Mitch Albom Keeps Time
The best-selling author and sportswriter can’t outrun his Jewish New Jersey past
Part of the charm of belonging to the Temple Beth Shalom chapter of United Synagogue Youth (USY) in Haddon Heights, N.J., more than 30 years ago was a boy named Mitch Albom. Albom, who dressed in sunglasses, black T-shirts, red bandanas, and rolled-up jeans to perform, was the front man for a 50s-style band called Lucky Tiger Grease Stick Band. The band was popular enough that I was the envy of every female USY-er when he escorted me to our regional sweetheart dance one year. For Jewish girls from South Jersey in the 1970s, Albom was our Mick Jagger.
Of course, Albom later became better known as the best-selling author of Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven—two such enormous successes that he is likely the best-selling Jewish author in the country. I for one knew he would be a success. Mitch’s parents, business executive Ira Albom and interior designer Rhoda Albom, had moved the family from the middle-class town of Oaklyn, N.J., to the more ritzy Society Hill section of Philadelphia during his adolescence. The traditionally religious Alboms sent Mitch to Akiba (now called the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy), a Jewish day school in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, where he spent four hours a day studying Hebrew and Aramaic texts and only three hours a day on secular subjects. The small class sizes—with only 36 students in his grade—allowed the budding superstar to dominate the entire school.
His mind was constantly creating, even when the gang was hanging out at Ponzi’s diner on a Saturday night; I expected him to become a star on Broadway, work in the music industry, or write for Rolling Stone. It did surprise me that he became a sportswriter and author of sappy books that teach life lessons. While our USY cohorts yammered incessantly about their high-school sports teams, the 5’8”Albom rarely contributed to these conversations. He was not what anyone would call a sports nut. Instead, what I remember most was his laughter; he was a cut-up who could not stay serious for more than five minutes. If someone dared to be serious around him, he would mimic them.
Last month, my old dance partner and I had a chance to catch up in Philadelphia, where Albom—an award-winning sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press for 27 years and a nationally syndicated radio host for WJR Detroit—was in town to cover the Detroit Lions-Philadelphia Eagles football game. (Detroit unexpectedly won.) After the game, Albom participated in a Q&A to promote his latest book, The Time Keeper, in which he posits that time has replaced money as the most important commodity. It seemed appropriate that we were finally getting to talk: My previous efforts to interview him were rebuffed because … he didn’t have time.
Albom hardly aged a day in the more than 35 years since we had last met. He kept his boyish figure; his face is unlined by wrinkles; and he wore his thick head of luxurious black hair in the exact style that he favored as an adolescent—a kind of modified Bieber. Almost immediately, I felt compelled to ask Mitch why he became a sportswriter. Albom, the 2010 winner of the Red Smith award for sports journalism, admitted that this had been an accident. “When I was at Columbia University for graduate studies, I saw an ad for a sportswriter on a job board,” he told me. “Had the ad been for a sewing magazine, I might have become a fashion writer.”
Even with our shared background, I was intimidated interviewing a literary star, especially one I had last seen when our futures were a blank slate. Hints of melancholy bubbled to the surface during our conversation. The occupational hazard of writing about death for a living, as Mitch has chosen to do, means that he is forced to dwell on it. “I was prompted to write The Time Keeper partially due to the illnesses of my parents,” he told me. “My mother has had a stroke and is unable to talk.” During his talk with radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish, he also mentioned the death of his sister-in-law.
Albom, who has covered all sports from baseball to the grueling Alaskan Iditarod, seems ready to relinquish his regular sports column. The stress of meeting deadlines and the constant travel for away games has clearly fatigued him. “I would love to go to a game and just watch,” Albom said. Obliquely referring to his reporting scandal in 2005 where he turned in a column before the game was played (and later apologized), he said, “Maybe I stayed at the party too long.”
Though he has achieved phenomenal success in two disparate genres, he does have a few regrets. “I did not have children,” said Albom, noting he’s still a big brother to his 17 nieces and nephews. “I was so busy with my career that I did not get married until late. We did not succeed in having children in the small window that we had.” That was not the answer I expected. His main thesis in The Time Keeper is that one has to accept God’s decision about your time on earth. Yet Albom, who prays every morning with his wife, is unable to accept God’s decision about his own childlessness. The author, who is thinking of writing his next book on either Haiti or envy, advised: “Don’t envy me. I have paid a huge price for my success.”
Before we parted, I had one more question I had to ask: Whatever happened to the Lucky Tiger Grease Stick Band? Mitch assured me that the band is still very much part of his life. Band member Marc Rosenthal has been the producer of his talk-radio show on WJR Detroit and has managed Albom’s charitable work for the past 10 years. Another band member, Sandy Clyman, is his best friend. The Lucky Tiger no longer performs together, but Albom occasionally plays in a pickup band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, with fellow superstar airport authors Stephen King and Amy Tan.
“I always have a song in my head when I write or even first thing in the morning when I wake up,” he said. “I am usually moving to the beat when I am writing. My wife knows something is wrong or I am blocked when I am not moving.”
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Shlomo Carlebach, who died 18 years ago this week, was a reflection of the pain of post-Holocaust Jewry