Stephen J. Dubner’s novel Turbulent Souls Analysis

According to Soren Kierkergaard, a prominent existentialist, in Stephen J. Dubner’s novel, Turbulent Souls, the protagonists, Stephen, Veronica, and Paul Dubner, are the quintessential “Knights of Faith”. A ” Knight of Faith” is the existentially perfect man or woman who could grasp his own freedom and create his own destiny. Despite the disconnectedness of the world, the “Knight of Faith” finds the courage to unify his or her world through an act of determination. Through much searching, the “Knight of Faith” discovers that man is entrapped in absolute isolation.
Prior to becoming a ” Knight of Faith” he or she must take a ” leap of faith” into something higher and beyond the self such as into belief in G-d. The only way authentically to take a ” leap of faith” and to escape the anxiety and despair that is the quintessence of the universal human condition is to choose despair, and to sink so deep into despair that one loses all commitment of family, friends, and community. When these are all lost, with absolutely nothing left, in a complete crisis, and at the edge of the abyss, he or she will be prepared for faith in G-d, he or she will chose G-d, and make the “leap of faith” to G-d.
Therefore, he or she has created a unique connection with G-d and has conquered his or her fears, and the hypocrisies and tribulations in the world. Propelled by psychological despair and existential emptiness, each of the three principal characters embarks upon a quest for spiritual enlightenment and/or emotional healing. The novel begins by discussing the childhood of Stephen’s parents, Sol and Florence, and after their conversion, Paul and Veronica.

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Florence’s basis of her conversion and her quest for spiritual bliss began even as a little girl in her parent’s, Esther and Harry, small apartment in Brooklyn, New York, above Harry’s candy store. Every night, when Florence’s mother would come up the stairs from the candy store she would say to Florence, “Your father, he works so hard he must be made from iron. And Florence in her singsong voice, always gave the same retort: Well then, he better not go out in the rain or he’ll get all rusty”(3). Florence had a special connection with her father, and it was only her mother who she ridiculed.
Both Florence and her father did not appreciate how “Esther would prattle on about her brother the big fabric man, who just bought a new house, and how his wife always has new hats and how their children were smarter and healthier that their own children, how little Irving could eat a whole head of lettuce and drink a whole quart of milk at one meal”(4). In addition, ” Every year Florence asked her mother to teach her the Four Questions so she could ask them at the Seder. What’s the use, her mother would say. Your cousin Irving’s the boy, and he’s the smarter one anyway, so Irving gets to ask the questions”(7).
This had a tremendous impact on her because her mother instilled in her the notion that she is not worthy, which could possibly be a reason for her conversion to Catholicism, which she felt to be more accepting. Florence and her sister Della did not get along very well, so “Florence’s favorite playmate was her grandmother Sarah-Ruhkel… they would giggle and cuddle like friends…. At night she sat on the edge of Florence’s bed and told stories of Queen Esther. She taught Florence how to thank G-d for the good day and ask him for a good husband when the time came”(6).
Unfortunately, “When her grandmother wasn’t around she was lonely”(7). One afternoon, Florence was playing outside with another friend, they both needed to go to the bathroom but her friend lost her house key, so they waited by the stoop. Her friend said a prayer and a few minutes later a man came home and let them in. Florence thought about what happen and she “knew it wasn’t magic, quite; it was certainly a different way of looking at things. She didn’t mention it to anyone. Who would listen? “(8). In this moment, she sees her friend’s prayer answered and concludes that it was more then luck that caused it.
It was the will of G-d. One spring when Florence was sick in bed and she heard her friends playing outside, she experienced her first existential thoughts in her life. She thought, “Boy oh boy, life goes on all by itself whether I’m there or not”(8). The one thing she feared the most was death, and when her grandfather died, She wonder[ed] what had become of him. Not his corpse-that she understood-but the rest of him. Was there more of him. She wasn’t sure. She could not forget the realization she’d had lying in bed that day, hearing her friends playing with out her.
