Mandy Katz: Was Einstein a Jewish Saint?

Roundup: Talking About History

[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.]

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.”...

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