there with his Jewish girlfriend. “I had more than my share of whacks on the behind. And, well, as I learned more about Judaism, I thought it was a cracking good religion, so I’m here to see more about it.”
The movement toward choosing religion, rampant as it is, shouldn’t be surprising. Ours is an era marked by the desire to define — or redefine — ourselves. We have been steadily remaking ourselves along ethnic, political, sexual, linguistic and cultural lines, carefully sewing new stripes into our personal flags and waving them with vigor. Now, more than ever, we are working on the religious stripe.
That, of course, is a tricky proposition, since religion comprises practically every strand of identity we possess, and since so many religious rituals are also our most important family rituals. Disengaging yourself from your family’s religion often means disengaging yourself, to some extent, from your family.
Lately, I have fallen in with and sought out a variety of converts — or seekers or returnees or born-agains, as they variously call themselves. Judith Anderson, 34, is a practicing Buddhist who was raised, she said, in a “devoutly atheistic” Jewish family in Teaneck, N.J. Like many Jews who practice Buddhism, she hasn’t renounced her Jewishness; still, her parents are distressed with the spiritual layer she has added to her life, and she is torn between satisfying herself and appeasing them.
“My heart really hurts right now,” she told me. “If they knew half of what goes on in the Buddhist center I belong to, or half of what I say in the morning when I do chants, it would absolutely freak them out. So I will probably always edit what I say and what I expose them to.” She keeps a small Buddhist shrine in her Manhattan apartment; when her parents visit, she takes most of it down.
Three of my four sisters are still practicing Catholics; none of my brothers are. Most of them are curious about my God-wrestling, as we sometimes call it, but they don’t seem to want or need it for themselves. My mother, meanwhile, remains the most devoted Catholic I have ever known. Two summers ago, I was sitting with her on a screened-in porch in the Adirondacks. Everyone else was off swimming or fishing. To that point, I hadn’t asked her how she felt about my push toward Judaism, since I was pretty sure I knew. Now, though, I decided to go ahead with the question.
She tilted her face toward me and almost smiled. “How can I tell you what to believe?” she said. “You have to be true to your own conscience, and you have to do what you think is right.” Her answer surprised me and pleased me.
“But,” she went on, “I see this as the loss of a great opportunity for you.” She respected Judaism, she explained, but only as the foundation for Catholicism.
Her tone of voice encouraged no argument. A door slammed, and my niece ran in, dripping wet, wanting to tell Grandma about her swim. I was relieved to be interrupted. For the first time, I had felt the sting of rebuke that, a half- century ago, my parents must have felt tenfold.
IT MAY BE THAT THE TRANSCENDENT MYSTERY of a religious conversion, like the transcendence of sex, is incommunicable. A conversion is a tangle of loneliness, ambition, fear and, of course, hope. It is never tidy. The memoirs written by converts are generally one of two kinds: the breathless account of an irreversible epiphany (I tend to be skeptical of these) and the story wherein a convert pokes around his soul and his mind, yet arrives at no more concrete an explanation than a pressing desire to change the course of his life.
The current boom in choosing religion exists precisely because such inquiry is allowed today — as opposed to when my parents converted. There has never been a more liberal time and place than pre-millennial America to explore a given religion, both intellectually and spiritually. Fifty years ago, challenging a religious text or arguing with doctrine bordered on the heretical; now it is fashionable. Most denominations have become adept at packaging themselves, at disseminating their doctrines and rewards. “It’s supply-side religion,” Barry Kosmin says. “It’s a free-market situation, and anything you can do to survive in that market, you’ll do.”
What the trends don’t reveal, of course, is the fiercely personal nature of any religious search. Daniel Dunn, 26, a database programmer in Boca Raton, Fla., who grew up in the United Church of Christ, became a Catholic after a serious water-skiing accident left him wondering why he hadn’t died. “I would go every Sunday and sit in the back pew, just watching and listening to the weekly Scriptures,” Dunn says. “I was able to relate to each one in some way, which I hadn’t been able to do as a young person.”
Everyone who chooses a religion is running toward — and away from — his own mountain of questions. As adults, at least people know how to ask those questions and, just as important, how to argue — with their religions, their consciences, their families. They experience the intoxicating jolt of learning a religion with the intellect of an adult rather than the rote acceptance of a child.
