Was Einstein a Jewish Saint?

By | Mar 13, 2013
2007 April-May, Issues

As usual, Albert Einstein hadn’t dressed for the occasion.

Most of the 40 or so young men waiting for him that Friday night in January at Princeton’s Murray-Dodge Hall sported the “college man’s” uniform of 1947—their best tweed sport coats and shined loafers. But their guest of honor, when he finally showed up, was wearing a baggy sweatshirt, soft-soled slippers and no socks.

Einstein padded to the front of the room to give a short talk—not about the theory of relativity, special or general, or even the unified field theory he was currently working on at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study. Rather, Einstein had a few words to share about the importance of identifying as a Jew. He “stressed that it was important for Jews to be part of a Jewish community,” a student would later recall in his notes on the event. “He believed that it was important for all Jews to have Jewish friends.”

This was a radical idea at a school that, under its officially non-existent quota system in the 1940s, admitted only 25 Jews into each 750-man class. Less than a decade earlier, in 1938 and 1939, incoming Princeton freshmen asked in a survey to name the “greatest living person” had ranked Einstein second. Adolf Hitler was first, both years.

“There was a certain number of Jewish students who, when asked, ‘What is your religion?’ wrote ‘no religion,’” says 83-year-old Ernest Stock, who organized the student meeting. “Whether for good reasons or bad,” another student recalls, “we were very reticent about advertising our identities.” Stock, a sophomore, had asked Einstein to help inaugurate this gathering of Princeton’s Student Hebrew Association. The world’s most famous Jew, he knew, could lure his fellow Jews out from behind their tweedy camouflage.

The evening’s gathering was an intimate one that began with a Shabbat service led by a guest rabbi before a makeshift ark. The guest of honor stayed afterwards to drink tea and chat with the students, even posing for pictures and signing autographs. It was a cozy affair with nonetheless heady significance. For the first time, Princeton’s Jewish undergraduates would no longer have to attend Christian services to fulfill their compulsory chapel requirement. For the first time, Jews would be graced with a room of their own in Murray-Dodge, the university’s religious affairs building.

With Einstein’s help, Stock and his friends had launched a quiet revolution on the pastoral campus of flagstone footpaths and stately stone buildings. “He was a revered figure and all the Jewish students, particularly, viewed him as a semi-God,” says Robert Bloom, 77, who would assume the presidency of the Jewish group in 1950. Einstein’s participation had inflated more than attendance, Bloom notes. “For students with doubts about their identity, he just added his great moral prestige.”

As he did all over the world throughout his later years, Einstein raised his torch of fame that night to light his listeners’ way through a thicket of assimilationist culture. Einstein shared with them a Jewish affinity that sprang not from racial or tribal consciousness—he abhorred parochial allegiances based on blood ties or nationhood—nor from a common faith or set of practices. He perceived, rather, independence of thought and an ethical imperative as the distinct blessings of Jewish heritage, says physics professor Hanoch Gutfreund, former president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The great physicist was a model for Jews of his time. “Not only did he not make it a secret,” Gutfreund explains, “but Einstein was proud of his ethnic origin, of belonging, which he perceived as a cultural tradition based on moral values, a long tradition of learning and the pursuit of truth.”

For Melvin Antell, 81, a student in Murray-Dodge that night, the message was simpler: “We thought of him as being the outstanding American-Jew. That’s what we were: We were Americans. We were Jewish. And with him it all came together.”

Einstein hadn’t been all that different from the Princeton students with whom he sipped tea. He was born in 1879 into an assimilated upper-middle-class family in Ulm in southern Germany. As a young man, when asked his religion on official documents, Einstein would fill in “none,” though race-conscious bureaucrats in turn-of-the-century Europe repeatedly required him to change “none” to “Mosaic,” a term for Jews.

“Albert’s father was proud of the fact that Jewish rites were not practiced in his home,” wrote Abraham Pais, an Einstein colleague who authored the Einstein biography, Subtle is the Lord. Hermann and Pauline Einstein even sent their son to the Catholic school within walking distance of their home, where he was his class’s only Jew. His teacher once illuminated a lesson on the crucifixion by displaying a huge iron nail, but Einstein never recalled suffering the barbs of anti-Semitism as a child. His sister Maja, however, blessed perhaps with a sharper memory (or thinner skin), described her big brother not only as awkward but as a playground outcast.

Contrary to legend, young Albert excelled in most subjects and his classmates often turned to him for help with schoolwork, even Catechism. At home, at his mother’s insistence, he learned violin. The six-year-old who threw a chair at one of his first music teachers developed into a man enchanted by music. For one fortunate to possess what a writer called “the purposeful concentration of a watchmaker,” it provided a release.

Under a Bavarian law calling for every child to be schooled in his family’s religious tradition, Einstein took up home studies in Judaism. Punctilious in their observance of the law, if not religion, Pauline and Hermann retained a distant cousin to tutor 10-year-old Albert in Hebrew, Torah and the teachings of the prophets. To their chagrin, the boy fell in love with God.

