History’s Children

A rush of stories in the press this week about the past.

First, innocuously enough, music. Zubin Mehta, I read, brings the Israeli Philharmonic to Weimar, Germany to join forces with the Bavarian State Orchestra in a concert that clearly is about something more than music. Just before the concert, the musicians — Germans and Israelis, with their respective links to a past that is everpresent and unforgiving — pay a visit to Buchenwald.

Then they perform Mahler’s soaring 2nd Symphony, “Resurrection,” with a first movement that could pass for a death march and a finale that is ascendant, the triumph of the human spirit. Is this a transitory moment that will soon fade? Or a transitional moment, ushering in a new way for us to connect with Germans and our shared past today?

Then onto Albert Einstein. Growing up in my family, there were two Jewish heroes: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. If I succeeded in school, ate the proper food and behaved according to the rules my parents and grandparents prescribed for me, I might — just might — follow in one or the other’s footsteps. It came as a shock to discover that FDR was not Jewish. Oh well, that left Einstein. I excelled at math; went to the Bronx High School of Science. You never know.

Now with the publication of Volume Eight by the Princeton University Press (1,143 pages in two parts) detailing Einstein’s life from 1914 to 1918, I learn more about my childhood hero than perhaps is good for me to know. He was 34 in 1914; and of course during this four-year period Einstein completed work on his theory of relativity, a brilliant leap of mind and imagination (and at least seven years of hard work), that many believe to be his greatest accomplishment.

But the Volume also provides insight into behavior toward his first and second wife that can best be described as self-absorbed and callous. According to the letters and the papers, Einstein began an affair with his cousin, Elsa, while still married to his first wife, Mileva. His letters to wife number one come across as unfeeling and somewhat imperious.

Then, shortly before he is to marry Elsa, he proposes marriage, almost as an afterthought, to her 20-year-old daughter who works for him at Berlin’s newly created Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics. In a letter to a close friend seeking advice, the 20-year-old young woman indicates her mother has offered to bow out if that’s what the daughter wants. She writes: “Albert himself is refusing to take any decision; he is prepared to marry either mama or me. I know that A. loves me very much, perhaps more than any other man ever will, he also told me so himself yesterday.”

In the end, instinct and her sense that she loved Einstein more like a father or uncle than a lover/husband prevailed. “It will seem peculiar to you that I, a silly little thing of a 20-year-old, should have to decide on such a serious matter,” she wrote. “I can hardly believe it myself and feel very unhappy doing so as well.”

Einstein married Elsa and lived with her until her death in 1936. Do these cast new light on Einstein’s role as the great (probably the greatest) physicist of the century? And as Jews, do we think any the less of him; have second thoughts about Einstein the cultural hero?

Finally (just for this week anyway), we have Edward W. Said, probably the most eminent Arab-American in the U.S. Until the Oslo negotiations, Said, an author and respected professor of literature at Columbia University as well as a musicologist, had been a member of Arafat’s Palestinian National Council. But he split with Arafat over Oslo, which he felt was a sellout to the Israelis. It is fair to say that Said’s views on the Mideast have carried considerable weight with academics, journalists and intellectuals in America and Europe (among both Jews and non-Jews) and have earned him great admiration from Palestinians.

Now it turns out that Said has lied, has invented a past as a Palestinian whose family was ejected from Jerusalem by the Israelis when he was 12-years-old. An article in the current (September) issue of Commentary magazine by Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, spells out just how much of Said’s story is fiction — a dramatic, emotional (and false) story that has been used effectively to buttress his intellectual and political charges against Israel.

Apparently Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, but came from a wealthy family in Cairo. He did not grow up in his famously remembered house in Jerusalem, nor attend a school there that he nostalgically has recollected in print and on TV. Rather he enjoyed a life of wealth in Cairo until Egyptian head Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized much of Egypt’s industry. Said’s family lost their place in the sun because of Nasser, not David Ben Gurion. Fortunately, his father held an American passport.

All of this and more is described in Weiner’s Commentary article, “My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said.” Embarrassing, to say the least. We can recognize his desire to personalize; to identify with the dispossessed among his people; to convince his peers that his passion is a product of life experience as much as it is a reflection of political philosophy. Still, he lied. How do we (and his Palestinian admirers) deal with this? Do we reject every political statement he has uttered, every political argument he has made? Do we write him off as a fraud who duped us for a while, until history caught up with him? And now do we let him fade, ignominiously, from view? Or do we sift through his politics and his scholarship for what has merit and value, separating ego and folly from the contributions he has to offer?

I must confess to a fondness for history. Science notwithstanding, history was my favorite subject at school. When I read memoirs and letters and stories about people and the past, and see them change before my eyes, I always feel that time has somehow turned a corner. When I wasn’t even looking.

A few years ago, I met for a series of “get acquainted” lunches with one of our community leaders, a man I came to respect. He was concerned that we published too many stories in The Jewish Journal that raised questions about the beliefs and “conventional wisdom” shared by many in our community. You and I understand the dynamics of politics and history, he explained, but your readers don’t have the background to absorb this new information. The stories can only lead to conflict, when the Jewish community needs to be united, he said. That’s why we needed to emphasize some stories and avoid others.

I did not agree. Not just because I am a journalist and, so, professionally committed to publishing news that is accurate and true, even if the stories lead to different views within our community. I also have a personal predilection. When I encounter history’s new take on a familiar story or person, it’s as though the world around me, and the people within it, have suddenly altered. My life ever so subtly has begun (once again) to change. And — German musicians, Albert Einstein and Edward Said notwithstanding — I am always grateful for the knowledge, pleased by the new discoveries, even as (or maybe because) it forces me to rethink my convictions and my life anew. — Gene Lichtenstein