I recently met a 22-year-old woman named Fatima Shama, whose mother is a devout Catholic from Brazil and whose father, a Palestinian Muslim, isn’t very religious, Shama said. Shama grew up Catholic in the Bronx; she saw Islam, as practiced by her aunts, as exceedingly anti-female. At college, though, she discovered literary interpretations of the Koran, many written by women.
“I realized that everything I’d been taught as a child was wrong,” she told me. “I began to separate out the Islamic religion from the Arabic culture, to learn what was really what.” She now practices Islam, albeit a more liberal form than her aunts do, and insists that she will marry an Arab-American Muslim. “All my brothers and sisters, they think I’m whacked,” Shama said. “They always say to me, ‘Where did you come from?’ ”
I have been asked the same question, now that I am becoming a Jew — or, as some would argue, as I am learning to be the Jew that I have always been. I was, after all, born of a Jewish mother; curious as my religious provenance may be, my bloodline would provide entry into either the state of Israel or a concentration camp.
Four years ago, I first sat down with my mother and a tape recorder. I had to know at least a little bit about my Jewish family, and how Florence Greenglass became Veronica Dubner. And I had to understand what made me so badly want to be Jewish when both my mother and father wanted so badly not to be.
WHAT COULD BE CALLED THE FIRST existential thought of Florence Greenglass’s life occurred in 1931, when she was 10. In bed with a cold, she heard her friends playing stickball outside and realized that, with or without her, life would go rambling on. From that day, she pondered the ephemerality of her existence, and her fate.
Her father, Harry, was an agnostic, a quietly affable man who ran a candy store on Lincoln Place in Brooklyn. Florence had an older sister and a mother, Esther, who disapproved of most things that Florence was interested in. Harry and Esther, born poor in Russia, were now inching toward the middle class. They were the only Jews in their neighborhood, which was mostly Catholic. Florence’s grandmother was Orthodox and devout, but the rest of the family observed only Passover and a few other holidays.
Florence considered her Jewishness largely inconsequential. “Except I do remember one time, this girl standing up in class, in sixth grade,” she told me. “This very, very blond girl, her name was Ann Ross. And she said, ‘My father thinks that Hitler has the right idea about the Jews.’ That was kind of a blow, to hear somebody come out and say that.”
When Florence was 13, she began studying ballet in Manhattan. Her teacher, Asta Souvorina, was about 60, a former Russian ballerina and actress who had fled Moscow in 1917. Madame Souvorina, as her students always called her, had converted to Catholicism from Russian Orthodoxy. She was domineering, charming, melodramatic; an intellectual, a storyteller — a mentor in every sense. Florence became her star dancer, performing in her small company and later in nightclub acts.
Florence and some of the other girls virtually lived at the studio, where Mme. Souvorina held forth on many subjects. When she mentioned the Epistles of St. Paul, Florence was curious: she had no idea that a living, breathing person, a Jew no less, had left behind such a dramatic record of his newfound faith, and such a compelling explanation of everlasting life. She read Paul’s letters and felt they had the ring of truth.
“Well, if you really believe, you ought to do something about it,” Mme. Souvorina told her. “You ought to get baptized, because that’s what Jesus said you should do.”
But Florence had much to reconcile — the Virgin Birth, for instance, seemed highly implausible. Her search was long and gradual. She devoured literature and asked endless questions of priests and her Catholic friends. One day, she went to Mass at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, on West 71st Street in Manhattan, just down Broadway from Mme. Souvorina’s studio. She was 21.
Even now, after more than 50 years, my mother’s eyes brighten at the memory, and her voice shoots up an octave: “The priest was saying, ‘God said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him.” ‘ Those words were the key to my conversion, actually — ‘hear Him,’ listen to Jesus and do what He said. And all of a sudden, everything made sense.”
About two years ago, I asked my mother how she ultimately came to accept the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection on a literal level. “First of all, it’s told in Scripture,” she said. But how had she come to believe Scripture? “Because you feel that Scripture was divinely inspired, for one thing — it’s not a fairy tale that’s made up.” But how was she convinced that the Gospels canonized in the New Testament were divinely inspired, as opposed to all the conflicting gospels that didn’t make it in?
A long, jagged pause. “It’s the gift of faith,” she said, “and faith is a gift.”