Delighted by the idea that human actions could please God, Einstein offered up devotionals in the form of ecstatic paeans he sang on his way to school. He also gave up eating pork. His parents must have been relieved when geometry began to absorb Albert’s attention at age 12. Riveted by Euclid’s perfect proofs and order, he soon forsook Jewish ritual and shifted his devotion to science.

As Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe, observes, Einstein would never return to conventional Jewish practice or belief. “Einstein rebels against religious dogma and becomes a free thinker, but he’s still awed by nature and has a religious feeling of awe about the creation of the cosmos,” Isaacson says. Rather than become a bar mitzvah, Einstein transferred his religious fervor to the workings of the physical world.

Einstein lost a different sort of paradise several years later when, as a brooding teenager, he was thrust out of the family home in Munich, with its tree-filled courtyard where he had tumbled with cousins and observed nature at work. Business reversals had forced the property’s sale and Einstein was sent to live in a boarding house to finish his all-important gymnasium education, while his parents and Maja made a fresh start in Italy.

It was more than he could take. Lonely and repelled by what he considered his school’s brute, repressive atmosphere and Germany’s martial fervor, he was appalled at the prospect of having to enlist in the German army on his impending 16th birthday. To spare himself, in 1894 he abandoned Germany to join his family. By surrendering his passport, he dodged classification as a deserter, opting for statelessness over military service. “That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him,” he would later say.

Two years later, Einstein earned a place at a school in Switzerland for future college teachers, the Zurich Polytechnic. Einstein threw himself into the study of new ideas in physics while often stinting on more traditional coursework. His academic performance failed to excite his professors but he quickly established himself among his polyglot classmates as a thinker, a quirky wit and a “fool for music,” ever ready with his violin for a pick-up chamber session. They found him game for strenuous hikes among the nearby peaks and wide-ranging nightly bull sessions on philosophy and science.

This raucous, mustachioed bon vivant appeared to his contemporaries both darkly romantic and dangerously disheveled. That, at least, was the opinion of two young Serbian women at the Polytech who began to resent the boisterous German after he captured the heart of their friend and compatriot, Mileva Maric. Maric, two years older than Einstein, was the only woman in his five-member class of physics majors.

The two lovers shared coffee, sausages and pillow talk that meandered from the molecular properties of gases to how to deal with Mother Einstein, who deplored their affair. Pauline objected not because Maric wasn’t Jewish; indeed, she had encouraged his previous sweetheart, who was also a Gentile. “It was just marrying an older, brooding, depressive, limping Serbian woman physicist that she wasn’t thrilled about,” Isaacson explains. Einstein, however, stayed loyal to his dark-haired “dollie,” as he called her. Their tumultuous affair led, in 1902, to the birth in Serbia of an illegitimate daughter, Lieserl, whom Einstein never met. (The scant paper trail indicates she either died as a toddler or was given up for adoption.)

Though the relationship consumed them both, only Maric’s professional aspirations would be sacrificed to the conflagration. Einstein’s own career, however, almost failed to take off after his graduation in 1900. During two years of miserable joblessness, he at first suspected an unsympathetic professor from the Polytechnic was sabotaging his quest for an academic post in Switzerland. But, when applications also failed farther afield, he began to surmise his “Mosaic” background was holding him back.

As he would throughout his life, Einstein took solace from personal problems in theoretical physics, working to reconcile the dogma of 19th-century science with the observations and “thought experiments” that began to characterize his 20th-century studies. It helped that he could work anywhere. “Asked once where his laboratory was,” Denis Brian related in Einstein, A Life, Einstein “held up his fountain pen.”

One bright spot in these tumultuous years was Switzerland’s bestowal of citizenship on Einstein in 1901, once he had satisfactorily demonstrated a sound mind and solid economic prospects. Enamored of the country’s tolerant culture and its geopolitical neutrality, he would remain a Swiss citizen throughout his life, even as he changed continents and swore additional allegiances. In 1902, through the intervention of friends, Einstein at last found a job—not the teaching post he had trained for, but a nevertheless satisfactory position in the Swiss patent office, enabling his long-awaited marriage to Maric.

The new Swiss citizen seemed to enjoy patent-examination work. Embarking on a period of astonishingly fertile intellectual activity, he used idle time at his stool and at home to pursue calculations leading to his major scientific breakthroughs of 1905: five stunning articles that included introductions of the photoelectric effect (for which he would win a Nobel Prize in 1921) and the special theory of relativity. That space and time could bend, that acceleration is equivalent to gravity and that e=mc2, these were ideas that would change the world, leading to everything from global positioning systems to supermarket laser-scanners and the atom bomb. Einstein was discovering not only new scientific concepts but a fresh way of conceptualizing the universe and its forces, and beginning to perceive a natural order that had eluded his predecessors.

In his family, however, order was breaking down. As Einstein’s star rose among colleagues and academicians, Maric, by 1910 the mother of two sons, saw the light dimming in her own, now entirely domestic world. Closed off from his work, she grew jealous, angering her husband when she intercepted letters between him and a previous girlfriend. The exchange had been innocent, as Einstein insisted, but Maric’s suspicions weren’t unfounded. She knew from experience how promiscuous her husband could be. Their own romance long over, Einstein increasingly treated Maric like a housekeeper and scold rather than the scientific playmate of earlier days.

