Einstein at Princeton University on his 75th birthday, in 1954.(AFP/Getty Images)

Walter Isaacson takes a trip down memory lane (not his own, however) in the December issue of The Atlantic with a look at Albert Einstein’s maiden voyage to the United States in the spring of 1921. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, Einstein was persuaded to accompany Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, on a fundraising trip to help establish both a Jewish homeland and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, even though Einstein had until then largely avoided sectarian affiliations, according to Isaacson, who published a biography of the physicist in 2007. A newly published volume of Einstein’s papers from 1921 shows the scientist’s increasing affinity for Jewish causes as well his entanglement in a rift between Jewish leaders that pitted Weizmann against Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. The latter two were “the more polished and cautious potentates of American Jewry,” Isaacson writes, and Brandeis, who was at the time the head of the Zionist Organization of America, “wanted the Zionist organizations to focus on sending money to Jewish settlers in Palestine and not on agitating politically.”

Isaacson calls the rivalry “an old-fashioned power struggle” and “a clash of personalities” that wound up pitting prosperous, assimilated American Jews against less refined, working-class European ones. Though glad that Einstein was in the States making the rounds, the American contingent tried to persuade him to downplay talk of money—both raising it for Israel and asking for it in terms of delivering lectures—and instead urged him to make believe he was here to talk relativity. And though the likes of Arthur Hays Sulzberger refused invitations to meet the future Nobel laureate, he was greeted, according to Isaacson, by immigrant throngs on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, causing him to later write to a friend, “I had to let myself be shown around like a prize ox.… It’s a miracle that I endured it. But now it’s finished and what remains is the fine feeling of having done something truly good and of having worked for the Jewish cause despite all the protests by Jews and non-Jews—most of our fellow tribesmen are smarter than they are courageous.”

How Einstein Divided America’s Jews [Atlantic Online]