A Poem from Einstein

Forty three years ago, a pair of family friends presented me with an unpublished poem written by Albert Einstein. The poem is unpublished; this post is its first share, as far as I know.

The poem was typed in German at the top of a single sheet of paper. Underneath was a handwritten English translation.

Helen Dukas, a friend of my grandmother, had typed the poem, and Abraham Pais, a colleague of my father’s at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, NJ, had translated it. Einstein had written it, they told me, on the occasion of a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. That morning I had celebrated my bar mitzvah.

Dukas, I learned later, had been Einstein’s assistant for the last 30 years of his life and was co-trustee of his literary estate. She also gifted me a book from Einstein’s personal library (a biography of Kepler, photo below). Pais had been a close friend of Einstein’s. A year later, he published what is still, to this day, the best biography of Einstein.

I was 13 and disappointed. I had no interest in poetry or books about Kepler or Einstein. I wanted a Swiss army knife.

Einstein with Oppenheimer at the IAS in Princeton, NJ

I got over my disappointment, eventually. At a recent gathering, when asked to share a work of art or poetry that had been especially meaningful to me, the choice was easy. Einstein’s poem by itself is not much. But for me it’s a symbol, a reminder of Einstein the person not the legend; his values not his equations.

Who you admire reveals what you value. Speaking at the eulogy for his beloved mentor, Hendrik Lorentz, Einstein said that Lorentz’s work was “of such consistency, lucidity, and beauty as has only rarely been attained in an empirical science.” He also said about Lorentz: “Though he had no illusions about people and human affairs, he was full of kindness toward everybody and everything.” Einstein ended with a description that sounds familiar: “A subtle humor guarded him, which was reflected in his eyes and in his smile.”

Who you admire may also become who you model.

Science, heart, beauty. Plus some levity. They came together, Einstein wrote, in his heritage: “The Jewish tradition also contains something else, something which finds splendid expression in many of the Psalms, namely, a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world… This joy is the feeling from which true scientific research draws its spiritual sustenance.”

Perhaps that’s why Einstein celebrated the Jewish rite of passage with a poem. For him science and heart and beauty were one.

Or maybe it was this: “The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth … the trite objects of human efforts — possessions, outward success, luxury — have always seemed to me contemptible.”

That may be why the boy a century ago received a poem, not a more tangible gift from Einstein. And why I didn’t get my Swiss army knife.

We both got something better.

A reminder of the ideals that matter, from someone to whom ideas mattered above all.

Poem by Albert Einstein, written in 1937
(gift of Abraham Pais)*

Biography of Kepler, from Einstein’s personal library
(gift of Helen Dukas)

* The poem was written for one (Albert) Gideon Schwabacher. The translation reads:
This day is generally known
Manhood is acknowledged.
The tools needed for this purpose
Nature was prepared to deliver
But do not think, my little man,
That with this all is said and done!
The enterprise is not [that] small:
It is not easy to be a MAN!

Read more Letters

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