By 1908, Einstein’s continuing discoveries had launched him into the ranks of academia. If it can be said that the stereotype of the “absent-minded professor” didn’t actually originate with Einstein, he already looked the part, dashing from lecture to café to apartment with his shirts misbuttoned and collars missing, and having apparently given up on taming or trimming his dark, flyaway mane. His long-dreamed-of professorship at the University of Zurich was secured in 1909, but only after Einstein’s faculty sponsor assured the hiring committee that the candidate lacked such known “Israelite” traits as “intrusiveness, impudence, and a shopkeeper’s mentality.”

Einstein moved in 1911 to the German University of Prague for a teaching stint that lasted only a year but, quite unexpectedly, opened new vistas onto his Jewishness. Taken aback by the snobbery of the Czech-German bourgeoisie and their deliberate segregation from countrymen of Czech and Jewish descent, Einstein sought more amiable society in the city’s urbane salon culture, largely driven by highly cultured Jews he called “philosophical and Zionist enthusiasts.” He wandered the streets of the city’s once-crowded Jewish ghetto, which had been almost entirely razed ten years earlier in an urban renewal initiative. In the historic walled cemetery—centuries of graves beneath hundreds of tombstones arrayed chock-a-block, like crooked teeth—and within the few synagogues that remained, he came across the original bearded inhabitants, clothed in the black garb of their ancient patrimony. When they were to appear on his metaphorical doorstep in Berlin a few years later, Einstein would recognize them as his brothers.

In 1913, a delegation from Berlin, the red-hot center of the physics world, lured Einstein back to Germany. Their inducements to forsake Zurich included a post without teaching duties at the University of Berlin, directorship of his own physics institute at the burgeoning Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and induction as the youngest member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Einstein would also be joining, as colleague and collaborator, the world’s scientific elite—a high-minded cohort, he imagined, so different from the narrow-minded, spit-and-polish Prussians he had forsaken in his teens.

He and his family followed these sirens to Germany in the summer of 1914. For Maric, however, the music fell flat. She and the boys returned to Zurich within weeks; the four would never again live together as a family. Einstein wept at parting from his sons but could no longer abide their mother. In one of his less vitriolic letters, he described her as “an employee I cannot fire.” That the letter was to his mistress didn’t help matters. Einstein and Elsa Löwenthal, a divorcée five years older and his second cousin, had been corresponding and meeting illicitly since 1912. Löwenthal’s presence in Berlin had added a descant to the Kaiser Institutes’ siren song.

Einstein strung Löwenthal along for years while he wrangled with Maric over divorce terms and clung to the pleasures of bachelor life—with Elsa now in Mileva’s place as cook and caretaker. Einstein finally did succeed in “firing” Maric in 1918. Before succumbing to a second marriage the following year, though, he inflicted on his future wife the ultimate insult of suggesting, quite seriously, that perhaps he should marry her 20-year-old daughter instead. With the callousness of the utterly self-absorbed, he left it to them to decide. “Fortunately” for Löwenthal, the girl opposed the match, so her mother and Einstein tied the knot.

Plump and graying at 45, Löwenthal clucked and fussed over her husband but no longer excited him. Yet, he needed her. Einstein would come to regard his second wife like a favorite pair of slippers—comfortable and even indispensable around the house, but he still wore other shoes. Toward Maric, he gradually mellowed. And with their sons, he managed a loving, albeit complicated, relationship.

As ever, Einstein’s personal sturm und drang only enhanced his concentration on work. In the early teens, while Germany “marched in formation” toward the Great War’s bloody trenches, he entered possibly the most productive period of his life, writing, lecturing, theorizing and, most notably, making the leap from his 1905 insights into special relativity to the release, in 1916, of his theory of general relativity. Accounting for the effects of gravity on space and time, it was a concept so mind-bending that years would pass before most physicists could accept it.

As soldiers died by droves at the front and Germans at home began to succumb to epidemic and starvation under the British blockade, Einstein used his position to deride what he saw as the German “religion of power.” “Honor your master Jesus Christ, not only with words and song, but above all by your deeds,” he exhorted in a pacifist diatribe in 1915, unabashedly distinguishing himself as a Jew. If not by upbringing, Einstein was becoming a Jew by choice. And, unlike many German Jews inspired by the national mobilization, he held no hope that the heat of Jews’ devotion to the Fatherland would at last melt their country’s anti-Semitism.

One of the truest of these true believers was Einstein’s friend and colleague Fritz Haber, a Jewish convert to Christianity and an eminent chemist 11 years his senior. Haber had earned his nation’s gratitude by capturing nitrogen from the air, a process crucial to both farming and warfare. During World War I, he ingratiated himself further by developing the devastating green clouds of chlorine gas first released at the Battle of Ypres in 1915.