If things didn’t change when she wasn’t here, what did it matter if she was here or not? But she was here. What for then? To think of herself as merely a random collection of muscle and teeth and curls was unspeakably sad. And yet the other possibility-that there was some sort of purpose to life that she must fathom and follow-made her dizzy (20). The first time Florence introduced anti-Semitism was when ” a girl named Ann Ross, with blond hair and very blue eyes, had stood up and declared: My father says that Hitler has the right idea about the Jews”(21).
Again, she encountered anti-Semitism when an older boy from her neighborhood said, “What do you want little Jew? He said, and spat in her face”(22). She did not mention either incident to her parents because her father did not have the time for it and her mother already had to many worries. A few years later Florence went to ballet classes with a friend who invited her. The teacher’s name was Asta Souvorina, but every one called her Madame Souvorina, and Florence felt that “there was an intensity spilling from her, and it attracted Florence like a magnet”(22).
Florence became Madame Souvorina’s best student and went to class everyday, and sometimes when Madame was sick she taught the class instead. Florence imitated everything that Madame did, and just like Madame was a vegetarian, she became a vegetarian. Florence also knew that Madame was Catholic, but all she ever knew about Catholicism seemed unbelievable, such as the virgin birth or the Resurrection. Madame was not interested in arguing with Florence about the eternal verities of Christendom, so she told Florence, “If you are so curious, … you should read about it yourself”(25).
Florence went ahead and read the Epistles, which were the letter from St. Paul, and she Was astounded to discover that a living, breathing person-a Jew, no less-had left behind such testimony. Everything she ever heard about Jesus seemed so far away, like a fairy tale. But Paul had been there. No, he hadn’t actually met Jesus, but his letters, she felt had the ring of truth. After all, Paul was an educated Jew who had traveled widely. Why would he write of being struck down blind on the road to Damascus, hearing Jesus calling to him from the clouds, had it not happened that way (25).
Florence never had done much thinking about God, and wondered what he looked like. She thought maybe he looked like, old Moishe, [her grandfather who past away], with a long, dusty beard; perhaps he had the face of a cloud. Or, Florence thought, perhaps the face of God was the face of Jesus, the young, loving, tortured face she had seen on the wall of Madame’s bedroom”(25). By now Florence was approaching stardom, and was going dance at Radio City Music Hall, but Florence’s mind still constantly swirled with distressing questions:
“Why had she been born and where would she go afterward? And might Jesus have anything to do with it? (26). Her one fear, death, according to Catholicism was not something to be afraid of, but was something to look forward to, which brought her a lot of comfort. She remembers, “” as a young girl she always was bemused when her Catholic friends talked about Heaven, as if they were sure of it. But St. Paul, in his Epistles, was sure of it to: ” Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air””(26). Madame directed her to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, where she spoke with a Catholic priest, Father Conroy, who taught her a little prayer that he promised would help.
The prayer was, “Give me the grace to know Your truth and the strength to follow it”(27). Over time, her curiosity became a need, and when Madame told her she “did not need to be Catholic to taste the Sacraments of the Church, and so she did”(28). She began attending mass and even went to confession. One morning at mass she listened absorbedly to the priest’s sermon, and “he cited the Gospel of John: God said, this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased; hear him”(29). Florence took this to heart and realized the “instructions could not have been simpler, or more welcome.
Florence, having exposed her heart, was now rewarded with the kiss of God upon her ear. The shadows of her soul were flooded with sunlight; a sublime peace settled over her. She understood that she had received the gift of faith, and she would be eternally grateful”(29). Finally, through much searching she found spiritual enlightenment and has become a true “Knight of Faith”. Solly Dubner grew up in an orthodox family in Brownsville, New York. His parents’ names are Shepsel and Gittel. Unlike Florence, he loved his mother more then anything in the world.
Also, he loved to whistle all the time. Unfortunately, “whistling was forbidden in his father’s house. You might as well invite the Angel of Death. That, at least, is what his father believed”(9). Although his father kept a strict house, Solly obeyed his father because Any disobedience, however slight, made his father angry. And when is father was angry for whatever reason, he took it out on Solly’s mother, Gittel, rarely shouting but unfailing choosing the half dozen words that would conjure up the bitterest tears.