It’s the gift of faith, and faith is a gift. Where could I go with that? I recalled how our parents used to parry any questions about Catholicism: faith, they told us, is a treasure that can neither be questioned nor fully explained.
Florence was baptized at Blessed Sacrament, and her new faith immediately became the most valuable thing in her life. Esther, her mother, was heartsick and furious — what kind of daughter would betray the family, betray the Jews? Esther tried to plead, bully, threaten her daughter out of it. Veronica, as she now called herself, put up a font of holy water in her bedroom; when she came home, it was missing. “My mother told me I was to blame for her arthritis,” she remembers. “And when my father died, she said he died because of me.”
She had anticipated her mother’s anger. “But you see, this was calculated — you know what you’re going to have to give up,” she says. “And to me, it was worth it. It’s like the story in the Scripture, where you sell everything you have to buy this pearl of great value. That’s what you do when you find that pearl — you pay the price. And I could not have lived with myself if I hadn’t done it.”
A CONFESSION: MUCH OF THE TIME MY MOTHER IS telling me about her conversion, I am thinking about my father. When she mentions a book that influenced her, I ask if he read it, too. I prod her to remember more of his life, to think of more people I can interview about what he was like as a Jew and why he converted.
Instead, she sends me a letter from a nun named Sister June. “Dear Mrs. Dubner,” it says. “I was with Paul when he died — it was very peaceful. I was praying with him — he opened his eyes halfway and seemed to look at me. I kept saying the name of Jesus in his ear. I rejoice that he sees the Lord face to face.”
I have the urge to round up 10 Jews and drive upstate to the Catholic cemetery where he is buried, to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
The evidence of my father’s Catholicism is overwhelming. Yet in recreating his life, I found myself thinking of him as a Jew. I would cling to the un-Catholic stories I heard, no matter how wispy, like the time he came back to New York and immediately picked up a copy of The Jewish Daily Forward. He was proud he could still read Yiddish.
I never got to ask him what led to his conversion, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered. He seems to have told no one. Even my mother’s recollections are painfully featureless. His only significant written traces are 18 wartime letters he sent to my mother, all from after his baptism. I studied them endlessly — even the envelopes held potential clues — and scurried off to read the books he mentioned in them. I tracked down relatives who knew of my existence only as a shadowy member of “the Catholic part of the family” (or, occasionally, worse). Some of the reunions were cathartic: “What’s this I hear about you becoming Jewish again?” one aunt asked me. “Oh, that’s good, that’s good.” IN LATE 1944, SOL DUBNER WAS HOME IN NEW YORK on furlough. As a teen-ager, he had been sharp and full of ambition, but the war had worn him down, made him lonely, set him searching. He had spent two years with a medical unit at Army hospitals, most recently on Christmas Island. He had written home that he was the only Jew there. What he didn’t write home was that after encountering a group of Christian missionaries, he had undergone a nondenominational baptism. And he was pretty sure he wanted to become a Catholic.
Back in Manhattan, he saw a posting for a dance sponsored by the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, and he went around to talk to the priest. “Tell me, Father,” he said, “did you ever hear of another creature like me, a Jew who wants to become a Catholic?”
Actually, there were a few such creatures, the priest told him, whom Sol could find at a meeting of young Catholics the following night.
Although my mother insists that in the beginning it was only a friendship, other evidence suggests that she and Sol fell in love at the meeting that night. He asked question after question, especially about the Virgin Mary and why she was so key to Catholicism. Veronica, because she had asked the same questions herself two years earlier, could answer them. They spent much of Sol’s furlough together, going to Mass regularly.
Sol returned to duty in January, at an Army hospital in Hawaii. “There’s a good chance of my being baptized at this post as the chaplain here is pretty interested in my case,” he wrote to Veronica.
The chaplain was a German-born Catholic priest named Ulrich J. Proeller. He is now 92 and lives in San Antonio. I called him to see what he could tell me of my father’s conversion.
He said he couldn’t recall a thing. A wartime conversion, he explained, was often no more than “a momentary transaction.” Then he suddenly said: “I remember he was a very alert young fellow, very interested. It was a joy to instruct him.
“There were not many Jewish converts,” he went on. “He took confidence in me somehow. And I was grateful — I wanted to create better feelings between the Christians and the Jews, since I had the experience of the Jews in Germany.”