“Fritz Haber believed that if he converted to Christianity and wore a monocle, his Jewish heritage would disappear and he would become a good German,” says Walter Isaacson. “The rise of anti-Semitism made people like Haber try all the harder to distance themselves from their Jewish background and to assimilate. It had an equal and opposite reaction in Einstein.

“When Haber was trying to conform by being the ‘good German,’” Isaacson adds, “Einstein was willing to be an outsider and the proud Jew.” Though they were close friends (indeed, Haber acted as go-between for Einstein and Maric), Einstein “was always brutal about Haber’s pretensions,” wrote Thomas Levenson in Einstein in Berlin, mocking him as “that pathetic creature, the baptized Jewish privy councilor.”

On the west African island of Principe on May 29, 1919, Arthur Eddington stood in the rain adjusting the lenses of his telescopic camera, allowing himself just a few anxious glances skyward. Eddington, a quiet but droll professor of astronomy at Cambridge, was one of the only people outside Germany who believed in general relativity and one of the few in the world who claimed to understand it. On this day, if only the skies would clear, he intended to prove its merit.

The rain let up and he took a series of blurry photos of distant stars during the seven-minute eclipse that followed. While it would take six months to confirm, the data demonstrated that Einstein was right: light bends with gravity. Already esteemed in Germany, Einstein that November became a household name the world over, “the greatest Jew since Jesus,” as one British scientist proclaimed.

In Berlin, he began to enjoy the pleasures of success. Löwenthal, elevated from paramour to legitimate hausfrau, liked to entertain in their tidy home outfitted with fine, heavy furniture and new carpets. Einstein came to count on the amenities of regular meals and nicely laundered clothing while he sought a little something on the side. It’s hard to know whether his wife felt the sting more keenly when he kept his affairs secret or when, as was often the case, he conducted them openly.

Still, the bourgeois comforts of a famous man didn’t blind Einstein to post-war Germany’s renewed anti-Semitism. He coyly alluded to it in a “new relativity theory” based on the phenomenon of his renown: “Today in Germany, I am called a German man of science, and in England I am represented as a Swiss Jew… If I come to be represented as a bête noire, the descriptions will be reversed, and I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans and a German man of science for the English.”

Einstein could joke, but the threat was real. Economic privations imposed by the Versailles reparations were even harsher than those of the war and Germany’s economy was spiraling into collapse. “The hyperinflation was a gift to Adolf Hitler,” who was just beginning to attract “local notoriety” as a mesmerizing, spit-spraying orator, wrote Levenson. Einstein, he says, “recognized quickly that Hitler was not just another scummy politician but a qualitatively different kind of threat to Jews and to civilization.”

Nowhere was resurgent anti-Semitism more obvious than in Germany’s response to the arrival of the Ostjuden, the Eastern European Orthodox in their black caftans whom Einstein had come across in Prague. Destitute, fleeing pogroms, the war and the Russian Revolution, they poured into Berlin by the tens of thousands. German authorities addressed their plight by deporting them and detaining many in brutal prison camps. Even the Jews of Germany spurned them.

By contrast, Einstein joined lobbying committees, wrote editorials and played his violin in fundraising concerts for them. He saw how pointless (if not heartless) it was for western Jews to try to separate themselves from their cousins. To fellow Germans, he knew, this self-conscious divide constituted a distinction without a difference—his lone point of agreement, perhaps, with Hitler. As he would relate to a Purim dinner audience in 1935, “There are no German Jews; there are no Russian Jews; there are no American Jews. Their only difference is their daily language. There are in fact only Jews.”

It was hot the night of August 24, 1920, when Einstein and Walther Nernst, his friend and colleague, strode through a raucous, shouting crowd gathered in front of Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. They managed to edge their way in without incident, despite the anti-Semitic literature being hawked at the door and the swastikas pasted everywhere. On offer inside was a lecture on relativity by the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science—“pure,” in this case, meaning 19th-century Newtonian, and “German” meaning Aryan.

In other words, a “cockfight,” according to Einstein, who sat through it calmly, laughing and clapping his hands with relish at the most outlandish bits while various speakers called him a publicity hound and derided his theories as both wrong and stolen to boot. For Einstein, the rally’s more chilling indication, given its presenters’ second-rate scientific status, was that its organizers had found a previously respectable ally in Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, whose observations formed the basis of some of Einstein’s own work. As the founder of a new “Anti-Relativity League,” Lenard gave an establishment imprimatur to the accusations of “Jewish science” flying around Berlin. “Science,” he pronounced, “like every other human product, is racial and conditioned by blood.”

Beyond the academy, the attacks were even blunter, as Denis Brian described: “Einstein’s less-articulate opponents waited outside his home or office… to greet him with obscenities, or crammed his mailbox with threats. At one of his Berlin lectures, a right-wing student shouted, ‘I’m going to cut the throat of that dirty Jew!’”

For most of Berlin, shortages and breakdowns had become the norm (the Einsteins’ apartment elevator no longer worked) and fatal street riots were growing commonplace as nationalists brawled with leftist revolutionaries. Even before Hitler gave form to their fascism, right-wing assassins had begun targeting prominent Communists, Jewish and otherwise, while Jews in the political center debated whether to play a role in Germany’s shaky post-war democracy.

