Rebellion is considered a natural part of adolescent and early adulthood development and a topic of interest for many therapists and clients in therapy. Rebellion can look remarkably different depending on the rebellious actor and their family unit. While some rebellious acts, like cutting class or shaving one’s head, seem obvious, others feel more confusing and vague.
The choice to convert one’s religion is a complicated one. Clinicians may view it as a rebellion or a conscious or unconscious effort to separate. Parents who are observant in any faith typically experience a child’s conversion as a painful rejection of the family unit. But when someone is drawn to this choice, the experience is often so powerful and mystical that it can be difficult to assign the label of rebellion. When a young adult turns away from the religious faith in which they are raised, is this a spiritual calling? Or a radical rebellion?
Stephen Dubner’s bestselling book, Turbulent Souls, explores the author’s search to understand his Jewish parents’ choice to convert to Catholicism before his birth. Raised as a devout altar boy, Dubner is surprised when he begins college and many people he meets assume that he is Jewish. Growing up, Dubner did not know any Jewish people in the rural farming community in which he was raised. While as a young child he possessed a vague understanding that his parents “used to be Jewish,” his understanding of Judaism was so limited that he also thought that Jewish people had horns.
One of the many unusual twists in Dubner’s story is that both of his parents were raised in observant Jewish homes in New York. Florence was raised in Brooklyn and found herself called to the church while visiting a service with her dance instructor in Manhattan. Like Florence, Sol was raised by immigrant parents in New York. He lost his mother at age fifteen and struggled with a rejecting father. He wandered into a Manhattan church after returning from military service in World War II. Florence and Sol were both in the process of converting when they locked eyes in church, fell in love, decided to change their names to Veronica and Paul and begin an observant Catholic life in the remote countryside.
The more deeply Dubner digs into his parents’ collective past, the more profoundly he finds himself drawn toward Judaism. Dubner writes movingly about faith, family, mysticism and love:
Was it love that inspired my return to Judaism? No, I told myself, not love. It was something smaller than love, less desperate. It was instinct. My noisy soul had demanded that I follow the flow of my blood.
But that flow, of course, had now led to my father. I had never been brave enough to consider what his death had truly done to me. Perhaps it had damaged me as much as his mother’s death had damaged him.
Turbulent Souls does not place one faith above another. It digs deep into divergent views and conflicting directions. The relationships are animated through honest conversations about faith and the characters come alive through the embrace of their respective paths.
Readers may recognize Stephen Dubner as the author of Freakonomics.