Father Proeller paused for a minute. “Wartime is good for converts,” he finally said. “The Jews felt kind of lonely, you know, because they were so few, so they picked out what they thought was the best, as far as services were concerned, and they stuck with that.”
He made it sound so casual! Like a recipe from an Army cookbook: Take one New York City Jew; place him in the middle of nowhere (preferably during a war that’s killing Jews by the millions); add a flock of missionaries; top with a gung-ho priest (German if possible). Yield: one Catholic.
Sol, ecstatic after his baptism, wrote to Veronica steadily. March 29, 1945: “I know it would knock you for a loop to know that I am toying with the notion of becoming a priest after the war.” Aug. 16, 1945: “At long last we have peace again! . . . If God wills it, I may be back home in four or five months!” Sept. 14, 1945: “It’s going to be hard to make my family understand why I am a Catholic. . . . Perhaps I will find some room and board in New York till I decide what my future plans will be.”
Sol’s father, Shepsel, was one of the most rigorously observant Orthodox men in the neighborhood. He and his wife, Gussie, had come from a small Polish town called Pultusk, north of Warsaw. They settled in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where they ran a tiny kosher restaurant.
Sol, the fifth of six children, had wanted to be a writer, to play the saxophone, to study in France after high school. “Whatever he thought about doing, Shepsel would slap down,” my Aunt Dottie told me. Sol never got along with his father, and often stayed with an older brother. “Shepsel was very, very strict, to a fault really,” Dottie says. “It was because of the religion.”
Gussie, meanwhile, was as gentle and encouraging as Shepsel was harsh, and Sol was extremely close to her. One day, he was walking home from high school, whistling. A neighbor shouted out the window: “Hey, Sol, what are you whistling for? Don’t you know your mother’s dead?” Gussie, 51, had had high blood pressure and died suddenly. On the day of her funeral, the street was packed with mourners.
LAST YEAR, BEFORE ROSH HA-SHANAH, I WENT TO A Judaica shop on West 30th Street to buy a tallis — a prayer shawl — and a yarmulke. A man with short red hair and eyeglasses, about 35, grabbed my arm as I walked in. “Come on, we need you,” he said. It was time for afternoon prayers, and they were one man shy of the necessary 10.
“I can’t — I have to get back to my office,” I lied.
“Come on,” he said. “A couple of minutes.”
I sputtered again: can’t .. can’t … can’t. Finally: “I don’t know how.”
From behind the counter, a woman’s voice: “Leave him alone already. You’ll get someone else.”
A minute later, a 10th man came in and I slunk off to buy my things. At home that night, I stood in front of a mirror, put on the yarmulke and started to wrap myself in the prayer shawl. I was feeling the deep tug of ritual. I got the shawl around my shoulders, though not without a struggle, but then the yarmulke fell off my head. I put it back on, then got my forearms tangled in the shawl, like a mummy. The yarmulke fell off again. As I grabbed for it, I heard the shawl rip.
For about two seconds, I laughed. Then I got sad, and angry — that I don’t even know how to put on a prayer shawl. That, at 32, I have to sound out my Hebrew like a first grader. That, even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have been the 10th man.
My father was never overwhelmingly religious; none of Shepsel’s children turned out to be. But he certainly knew his way around Judaism and what it would mean to abandon it. I tried to imagine his mind-set on Christmas Island. I knew that the war had depressed him, and that it was hardly an easy time to be even an American Jew. Ever since his mother died, his home situation had been rocky, and he wasn’t exactly flush with career opportunities after the war.
Reading the New Testament with my father in mind, I came across any number of passages that might have seized him. In Matthew 19:29, for instance: “And everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over, and also inherit eternal life.” But I couldn’t imagine the son of an Old World Jew, even one who was willing to shed his Judaism, being satisfied by the Gospels alone, no matter how deft their politics and psychology.
One day, my mother mentioned a book that my father said had greatly influenced him: “Rebuilding a Lost Faith,” by John L. Stoddard. Dots began to connect. In one wartime letter, Sol mentioned giving the same book to a friend, and his first job after the war was at P. J. Kenedy & Sons, the Catholic publisher that had put out the Stoddard book — surely not a coincidence.