When Jewish industrial magnate Walter Rathenau was offered the post of foreign minister in 1922, Einstein allied himself with dedicated assimilationists in advising him against taking the job. “Einstein just had an instinct that, right after the loss in World War I and a treaty that others found humiliating, to have a Jewish foreign minister like Rathenau implementing the peace would cause resentment,” Isaacson says. “It’s hard to argue with him, since Rathenau was indeed assassinated.” Shortly after, the Berlin police informed Einstein that his name, too, appeared on hit lists.

Einstein wisely began accepting invitations to lecture and teach abroad, commencing a decade of travel that would take him and his wife to many of Europe’s major cities, as well as to Asia and the Americas. As refuge from the furies of Berlin, they also began vacationing in a nearby lake district. In 1929, they bought land there by a stand of forest overlooking the village of Caputh and hired young Jewish architect Konrad Wachsmann to build a modest vacation home on it in the spare style of the European Arts and Crafts movement. By September, they stood on its completed terrace, looking down past two tall pines and a little footpath to the serene surface of Lake Havel.

They entertained often in Caputh, but Einstein’s happiest hours there were spent on barefoot hikes and sailing, usually alone, often for hours. For his 50th birthday in March that year, wealthy friends had given him a pretty wooden boat. He named it Tümmler, a Yiddish word with two meanings: “life of the party” and “agitator.”

As 8,000 New Yorkers pushed their way into the 69th Regiment Armory on April 12, 1921, another 3,000 jammed the sidewalks outside. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, a British chemist and Russian emigré, soberly regaled the audience inside about marsh reclamation and bold pioneers in the new Jewish homeland.

Weizmann may have been the prime mover behind the 1917 Balfour Declaration that opened Palestine to Jewish settlement, but he had cleverly recruited the world’s most famous Jew to accompany him on his barnstorming trip through New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and Washington, DC. He knew that tens of thousands of American Jews in their Shabbat best might not turn out for him but would go crazy for Dr. Einstein. The scientist’s every arrival inspired parades and drew crowds willing to empty their purses. Even the press whipped itself into a froth of reporting on the Zionist mission and what Einstein ate for breakfast.

While Weizmann lectured on, Einstein smiled vaguely from the dais. He wasn’t scheduled to speak, but the audience’s demanding roar filled the cavernous, steel-beamed hall. Reluctantly, he stepped to the podium. “Your leader, Dr. Weizmann, has spoken…Follow him and you will do well. That is all I have to say.”

The speech was three sentences in all. Weizmann must have breathed a sigh of relief as he reflected on the warning imparted by a friend before their trip: “Please be careful with Einstein. [He] often says things out of naiveté which are unwelcome to us.”

Einstein, who would later say he “discovered the Jewish people” in the American throngs, had actually surprised Weizmann by accepting the invitation to America. The Zionists knew Einstein to be anything but an “organization man”—he never officially joined a Zionist group—and realized that Jewish dreams of nationhood ran against his one-world bias. But the Ostjuden still milling hopelessly in Berlin’s slums, and the slurs of Lenard and his ilk must have been fresh in Einstein’s mind when the call came.

Since the tour required missing a prestigious international meeting of physicists, he tried to explain the choice to Maurice Solovine, a friend from his Zurich days. “I am not at all eager to go to America,” he wrote, “but am doing it only in the interests of the Zionists who must beg for dollars to build educational institutions in Jerusalem and for whom I act as high priest and decoy.”

Their tour raised nearly a million dollars, enough to begin construction of a medical campus for Hebrew University. Whether it was situated in a state, homeland or Mandate, Einstein felt as keenly as any Jew the need for a Jewish center of learning in Palestine. “I know of no public event,” he told The New York Times, “that has given me such pleasure as the proposal to establish a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The traditional respect for knowledge that Jews have maintained intact through many centuries of severe hardship has made it particularly painful for us to see so many talented sons of the Jewish people cut off from higher education.”

Zionism may have offended his universalist sensibilities, but it emerged for Einstein between the world wars as “a nationalism that does not strive for power but for dignity and recovery”— the single rallying cause that could strengthen his beleaguered people. He concluded that “the only way to cope with anti-Semitism [was] to restore a communal solidarity, a communal pride among the Jews,” according to Hebrew University’s Gutfreund.

Characteristically, Einstein saw this pride as a benefit not strictly for Jews but, through their elevation and development, for all people. A safe and settled Jewry, he reasoned, free to develop its human potential, could draw on ethical heritage and the “genius of their prophets” to exert a healthy moral leadership in the world while sharing its expertise in medicine and, of course, science.

Rather than the theocratic state sought by many, he thought the way to achieve Jewish fulfillment in Palestine was through a “national home” under a Jewish-Arab or even international government entity. As late as 1938, he told an audience of New York Zionists, “I should much rather see a reasonable agreement with the Arabs based on living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state.” Einstein cautioned repeatedly against the “inner damage” that the Jewish people would sustain as result of the “narrow nationalism” that accompanies statehood.

