Einstein Before Israel | By Ze’ev Rosenkranz | Princeton University Press | 364 pages, $35.00

In the 1920s, the general public began to assume a link between Albert Einstein’s work and his wisdom: as his name became shorthand for genius, it began to evoke not just scientific greatness but a vast, wizardly vision that expressed itself in gnomic formulae. By the time a new generation of physicists was, for the most part, dismissing Einstein’s search for a unified field theory, the world often hung on his opinions about everything else. For this reason Einstein was a golden asset for Zionists looking to widen their appeal. But to gain the public approval of the icon, Zionist leaders had to first deal privately with the man himself: an irreligious world traveler who distrusted nationalism, even as he nursed high hopes for the communal strength a Jewish nation might offer.

Ze’ev Rosenkranz’s Einstein Before Israel is a story of these sorts of bifurcations—between public and private faces, between the ends and means of Zionism, and between naïve ideals and practical realities. Rosenkranz provides an excellent account of Einstein’s ambivalent and often calculated ties with Zionism. However, the author’s treatment of Zionism itself is somewhat skewed. Rosenkranz is apparently drawn to Einstein’s complaints about Zionism as a way of expressing his own sense that “the Zionist vision had gone awry.” His preface suggests as much, and throughout the book he underplays the fact that for Einstein—who was politically inexperienced—a measure of disenchantment with the actual business of Zionism was inevitable.

More impressive is Rosenkranz’s fastidious and sympathetic discussion of how Einstein felt about his Jewish roots, starting with his early childhood in the 1880s. Like many rural Jewish families in Germany, Einstein’s was intramarried with others, forming a kind of clan that shared both relatives and business ventures. When the Einsteins moved to Ulm and then Munich, they held onto these family bonds, but they left behind the traditional piety of their ancestors: Einstein’s father Hermann is well known to have regarded Judaism as “ancient superstition,” and faith had little to do with the sense of ethnic solidarity that both parents instilled in young Einstein. What mattered more, it seems, was the hostile German majority that surrounded him. Looking back on his childhood, Einstein described a “vivid sense of strangeness…a quality based on one’s descent…not at all based merely on religious affiliation or certain idiosincracies of tradition.” Anti-Semitism trailed him from primary school to Catholic secondary school, where, as Einstein tells it, the religious instruction teacher brandished a long nail, explaining that “this was the nail with which the Jews had crucified Jesus.”

Einstein’s one bout of religious feeling, at age eleven, was brief but telling. He called it a “first attempt to liberate myself from the shackles of the merely personal.” The feeling was gone by age twelve, and there is no evidence that Einstein was bar mitzvahed. Rather, his coming of age was an awakening to science: knowledge was the “supreme goal,” less comforting than piety but more “reliable.” He also saw science as a universal alternative to the particulars of faith, nationality, ethnicity, and social class—all stifling aspects of the “merely personal.”

At age seventeen, Einstein joined his family in Italy, and the immigration process gave him an opportunity to cast off these particulars of identity. He renounced his German citizenship, and instead of marking “Jewish” on his immigration papers, indicated he had no religious affiliation. He also left behind his social class, the Jewish bourgeoisie. He was glad to sever these ties to home, and later he would proudly call himself “a stranger everywhere.”

At the Swiss Polytechnic, Einstein married his fellow student Mileva Marić, a non-Jew. He stayed in Switzerland to earn a PhD from the University of Zurich, and by 1905 he’d published four staggering papers, including the one that would later win him the Nobel Prize, and another that introduced his theory of special relativity. Though Einstein was thriving as a scientist in Zurich, he couldn’t speak the popular dialect (Swiss German), felt self-conscious about his “Semitic” appearance, and his shabby clothing sometimes made people think he was, as his sister Maja put it, “one of the despised Russians.” As in childhood, his sense of alienation stirred an appreciation for the common background of Jewish friends and colleagues. Very often in his life Einstein referred to Jews as Stammesgenossen, “ethnic comrades,” and he liked to repeat the saying “Il sangue non è acqua,” the Italian version of “blood is thicker than water.”

Jeremy Axelrod is the assistant editor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. His writing has appeared in Commentary, The Yale Review, The New York Sun, The New Atlantis, and elsewhere.