I was nervous about reading the book. I wanted it to reveal the mystery of his conversion, and I dreaded that it wouldn’t. It turned out to be a fairly dry piece of hard-sell apologetics; the last chapter is called “Some Catholic Privileges and Compensations.” The moment I read Stoddard’s passage about the special appeal of the Virgin Mary, I felt that I owned my father’s secret:
“All hearts are not alike. Some unimpassioned souls prefer to pray to God alone. . . . Others are moved to hold communion with their Saviour only. . . . And there are others still, lone, orphaned hearts, who crave a mother’s love and care, and find the greatest surcease of their pain by coming to the Mother of their crucified Redeemer. . . . There are in every life some moments when a mother’s tenderness outweighs the world, and prayer to Mary often meets this want, especially when one’s earthly mother is forever gone.”
I wish I had my father’s copy. Would those sentences be underlined? Tear-stained? From the day he became a Catholic, my father was deeply devoted to Mary. He started a local chapter of the Blue Army, a group dedicated to Mary and the rosary, and constantly wore a scapular around his neck that contained her likeness. He took public-speaking courses, my mother told me, “because he wanted to go to church societies and speak about the Blessed Mother Mary.”
After the war, Sol did move back in with his family, keeping his conversion secret. His father had grown even more religious in his old age. One day, while Sol was out of the house, Shepsel went to fold a pair of pants that Sol had draped over a chair. A rosary dropped out of the pocket. “If a knife had been plunged into him, I don’t think he would have bled,” my Aunt Irene told me. “I thought he was going to take his own life.”
Instead, Shepsel went into a quiet rage. He declared his son dead and sat shiva, the seven-day mourning period. He announced that Sol was not to enter the house, nor was his name to be spoken. Sol was crushed. He tried to visit his father with Veronica, whom he was now planning to marry.
My mother, whose memory is amazingly Catholic-centric, cannot recall this meeting (which exasperates me to no end); I can only imagine the young couple, remotely hopeful and deathly nervous, standing before the seething old man.
They were married on March 2, 1946, at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn. Only a small group of friends, nearly all Catholics, attended. Shepsel kept his word about Sol, never even inquiring about his grandchildren.
Within a few years, Shepsel was dying of cancer in Kings County Hospital. Very near the end, he cried out: “Solly! Solly! Solly!” Maybe he regretted cutting off his son. Or maybe he was still angry. At the funeral, Sol wasn’t allowed inside the chapel, or to stand near the grave. When I learned about this in interviews with relatives, I couldn’t believe that my mother had never told me. As it turns out, she didn’t know — my father never told her. Nor had anyone ever told Sol that his father had been calling his name in the hospital.
I wonder how his life might have been different had he known. Perhaps he — and my mother — wouldn’t have been so determined to live as though their families and their Jewishness had never existed. As it was, they would build a future from the ground up, a foundation of secrets and hurt feelings plastered over by a seemingly endless supply of faith.
LIKE THE graduates of some notorious boot camp, my brothers and sisters and I look back with a sort of perverse glee at the rigors of our Catholicism. My oldest sister, Mary, was so convinced of the church’s omnipotence that when she walked into a Protestant church with some high-school friends, she was sure its walls would crash down on her head. We were expected to say our prayers with feeling, to go to Mass with joy and to confession with contrition. The boys were to become altar boys, and the girls were to emulate the Virgin Mary, in every way. Dating, if absolutely necessary, was to involve only other Catholics.
Our rebellions were many, but seldom vehement. When she went to college, Mary changed her name to Mona, for whom no saint is named. “Mary was just so religious,” she says now. “I never told Mom and Dad why I changed, though, because I didn’t want to hurt them. I resented them for requiring us to be so Catholic, but even then, I think, I knew that we had very decent parents.”
They were, indeed, unerringly decent — and inexorably Catholic. Soon after they were married, they visited a Pennsylvania farm retreat run by the Catholic Worker organization. Between the sessions on social activism and prayer, they learned about baking bread and growing vegetables, and saw the appeal of living off the land. It made sense: they could embrace the proud poverty of Catholicism and still produce a large and healthy family. In 1959, they bought an old farmhouse on 36 acres upstate near a town called Duanesburg.