Einstein had the chance to see his communal ideals in action in 1923. Spooked by the death of Rathenau the previous year, he accepted a standing invitation to travel for several months in Asia, followed by a visit to Palestine. On his 12-day tour, Einstein stopped in at schools and planted a tree. He played chamber music with the attorney general and his sisters, and Tel Aviv named him its first honorary citizen. Amid these secular engagements also came an invitation that testified to Einstein’s importance in every corner of Jewry. It came from Rav Abraham Kook, the Lithuanian-born chief rabbi of orthodoxy in Palestine. The eminent rabbi and Einstein met in Jerusalem, where they were said to have discussed Kabbalah among other subjects.

“The brothers of our race in Palestine charmed me as farmers, workers and citizens,” he wrote to Solovine. Yet the tour was by no means a second conversion. With his usual bluntness and despite his support of the Ostjuden, he dismissed daveners at the Western Wall in his diary as “dull-witted clansmen of our tribe… A pathetic sight of men with a past but without a future.”

Einstein nevertheless inaugurated a more hopeful Israelite future when he delivered Hebrew University’s first scientific lecture from the front of a British police hall on Mount Scopus. “Professor Einstein,” went the introduction, “please rise to the podium that has been waiting for you two thousand years.” Einstein opened with a few halting sentences in Hebrew before reverting to French for the body of his talk. He could have spoken Swahili and still projected his message: In his voice, as Gutfreund, the university’s later president would write, Einstein’s audience heard “the birth song of the long-anticipated Jewish university.”

A drizzle was falling on the late summer day in 1932 that American education reformer Abraham Flexner arrived in Caputh. The Kentucky-born Flexner had bulked up against the weather, so he was surprised to find Einstein relaxing on the porch in summer flannels, apparently oblivious to the cold.

Ensconced in Caputh’s airy comforts, Einstein seemed likewise oblivious to the political chill in Berlin: students protesting against sharing their campuses with Jews; Nazi toughs shouting slogans and threats in train corridors; and Hitler’s growing clout in the Reichstag. Through an intermediary, the army’s commander-in-chief had sent a warning that Einstein’s life was no longer safe. Even in his haven, a maid reported that Caputh’s baker had begun muttering darkly about the Jew on the hill.

Flexner had come to offer Einstein a way out, a yellow brick road to America. This was their third meeting to discuss the nascent Institute for Advanced Study, an academic Valhalla intended to seed American scholarship. Like the Kaiser Institute representatives who drew Einstein from Zurich back in 1913, Flexner knew Einstein’s assent could ensure his project’s success. Also like them, he dangled the offer of a prestigious and amply compensated post in a rarefied academic community.

Still, Einstein hated to leave his refuge. It took a few weeks of negotiations and importuning but he eventually agreed to reside at the Institute five months each year, reserving the right to return to Caputh and his comfortable Tümmler life if Hitler faded from the picture. In December, he and Löwenthal rode the train to Caputh to close up their cottage. Their departure from Germany would be temporary, according to every official and public statement, and yet, as they closed the door on their familiar rooms and the ghosts of entertainments past, Einstein told his wife to take a good look around, for she might never see the house again. He was right.

Again an immigrant, again a guest, again facing the prospect of war, Einstein felt the need to speak out in America. This time, however, the onetime pacifist condemned the failure to start a war against the existential threat in Europe. “I cannot understand the passive response of the whole civilized world to this modern barbarism,” he cried in a 1933 interview. “Does the world not see that Hitler is aiming at war?” And did America’s Jews not see that he was targeting their coreligionists first of all?

In contrast to Berlin of 1914, however, this time Einstein could act. Having settled in Princeton permanently in 1933 and helped transform Flexner’s Institute into an exemplar of American research, he was also shaping it into a refuge and hub for Europepersecuted scholars. He could have done otherwise, succumbing to the easy routines of his suburban hideaway. Yet this very contentment spurred him to action. “I am,” he confessed in a letter to the queen of Belgium, a longtime friend, “almost ashamed to be living in such a place while all the rest struggle and suffer.”

No storm troopers threatened to interrupt his twice-daily strolls along Princeton’s quiet leafy streets to the Institute’s borrowed space at Princeton University. In fact, locals went to great lengths to protect the professor’s privacy. To visitors—both expected and not—who streamed through the little wrought-iron gate and up to the front porch of the narrow clapboard house he and Löwenthal bought at 112 Mercer Street, Einstein proved a shy but genial host. Boys from the Princeton Country Day School, after struggling fruitlessly over a math set, once brought it to Einstein for help, and he seldom rebuffed strangers who approached him on the street with questions or greetings. Löwenthal died in 1936, but Einstein remained in the house in the company of her daughter Margot, his devoted secretary Helen Dukas and, after 1939, his sister.

As “Professor Einstein,” he still filled his hours with calculations and jottings related to physics, but these were dormant years for theoretical breakthroughs. Many younger colleagues, in fact, suspected the old man was washed up, chasing a pipe dream with his single-minded focus on finding a “unified field theory” that would unite the laws of physics under a single model. (“How ironic,” physicist Lee Smolin wrote in My Einstein in 2006, “that now the Institute is filled with young people playing with unified field theories.”)