Solly, who loved his mother dearly, would have rather taken the strap any day. But Shepsel would never strike his children, for it is written. And if one were to ask him, Where is it written? It is written, it is written, he would say impatiently. The where is not important (10). Solly was never satisfied with his father’s answers. Nat, Solly’s older brother, always came home on Shabbat because he felt bad the others had to suffer Shepsel alone. Nat was particularly worried about Solly because “Shepsel seemed to have a particularly hard heart for him.
Solly, was different; he wanted more out of life, and Nat knew that more was the one thing that could not be found in their father’s house. As he walked home from school one Friday afternoon, ” from the second floor window, a man in his undershirt shouted down to him: Hey, Solly, what the hell are you whistling for-don’t you know your mother’s dead”(12). His father always said whistling was forbidden and you might as well invite the angel of death; therefore, after his mother’s death, Solly felt partially responsible because he always whistled. This guilt lead to the beginning of his bottomless depression.
According to Jewish law, one should bury the deceased as soon as possible, but since out of town relatives would not be able to attend to the funeral, they were forced to wait until they arrived. Shepsel gathered all of his children to watch their mother’s body until it was time to burial. The ice that was packed in her casket was melting; therefore, “a metal bucket was placed beneath the leaking casket. The dripping, the rising stench, the stab of his mother’s death-it was all to much for Solly, and he stood up to get some fresh air, but his father pressed him back into his seat”(17).
Solly had a lot of questions regarding Jewry, but sadly, ” concerning their religion, there was no question Solly could ask his father for which he received an answer that was remotely satisfying”(17). He kept falling deeper and deeper into depression and “everyone who knew Solly Dubner in the late 1930’s could see that a blanket of despair had befallen him. Though he was only in his early twenties, the courage of his youth had melted away and his optimism had withered”(31). In 1942, “the war at last came to America, Solly immediately enlisted in the Army.
Finally he could escape his father’s house”(33). It seems as if he is looking forward to the war coming to America, but since war is unpleasant, violent, and awful. After, the reader realized the reason he is jubilant is because the war is his savior from his father. After, serving in the Army for quite a while he came home for six weeks, and when he arrived home he went to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament. He met Father Conroy and asked him, “Have you ever heard of a creature like me, Father, a Jew who wants to be Catholic? As a matter of fact, Father Conroy answered, I have.
He told Sol about the group of young Catholic Activists he met with every Monday night. Two of the women, he explained were Jewish converts”(42), who were Florence and her friend, who was also a ballerina. At the end of his first meeting he told his story: He felt as if he’d been walking around in the dark, and… While he was station overseas, someone finally turned on the light, and that light was Jesus. She saw that there was a natural kindness about this soldier, and earnestness. He mentioned his father, a traditional Jew named Shepsel, who sounded an awful lot like Florence’s grandfather Moishe.
He hated what his decision would do to his father, the soldier was saying now, but there seemed no way around it-didn’t Jesus say that he had come to set a man against his father? (43). He told them that he had already had been baptized as a Christian, but he was not sure which denomination of Christianity to settle on. He wanted to become a Catholic, but did not understand the role of Virgin Mary in Catholicism. He asked the group, “Since she isn’t a member of the Holy Trinity, why would you worship her? Why would you pray to the Virgin Mary when you can pray directly to G-d?
Florence answered, “You don’t worship the Blessed Mother, you ask her to intercede… This is part of the beauty of Catholicism that you have all these wonderful saints you can pray to. Who better to Petition G-d than His mother, the Queen of Heaven? “(43). This was the first answer in his life that he was satisfied with. When he went to visit Nat and his wife, Dottie, ” They could see there was something different about him; it seemed as if the spark of his youth had returned, as if once again he had something at stake”(44). He was once again sent out to war.
Florence soon received a letter from Sol, which he wrote, ” I have been baptized and received my first communion. Needless to say, it was a most wonderful experience and I hope to strengthen my faith in Christ each single day”(47). At last, Sol has climbed out of his emotional despair, and not only has he gone through an almost complete emotional healing, but he has become spiritually enlightened through Catholicism. Stephen grew up in upstate New York on Gallupville Road, where his family was a safe distance from the true world, which is based on a materialistic and inauthentic way of life.
