This Day in Jewish History

1963: Reborn Jew and Freakonomics Co-father Is Born

Stephen Dubner barely knew what a Jew was, and isn't an economist but became famous for his religious rebirth and his analysis.

Stephen J. Dubner, reporter, with glasses and smiling, wearing button-down shirt with top button undone.
Audrey S. Bernstein, Wikimedia Commons

August 26, 1963, is the birthdate of Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the series of mega-best-selling “Freakonomics” books, and host of the radio show and podcast of the same name.

A very different Dubner claim to fame is his 1996 confessional New York Times Magazine article – and subsequent book – in which he explored his decision as an adult to embrace his Jewish heritage, after being raised in a devoutly Catholic home by parents who had undergone baptism as adults.

Although Dubner knew that his parents both came from Jewish families – families that he and his seven siblings rarely saw – it was not something discussed at home. But shortly before he turned 30, Dubner decided to investigate the circumstances of his parents’ respective conversions. That led him to begin learning about the faith they had left behind, before eventually deciding he wanted to live as a Jew himself. His Times article on the subject led to a 1998 book that, when it was reissued a decade ago, was newly titled “Choosing My Religion: A Memoir of a Family Beyond Belief.”

Beyond belief

Stephen J. Dubner was born in Duanesburg, a rural community in upstate New York. He was the youngest child of Paul and Veronica Dubner, who in 1959 had purchased 36 acres of farmland, after a visit to a Catholic Worker retreat, so that they “could embrace the proud poverty of Catholicism,” as he described it, and live off the land.

The father, Paul, had been born Solomon Dubner, and the mother, Veronica was originally Florence Greenglass. Both grew up as Jewish immigrants' children in Brooklyn, New York. Florence was a first cousin of Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg, who together with her husband, Julius, was sent to the electric chair for her role in passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Florence's Jewish upbringing was minimal, and when her Russian-Orthodox dance teacher exposed her to the Epistles of St. Paul, they spoke to her and eventually led her to be baptized as a Catholic. She had received, she told her son, “the gift of faith.”

Dubner Introduces Himself YouTube

Solomon on the other hand was the son of two extremely observant Polish Jews who ran a kosher restaurant in Brownsville. He was drawn to Christianity during service in the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II. He and Florence met at a church dance when he was home on furlough in 1944, and he was baptized upon his return to the army. At one point, he even considered becoming a priest.

Rogue economics

The closest Stephen got to Jewish culture growing up was hearing his father belt out the song “My Yiddishe Mama” occasionally. He attended Appalachian State University, in North Carolina, graduating in 1984, and after a serious stint of playing in a rock band, he went on to earn a master’s in writing at Columbia University in 1990. He also taught in Columbia's English department before becoming a story editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Dubner's atavistic Judaism seems to have been awakened by his move to New York. And because his mother was born a Jew, he did not need to convert when he began living a Jewish life.

In 2003, he received a story assignment from the magazine to write a profile of the man he described as “the most brilliant young economist in America,” Steven Levitt, who had just won the prestigious Clark Medal for young economists. Levitt was the prototype of the type of economist who uses statistics to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

The article about Levitt led to a contract for the two men to collaborate on a book. That book, published in 2005, was “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” in which they made the case, for example, that an increase in abortions in America after Roe v. Wade was responsible for a drop in crime two decades later.

Their stimulating, counter-intuitive way of looking at the world became a brand, with three sequels to the book, most recently “When to Rob a Bank: A Rogue Economist’s Guide to the World."

Click here for link to the Freakonomics channel on YouTube.