As “Citizen Einstein,” however, he was anything but dormant, almost biblical—a whirlwind and scourge to the complacent, most notably on behalf of his endangered people. Even while still in Europe, during a final 1933 stay in Belgium, Löwenthal had complained that the Einsteins’ temporary home had turned into “an asylum for the unfortunate, invaded from morning to night by people who need help.” In the States, he scoured the Institute and other universities to find temporary sinecures for Jewish academics trapped in Europe. He proposed names of prominent scientists, artists and thinkers for U.S. emergency visas, and he met with President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in 1934 to plead for more of them. In 1939, fellow immigré physicists asked him to petition Roosevelt again—this time for research toward a nuclear weapon, so the Germans wouldn’t develop one first. Perhaps with Haber’s gas clouds in mind, he obliged.

Einstein worked feverishly to rescue kin, friends, kin of friends and even strangers from the maw of Hitler’s Germany. He personally vouched for dozens, establishing in their names as many $2,000 bank accounts (required by immigration authorities) as he could afford. When tapped out, he beseeched friends and colleagues to put up funds, guaranteeing the deposits himself. In addition to university professors, he helped bring over non-academics like Wachsmann, his Caputh architect, and future Life magazine photographer Philip Halsmann. In 1941, he took in theoretical physicist Fritz Reiche, one of the last Jewish scientists to slip out of Nazi Germany.

Einstein personally petitioned for so many refugees that, by the end of 1930s, his once influential signature at the bottom of an affidavit had ceased to carry weight. Beyond the visa race, he toured the fundraising circuit for Zionist institutions, refugee groups and other Jewish causes. He graced daises at dinners, fiddled in benefit concerts and donated his books and manuscripts for auction.

By the time he approached the front stoop of Marion Epstein’s modest stucco house in downtown Princeton, the war was over and Einstein’s worst fears about Europe had been realized. Epstein played it cool when he knocked, ushering Einstein into her small living room with no more fuss than she made over the dozen or so others arriving that evening to plan the Princeton’s United Jewish Appeal’s spring fundraising dinner at the Nassau Tavern.

Epstein, now 91, did give the honorary chairman the best seat, “a big, comfortable armchair,” she recalls. There Einstein sat, quietly balancing his cake and teacup on his knees, while the committee made schedules and drafted the invitation.

One of the best ways to meet the famous Albert Einstein in the 1940s was to join the Princeton UJA. “He was always willing to give his name,” Epstein recalls matter-of-factly. “He was quiet, friendly, simple. There was no pride of fame.” Epstein, a UJA board member, had also helped organize Sunday socials for Jewish officer candidates housed at the university during the war. “Einstein came to one of those,” she recalls. “One of the women brought her teacup from home and made sure he drank from it!”

Einstein was more in demand than ever for causes he cared about, scientific and political, Jewish and secular. “What the individual can do,” he once explained, “is give a fine example, and have the courage to firmly uphold ethical convictions in a society of cynics.” Einstein upheld his convictions by denouncing both Senator Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin at the height of their powers; he championed the rights of African Americans in the heyday of Jim Crow (befriending Paul Robeson and hosting Marian Anderson more than once at his house when the Nassau Tavern turned her away); and he showed no patience for materialism and pomp. For Jews, he opined in a 1932 essay, “‘serving God’ meant ‘serving the living.’ The best of the Jewish people, especially the Prophets and Jesus, contended tirelessly for this.”

And Einstein contended tirelessly for the Jews, seeming, like some quantum spark, to be in several places at once. As on his 1921 junket with Weizmann, the interests of Jewish institutions of higher learning lay close to his heart. The only difference is that they were now in the United States as well as Israel. In 1946, he let organizers of what would become Brandeis University name their start-up foundation the “Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning, Inc.” In 1948, New York’s Yeshiva University asked for his name on the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, which opened the year he died. For Hebrew University, which had named its school of mathematics for him, Einstein ceaselessly sought funds and favors. And he served on an advisory committee for an institute in Rehovot later named for his friend Weizmann, to which he donated a trove of personal papers in 1946 and which, in 1980, opened the Albert Einstein Center for Theoretical Physics.

Nevertheless, where Palestine’s politics were concerned, Zionists still had reason to fear unwelcome statements from their “high priest and decoy.” As late as 1946, Einstein would still testify against Jewish governance to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. But as in Germany, where racism had helped Einstein forge his Jewish identity, world events now persuaded him of the need for a Jewish state.

“It was a gradual process,” Gutfreund says of Einstein’s change of heart. “There was a disappointment in the policies of the British Mandate authorities; there was a disappointment of the rejection by the Arab League of all his attempts at overtures to understanding; and then there was the realization that the whole enterprise might be lost, be destroyed,” without outside support.

Reconciling this support with his innate pacifism would always be a struggle. In Tea With Einstein, author William Frankel said that Einstein railed against Jewish guerilla warfare under the British in 1946. “Einstein was passionate in his denunciation of the Irgun and the Stern Gang,” Frankel wrote, “even though he conceded that its militant activities could possibly advance the creation of the Jewish state which was, in his opinion, both desirable and inevitable.”