He is the youngest of Paul and Veronica’s eight children. His had no complaints about his isolated Catholic upbringing until his father died when he was ten. He only remembered a few things about his father. Such as every night at dinner he said, “You get a little food in your belly and you get rambunctious”(107), and once his father took him to a baseball game without any other siblings. After his father’s death he put his yearn for spiritual enlightenment to the side for a little while. When he went to College, he and a few of the other students created a band called “The Right Profile”.
When he had a little time off from school he caught a ride down to Florida with a friend, who was going down for his grandfather’s birthday, to visit his mom, who moved there about the same time he began college. On the way down to Florida he met an elderly Jewish woman at the birthday party and was attracted to her. He thought to himself, “I had never felt so instantly attracted to another person. But the feeling went beyond attraction. It was as if I were a piece of her somehow, or as if within her dwelled a piece of me that I had been searching for”(161).
He was attracted to her Neshama, her Jewish soul, and as a result of this attraction he began to question his ways of life and search for the truth. One day while fixing up a song that he was going to record the next day, “[his] hand without any instruction [he] was aware of, printed on the page: What do I want? “(166). He knew he did not want to continue this life of being a rock star, and on the other hand he said to himself, ” The band is all I [have]; the band is all I [am]”(167). His life contained no depth to it, and he needed to find his meaning of life.
He did not know at the time, that he was the same age as his mother when she quit ballet. AS he later learned, they both had removed themselves from one pursuit they cared about; they both felt, momentarily at least, that their lives were over. They had both asked themselves an unanswerable question and, hearing nothing but a still, small voice from within, a feathery voice of encouragement, had taken the leap. She leaped into the arms of Jesus, and he wound up leaping into the arms of Abigail Seymour. He could hardly have known that Abigail would lead him into a reckoning with his Jewish blood.
Abigail studied to become an actress with a Jewish man named Ivan Kronenfeld, who she introduced to Stephen. He was an inspiration to Stephen life Madame Souvorina had been to his mother. He gave a lot of things for Stephen to ponder like when he told him, “you’d have been plenty Jewish 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 ovens”(174). Also he informed Stephen that according to Jewish law he was still Jewish because his mother was Jewish.
He attended Synagogue one Saturday with Ivan and when he saw all of the Jews kiss the Torah as if it contained everything that they would ever need and everything that could ever be known. And on that day hope rested on his soul. He did not know anything about his father and mother, or why they had converted, and what it meant to him. This unawareness Was beginning to gnaw at [him]. Spending time with Ivan had awakened in [him] the idea of a father. It wasn’t that [he] wanted him as a father. [He] had his own;[he] just didn’t know him yet. But Ivan had awakened something else in [him]” an appetite for the Jewish wisdom he dispensed.
It was kaleidoscopic, baffling, thrilling; it spoke to [him] as nothing ever had. Did it speak to [him], though, on its own merit? Or because [his] long-lost father had been nourished on the same wisdom? Or perhaps it was because curling around somewhere inside [him] was a Jewish neshama, a Jewish soul? … The time had come to find [his] own [family] (183). So he followed the noise inside his soul, he searched for his parent’s roots. He became consumed with the desire to know how his mother and father decided to become Catholic. He wanted to know why they stopped being Jews.
He met a few of his long lost relatives from his father’s side, and began to reveal his father as a Jew. He broke up with Abigail because her Jewish quest was over, and also he was more focused on writing anyway. He went to Poland to the shtetl his family lived in to understand more about his family but he still was not satisfied. While his search for his parent’s past continues he continues studying Judaism fervently. Stephen’s leap of faith and spiritual enlightenment is not as immediate as his parents, but through much pain and toiling he has discover himself and has untangled his family’s roots.
According to Rabbi Eric Bram, Turbulent Souls is not only the story of a son’s individuation and journey; it is also the story of American Jewishness in the twentieth century. The connection between the country of American and its Jews has transformed significantly in the past century, Turbulent Souls is a proof of that transformation, as observed through the generations of Stephen Dubner’s family. Jewishness has been both a basis of triumphant pride and of bottomless shame, and something to flee from as well as to embrace. Along side Stephen Dubner, Jews today walk the tightrope of the American- Jewish.

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