Turbulent Souls, by Stephen J. Dubner

Discussion Guide
Rabbi Eric Bram


While Stephen Dubner's book is a fascinating memoir, the telling of a son's individuation and journey, it is also our story -- Turbulent Souls is, in many ways, the story of American Jewishness in the twentieth century. The social contract between America and her Jews has changed dramatically in the last 100 years, and Turbulent Souls is a record of that change, as seen through the generations of the author's family. Jewishness has been both a source of deep shame and exultant pride, something to flee from as well as to embrace. With Mr. Dubner, we walk the tightrope of the American-Jewish hyphen.

Book One 

"The Call of Abraham" (Genesis 12:1) reminds us of our earliest beginnings, of where we were when we embarked on our journey. Book One is the story of the author's parents' individual struggle to leave home, journey from Judaism to Catholicism, and find each other.

Questions for Discussion 

  1. For the author's parents, Jewishness was something to overcome. Whether that sentiment originated in the rigidity and absurdity of religious "mumbo jumbo" or the alienation and family dysfunction that resulted from poverty and hopelessness, they viewed being Jewish as a disability. Has that outlook changed for Jews today?
  2. If religion is the vocabulary of family process, what did Paul's and Veronica's individual conversion from Judaism say?
  3. Solomon became Paul and Florence became Veronica. Why have name changes become much less common today? Have any members of your family changed their name?
  4. As a Jew, how did you feel about Sol's and Florence's independent decision to leave Judaism? Why?
  5. Have members of your family left Judaism? Why did they leave? How did the other family members react?
  6. Would more or better Jewish education have prevented Sol and Florence from converting? Why or why not?
  7. Veronica refers to Catholicism as "true." She sees it as the "completion" of Judaism. What is your response to this statement?

Book Two 

John Heywood's quote "Enough is as good as a feast" sets the scene for the author's story of growing up and making his own way in the world.

Questions for Discussion 

  1. What drew Stephen Dubner back to Jewishness?
  2. Reform Judaism's view that Jewish status is conferred by having at least one Jewish parent and being raised as a Jew would require Stephen Dubner-even though he had two born-Jewish parents-to convert if he wished to claim his Jewishness. Do you think that being a Jew is a matter of blood or conviction?
  3. How do you think a Catholic reader of Turbulent Souls would respond to Stephen Dubner's journey "back" to Judaism? Why?
  4. In what ways are the author's experiences of growing up in a Catholic family similar to or different from the experiences of the Conversos, medieval Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism?
  5. Was the author's upbringing a "feast" or a "famine"?

Book Three 

"We are not so virtuous as the angels, or so beautiful or powerful, but we are much more interesting." (Paul Johnson) Book Three is the story of the author's search for reconciliation with his family while maintaining the integrity of his own journey.

Questions for Discussion 

  1. We know we have successfully individuated when we live away from our parents but are welcome to visit their home. How does Stephen Dubner's individuation compare to your own?
  2. In some ways Turbulent Souls is a book within a book: We are told a story and then told a story about how the author found out about the original story. Which story interested you more?
  3. Cardinal O'Connor serves as a deus ex machina (the unexpected introduction of a god to bring about the final outcome) in the story. If this book had been written before Jewish-Catholic dialogue and reconciliation had begun, how differently might the story have ended?
  4. Recent developments in Christian attitudes toward Judaism seem to indicate that the two communities are more reconciled now than in the past. The recognition of God's covenant with Israel and Jews as eternally valid by some Christian denominations has changed the relationship between Christians and Jews significantly. How might the Dubner family's story been different had such changes occurred earlier? How might it have been different if these changes had not happened at all?
  5. How did you react to Veronica's final blessing to Stephen that is recorded on page 313?

Themes for Further Discussion 

  1. The reaction of second-generation American Jews to their parents' observance of Orthodoxy frequently led many of them to abandon that practice in favor of other ways: Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, secularism, and conversion. Which Jewish traditions that were left behind that are, in your opinion, of value today?
  2. In America, every Jew is a Jew-by-choice. What does this mean to you?
  3. What makes a soul "turbulent"? Compared to the souls of the Dubner family, how turbulent is your soul? What are some of the ways in which people calm their soul's turbulence?
  4. We live in the era of the memoir. How would you compare Turbulent Souls to other memoirs you have read?
  5. If you had the opportunity to interview Stephen Dubner, what questions would you ask him?

Telling Your Own Story 

Reading Turbulent Souls is an invitation to consider the story of Jewishness in your own life and that of your family. Members of a study group might choose to synthesize their reactions to Turbulent Souls by writing and sharing their own stories.

If you were born into a Jewish family:

  • How much do you know about your family's Jewish journey?
  • How is your understanding of being Jewish different from that of your parents and grandparents?
  • What, if any, conflicts were created by those differences?
  • How has your Jewish journey changed over time?

If you have embraced Judaism recently:

  • How did your decision to become Jewish affect your family?
  • Has the reaction of the Jewish community to your decision surprised you?
  • How has your Jewish journey changed over time?
  • Some people who have chosen Judaism have discovered that they have Jewish ancestry. What, if anything, would that mean to you?