Our father had been scraping by on two and three blue-collar jobs. Now, he became a journalist, which he had wanted to be all along. He worked as a copy editor at The Schenectady Gazette and then as the religion page editor at The Troy Record, for about $150 a week. Our mother ran the home operation: we milked our cow, slaughtered our chickens, baked our bread, tapped our maple trees and canned, pickled or froze anything that was remotely edible. We were eight Catholic Workers, obedient if reluctant. (We scraped the wheat germ off our oatmeal when Mom wasn’t looking and fed our vitamins to the dogs.)
At school, we were the kids who could never pull off a trade from our bag lunches. But we were also a sort of minor dynasty, one Dubner rolling through after the next. We played music and sports, occasionally made class president or valedictorian. We were a dependable brand name — a serendipitously un-Jewish-sounding brand name. All told, we passed beautifully as a Catholic family. Our father started the parish library, and our mother was the prime link on the local prayer chain, phoning other parishioners when someone took ill. When abortion was legalized, she helped start the local Right-to-Life chapter; as a 10-year-old, I was enlisted to help make up “Abortion Is Murder” posters with Magic Markers and yellow cardboard.
Along the way, our parents had discovered the charismatic renewal movement. I remember those prayer meetings more vividly than anything else from that time. About a dozen adults would gather in a ring of folding metal chairs; I was the only child there. They’d close their eyes and start to pray, quietly, addressing Jesus and God in what seemed to me startlingly intimate voices. They would open their pale blue booklets to sing, the melodies and words far more ethereal than our regular hymns. More silence, then they would start to mumble, their faces twisted in what looked like pain, and their voices would leap up and over one another’s, jagged bursts of unknown syllables.
I peeked through half-shut eyelids. Why were they making up this absurd language? Was I supposed to know it, too? It was several months before I heard someone refer to this drama as speaking in tongues; still, I didn’t understand. The prayer meetings scared me, and I dreaded going, but in our family it was impractical to refuse a religious duty.
Our father was now in his mid-50’s. He had had a number of health problems, but since finding the charismatic movement, he was on an upswing. It lasted about two years. At a large meeting of charismatics in Albany in late 1973, he gave a short inspirational talk, then sat down and slumped forward in his seat. My mother thought he had fallen asleep. He spent a month in the hospital, and died just before Christmas.
At his funeral Mass, I served as an altar boy while the rest of my family sat in the front pew. Afterward, in the sacristy, I remember coolly stripping off my cassock and hanging it neatly, the job done. I didn’t cry, then or later: my mother, the priest, my parents’ friends all told me how happy my father was in heaven, and how proud I should be that God wanted him.
I knew they really believed this, but I could neither believe nor disbelieve. To me, God was some sort of complicated magic trick, a foreign tongue I couldn’t speak. Every Sunday, I let the communion wafer dissolve on my tongue undisturbed, as the nuns had taught; I waited for the transubstantiation, to feel God filling up my body, a feeling I dearly wanted. Week after week, it didn’t happen.
After my father died, my mother began going to church even more often, every morning during the summer, and I usually went with her. I now believe that she may have mistaken my obedience for devotion, and that I encouraged her to do so. I had neither the courage nor the language to challenge her faith, much less reject it. I thought about God less and less, primarily as a punisher whose wrath I could escape by cleverness. Going off to college, I had a sharply defined religious identity that I was eager to shed.
FOR ROSH Ha-Shanah last year, I decided to go with a friend, Ivan Kronenfeld, to an old Orthodox synagogue on the Lower East Side. Even though the service would last into the night and would be totally in Hebrew, I felt armed to the teeth. I had bought a prayer book with English transliterations; I had been taking my classes; I was wearing my brand-new tallis. No doubt about it, I thought: Today, I am a Jew.
I sat in the second row with Ivan, who is in his late 40’s. In front of us were a tall, straight-backed man and his 15-year-old son. The boy wore eyeglasses and a suit like his father’s, and the two of them moved like a dancer and his shadow: standing-bowing-sittingstanding-singing, all with effortless passion. The boy was called up to sing from the Torah, and his voice was sweet and clear.
For the first hour or so, I hung in. But I kept losing my way in the prayer book. The tallis felt scratchy on my neck. The Hebrew was flying by too fast to sing along. Watching the boy and his father, I hated them. I had come here to pray, to account for my jealousy and selfishness of the past year; now I was jealous of the boy and selfish enough to pretend that I wasn’t. At the first break, I told Ivan I’d had enough, folded up my tallis and went home.