When President Harry Truman recognized Israel in May 1948, Einstein declared it “the fulfillment of our dreams.” Perceiving its vulnerability after independence, he again set aside his pacifism in the name of human preservation. “No one respects or bothers about those who do not fight for their rights,” a changed Einstein wrote to his cousin in Uruguay. As planned, the cousin auctioned off Einstein’s letter, raising $5,000 to buy arms for the Haganah.

Even as a critic of Israel, Einstein’s dedication to his people guaranteed his great stature among world Jewry. No incident better proved that point than what transpired after the death of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, in November 1952. Inside of a week, readers of Israel’s Maariv newspaper had proposed the 73-year-old Einstein, “the greatest Jew alive,” to succeed him. When a telegram arrived requesting an audience for Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban at 112 Mercer, Einstein was alarmed. How to let the Israelis down gently? he wondered.

Einstein telephoned Eban to head him off but the diplomat insisted on at least sending over a formal letter of invitation. Einstein met Eban’s emissary with a letter of his own, explaining that a position like Israel’s presidency required etiquette and interpersonal finesse—traits that he, rightly, claimed to lack. While publicly disappointed, his petitioners were privately relieved by the turndown: “Tell me what to do if he accepts,” Prime Minister Ben-Gurion had urged an aide. “If he does, we are in for trouble!”

Einstein took pains over his “rejection letter” to the people of Israel. “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond,” he wrote, “ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.”

On the morning of April 17, 1955 Albert Einstein lay in bed at Princeton Hospital. An aortic aneurysm he had known about for years was rupturing and he expected to die soon, but the 75-year-old felt well enough this day to wield a pencil. He had work to do on his field theory and yet another mission to benefit Jews and Israel. Just days before, he had invited Ambassador Eban to his home to offer a modest proposal: Would the Israelis like him to record a national radio address on Israel’s behalf? “I must challenge the conscience of the world,” he told Eban, and “boldly criticize the world powers for their attitude to Israel.” The speech was planned to coincide with Israeli Independence Day at the end of the month.

Einstein died early the next morning. Left by his bedside were “12 pages of tightly written equations,” as Isaacson described, and preliminary notes for the speech that began: “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being.”

By evening, Einstein’s body had been cremated with just 12 mourners on hand. In keeping with the way he had lived, Einstein’s funeral was absent of ritual. Someone recited a bit of Goethe but, at his request, no prayers were said. Nor did Einstein wish to leave behind a memorial or gravesite. His ashes were strewn over the nearby Delaware River.

Though Einstein left the world without a physical monument to his existence, it can be said that he gave literally his all to the Jewish people. In life, he liberally lent his prestige and name and, as in the case of the UJA and the Princeton students, his presence. After death, Einstein found a way to continue giving. He left orders in his will for a trust to be formed containing “all of my manuscripts, copyrights, publication rights” and, most significantly in hindsight, all other rights. The trust’s income was designated for his dependents—Dukas and his stepdaughter Margot—as long as they lived. After that, its contents and income reverted to Hebrew University.

To a degree that Einstein may never have imagined, that gift has kept on giving. Scholars and the public enjoy free access to his vast writings and correspondence (including thousands of pages online), but those who would use Einstein’s name and image for commercial ends must pay for the privilege. Every Einstein T-shirt or poster, each Baby Einstein toy, the many Apple “Think Different” ads, all earn money for Einstein’s beloved institute of Jewish learning.
For the rest of the Jewish people, he left a less tangible but equally valuable legacy: a clearly marked ethical trail for those courageous enough to follow it. With relativity, Einstein paved new roads for scientists. With his own life, he pioneered new ways to live as a Jew.

Mandy Katz is an associate editor at Moment. In December 2006 she reviewed photographer Annie Leibovitz’s highly acclaimed A Photographer’s Life for Moment.

4 thoughts on “Was Einstein a Jewish Saint?

  1. Eliezer Segal says:

    Wonderful article.
    Albert Einstein. A scientific prophet whose legacy will forever enchant & illuminate.
    A synthesizer of science & ethics, taking Tikkun Olam to a higher realm.

  2. Robert M Miller says:

    The person behind that brain; which is more incredible?

  3. Judith Markowitz says:

    Having never really known of Einstein’s life except in generalities, I am forever grateful to Mandy Katz for her provocative and most interesting article. Thank you for giving me such insight into one of the Jewish people’s great humans (as Einstein himself noted using that adjective in his writing). I will be sharing this article with my four grandchildren so that I can make sure his love of our religion is made clear through your article and in so doing that their love of being Jewish also prevails.

  4. Dorothy Schwartzberg says:

    Mandy thank you for your article. Wonderful writing clear and fully expressive. I think not an easy balance to achieve. I learned a great deal from your article that I did not know about Einstein and I found myself deeply inspired by the picture you created of him. More than thank you if there is such a thing I say that.
    Sincerely, Dorothy Schwartzberg in California

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.