By Edward Van Gieson
My first career led me to Princeton, New Jersey, the town where Albert Einstein spent the last 22 years of his life. For four years, I walked the same streets Einstein walked and wondered what it would have been like to meet him. Several years ago I began to dig deeper into his life, with the thought of someday writing a biography.
Most people know that Einstein was Jewish. However, biographers typically describe him as a man who disdained Jewish rituals, and who was largely estranged from many aspects of everyday Jewish spirituality. In his younger years, this is certainly true. But after conducting extensive research, I was surprised to discover that some of Einstein’s feelings and attitudes towards religion changed during his years in Princeton. I wondered: What if we have been given an incomplete picture of Einstein’s spirituality?
During my research, I stumbled across an extraordinary set of documents describing Einstein’s love for Passover. In an article titled “Einstein and Religion,” published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences in 1979, Dr. Harry Polachek describes Einstein’s Princeton years:
None of the major biographies about Einstein appear to have followed up on the Polacheck article. This is understandable; the article was published in a little-known journal, and it could have been easily overlooked. But I was curious, and I decided to investigate the credibility of Polachek’s article.
Polachek’s information about Einstein and Passover comes from Rabbi Morris Gordon, a rabbi known for speaking about Einstein’s personal spirituality. The article explains that Gordon was told the stories by a woman the rabbi “knew very well” and who had lived as a child in close proximity to Einstein’s home in Princeton. Few other details are provided about the woman except that, as an adult, she taught mathematics at the University of California.
The woman’s story is plausible if we look at how early biographies about Einstein were compiled. They were written by Europeans who had no interest in Einstein’s years in Princeton. This creates an unusual set of circumstances: Early biographers interviewed many famous European scientists and Jewish leaders who knew Einstein, but did shockingly little, if anything, to identify and interview regular people in Princeton who knew Einstein. It is thus entirely reasonable to believe that a woman who lived as a child in Princeton could learn something remarkable about Einstein and Passover, tell that story to a rabbi interested in Einstein’s spirituality and then that story be passed on by the rabbi to Polachek.
I decided to dig deeper and see if there was any evidence to support the woman’s story. I was eventually able to uncover evidence from newspaper archives that Einstein celebrated Passover numerous times during his Princeton years. This includes traditional Passover seders and non-traditional Passover dinners that might be described as “mini-seders.”
In 2005, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story in which two medical doctors, Dr. Stan Levy and Dr. Harry Binakonsky, recounted sharing a Passover seder with Einstein in 1944, when they were undergraduate students at Princeton. They accepted an invitation to attend a Passover seder organized by a Jewish community group—and to their great surprise, Einstein was there. Levy sat next to Einstein and made small talk. Levy described the experience as a “magical” and “amazing,” while Binakonsky recalled that Einstein “gave a speech before the seder about the importance of the younger generation.”
When I called Levy to verify the facts in the article, he came across as a man of sincerity and integrity. His experience sharing Passover with Einstein was very powerful. He described it as a “religious experience,” and said he had no other words to describe the impact of the meeting.
In 1945, Merle Griff shared a Passover seder dinner with Einstein, according to a 2005 article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Approximately 30 college students attended the seder, which was held at an on-campus dining hall at Princeton. Einstein greeted the group of students and patiently answered their questions. “We had a communal Seder. We all participated,” Griff said. “And Einstein, he read along with the book—the Haggadah. He wasn’t anyone special.” After the Passover dinner, Einstein played his violin for the students. “He played several pieces,” Griff said, “and said he did his best thinking and relaxing playing music.” As everyone got up to leave, Einstein shook each of the students’ hands.
Around 1950, a Jewish family in New Jersey decided to host local university students for a Passover seder, according to a 2001 article in the Daily News of Bowling Green, Kentucky. The event grew and grew, and 115 students accepted invitations. After the couple got permission to use a dining hall at Princeton, they decided to invite Einstein. The physicist attended the event—and even autographed the front page of each student’s copy of the Haggadah. Remarkably, the article states that copies of these autographed Haggadah still exist as cherished family heirlooms.
The Daily News article, written by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen, was published with a “Chicken Soup” logo, indicating that it is one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories (although it is unclear if the story was published in book form). I once met Canfield on another occasion, and he described the efforts he and his partners made to ensure the truthfulness of the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories. It seems likely that the story of Einstein sharing a Passover Seder with 115 college students is a reliable account.
Other newspaper articles indicate that Einstein also had “informal” Passover seders at his home in 1944 and 1945. This could mean that Einstein attended traditional seders (presumably on the first night of Passover) organized by others and also held informal Passover seders in his own home (presumably on the second night of Passover).
A story published in the Los Angeles Times in 1994 describes how Malcom Wittman shared Passover with Einstein at his home in 1944. “It was hardly a traditional seder,” Wittman said. “No one asked the four questions.”
During Passover 1945, a small group of Princeton students studying under a Navy program gathered around Einstein’s table, according to a 1999 letter from Jonas Seinfeld in the Los Angeles Times. Einstein spoke slowly and softly with a pronounced German accent. Seinfeld could not remember any particular Passover service, but he did recall Einstein being very gentle, wise and grandfatherly as he asked the students about their pasts and their dreams for the future.
Are there more Einstein Passover stories waiting to be found? Probably. There may be Einstein Passover stories waiting to be discovered in old newspapers, diaries, synagogue newsletters or oral histories.
Do the Einstein Passover stories contradict Einstein’s many public statements about religion or Judaism? No. These stories merely serve to demonstrate that Einstein softened, mellowed and became more spiritual as he aged. Perhaps he learned to appreciate and enjoy the spiritual aspects of Passover.
Regardless, these stories give us a more complete picture about the spirituality of one of the greatest minds of history. We end up with an image of an Einstein who loved Passover. Passover for Einstein was a celebration of freedom, an opportunity to inspire young people, a chance to share a love of music and even a chance to serve as a grandfatherly figure, talking to young people about their hopes and dreams for the future.