I had fallen in with Ivan a few years earlier, when I was studying and teaching writing in graduate school. A wise but decidedly unorthodox Jew, he was a brilliant, controlling mentor — an actor, a deal-maker, a raconteur, a scholar of boxing and psychology, of Marx and Maimonides. Once he heard my family’s story, he became my Virgil, shuttling me from a claustrophobic little Hasidic shul in Brooklyn to the sagging Judaica shops and bookstores on the Lower East Side. He lectured me on Akiba, Spinoza, Disraeli, Salk, Arthur Miller, Hank Greenberg, and most of it stuck. I felt as though I were growing into my skin, as though I were coming home to a place that I hadn’t known to exist. My mother, mean while, was sending me stacks of Catholic literature; for Easter, she gave me the New Testament on cassette.
Ivan introduced me to several rabbis, most of whom unhesitatingly pronounced me a Jew. I was proud, and confused. At shul, Ivan showed me how to touch the fringes of my tallis to the Torah, then to my lips, but I felt painfully awkward — half intruder, half impostor. As enthusiastic as I was about this new identity, I was growing leery of having it decreed by someone else. And Ivan, for all his sincerity, was, like Mme. Souvorina, not inclined to subtle encouragements.
I stopped trying to go to synagogue. Besides, I was busy exploring the secular precincts of an unspent Jewish youth: klezmer music, Ratner’s deli, Jewish girlfriends, Sholem Aleichem and The Forward, now published in English. One friend bought a mezuza for my door; he didn’t spend much, he joked, because he figured I’d be moving to Israel soon. I became what I wanted to become, a cultural and intellectual Jew — which left me wanting, as it had my parents.
But it left us wanting different things. My mother, recognizing life’s temporality, was determined to insure a life everlasting. For reasons I can’t explain, I was less consumed with beating back the darkness of death than with finding a schematic for the here and now.
About 18 months ago, I called my mother to tell her that I had taken on a book project, helping to put together the teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Her first reaction was that it might be dangerous, because the Hasids were such obvious targets for anti-Semites. Then she said that it might be good for me, since understanding Judaism would deepen my understanding of Catholicism.
Working on the book meant thinking and reading about God a great deal, from the simplest Hasidic parables to the Talmud, the writings of Martin Buber and the medieval French scholar Rashi. It didn’t take long to realize what a painfully narrow view of God I had grown up with. Now, my mind purged of fairy-tale images, unencumbered by fear, able to see that religion itself is man-made, I began to wrestle with a new idea of God. And I came to understand that the very act of wrestling is paramount. Quite organically, I had begun to think Jewishly about God.
For several months, I was content simply to relish this understanding. But I was bombarded by small, sacred moments. Now that my head was engaged, my soul demanded the same attention. I started going to synagogue again (and learning my way around the service), reading the Torah, having Shabbos dinner and studying the Talmud with friends. I started spending more time with Ivan.
As a Jew, I am still astoundingly ignorant, and sometimes compensate with enthusiasm, like trying to tackle the Orthodox Rosh ha-Shanah service last fall. I recognized my parents in this enthusiasm; it is common to the convert — a giddy rush to gather up the promises of a new and better life and hold them so tightly to your breast that they might pass through to your heart.
Sometimes they do. Eight days after the Rosh ha-Shanah service, I went back to Ivan’s shul for Yom Kippur: I had decided that I didn’t need to be perfect to be a good Jew. The straight-backed man and his son were in the front pew again, singing beautifully. The rabbi, a soft-voiced, sad-eyed old man, turned out to be the boy’s grandfather. He stepped forward to give a sermon. During these days of reflection, he said, he had been asking himself what makes us keep on being Jews when it’s such a struggle. “And I found the answer in six words,” he said. “Six words in the Talmud, written by Rashi: ‘He will not let us go.’ ”
It isn’t a matter of our choosing whether to quit God, the old rabbi explained; it is God who chooses not to quit us.
Of course! I immediately understood that, as much as I had chosen my religion, I chose the one that had chosen me. I had come to Judaism for many, many reasons, but the journey soon developed its own relentless, inexplicable momentum — the same sort of momentum, obviously, that had moved my parents in the opposite direction.
But was it even the opposite direction? True, the relative merits of Catholicism and Judaism could be argued endlessly, as my mother and I have tried; but hadn’t my parents and I ultimately trodden the same path? Like Abraham, we left our native land and our father’s house for a land we did not know. As much as ours were spiritual acts, they were cultural, familial and psychological acts as well. Choosing a religion means far more than choosing a new perspective on God — it informs how we talk, eat and vote, how we think about justice and history, money and sex. We choose a new religion to choose a new self, to set ourselves apart from where we have come. My parents, as it turns out, were practicing identity politics long before it had a name.
The day after Yom Kippur, I left on a trip to Poland. When I got to Pultusk, where my father’s parents came from, I wanted to see where their parents were buried. As in most of Europe, the Nazis had made the Jews of Pultusk tear down their families’ gravestones for building material. My hotel, a sprawling hilltop castle, was a former bishop’s residence; during the war, it had been commandeered by the Nazis. The Jewish gravestones, I was told, had been used to pave the courtyard where I was just strolling.
My first taste of Jewish rage was deep; it was a shock to realize what I had become a part of. That night, lying in bed, I recognized how thoroughly my siblings and I had been spared that rage. I also recognized, for the first time, that had my parents not become such fervent Catholics, I probably wouldn’t have been born — how many Jewish families of the 1950’s and 60’s, after all, had eight children? MY MOTHER IS A GENTLE WOMAN, BUT HER Catholicism runs so deep that I was sure she couldn’t accept her youngest son as a Jew. Long after my intentions were known, she gave me for my birthday a coffee-table book called “The Living Gospels of Jesus Christ.”
The first sign of detente was a newspaper clipping she sent last year, just after the Easter and Passover holidays. It was about a group of Jews in Sarajevo who had celebrated Passover with a famous 14th-century Haggadah that had miraculously survived the Bosnian war.
When the Rabbi Schneerson book came out, she sent me a note: “Great work! And I can see why you’re attracted to Judaism. For me, Catholicism is the blossoming or fruition or completion of Judaism. Lots of love, Mom.”
When we had first sat down to talk about her conversion, she was cooperative but unenthusiastic. Now she was calling to reminisce about her family seders. She would even call to talk about the family story that pained her the most: David Greenglass and Ethel Greenglass, who married Julius Rosenberg, were my mother’s first cousins; she had known them fairly well as a girl. No one in my family was aware of this until a few years ago, and when I first asked my mother about it, she reached out and turned off the tape recorder.
Ours is still a fragile understanding, built as it is over such powerful waters. I believe it is an understanding, though, not a capitulation. I think she realizes that I did indeed inherit her faith, and the faith of my father, but that it has taken a different shape.
Just before Christmas, I drove upstate to my father’s cemetery. I was ready to carry out my act of spiritual subterfuge: I had a yarmulke and the Mourner’s Kaddish in my pocket. It took me a while to find his marker. I scraped off the snow, saw the cross and then his name. I never reached for the yarmulke. Would I want some son of mine saying the rosary when I’m lying in a Jewish cemetery? Painful as it has been to accept my father’s choice, it was his choice, just as I’ve been free to make mine. I ended up having a conversation with him; it cleared up a lot of things. I did leave a little stone at the corner of his plot.
When I got home, there was a Christmas card from my mother, offering me a novena. And, in a separate envelope, a Hanukkah card. “I don’t remember my letters enough to translate this,” she wrote beneath the Hebrew lettering, “but I’m sure it’s a good wish.”
On the phone a few days later, she told me about spending Christmas Eve alone. With eight children, Christmas had always been a rambunctious affair, and in the past she had missed it. This year, she just quietly reflected on her faith: Dec. 24 was the anniversary of her baptism, 53 years ago. She thought about all her blessings, she said, and about my father, “happy as he can be, because he’s got it all, face to face with God.”
In the past, I would have shut out a comment like that — it’s too far removed from what I believe. Now I just listened to the serenity in her voice. There was a long silence on the line. It was the sound of forgiveness, I’m sure, and it was traveling in two directions.
Copyright © 1996 by Stephen J. Dubner
Reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, LLC on behalf of the Author
Material originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.