Walter Isaacson on Albert Einstein in America, 1921

Albert Einstein’s exploding global fame and budding Zionism came together in the spring of 1921 for an event that was unique in the history of science, and indeed remarkable for any realm: a grand two-month processional through the eastern and midwestern United States that evoked the sort of mass frenzy and press adulation that would thrill a touring rock star. The world had never before seen, and perhaps will never again, such a scientific celebrity superstar, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.

Princeton University Press, as volume 12 in its Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, is publishing his correspondence for this amazing and critical year of his life. It includes the full text of 169 letters he wrote this year along with 180 that he received. Also included is a detailed calendar of his year that draws on information from hundreds of other documents. All told, the volume presents an exquisite and rich tapestry of Einstein’s initial involvement with the Zionist movement and with the United States, which 12 years later would become his home.

Einstein had initially thought that his first visit to America might be a way to make some money in a stable currency in order to provide for his family in Switzerland. “I have demanded $15,000 from Princeton and Wisconsin,” he wrote his friend and fellow scientist Paul Ehrenfest. “It will probably scare them off. But if they do bite, I will be buying economic independence for myself – and that’s not a thing to sniff at.”

The American universities did not bite. “My demands were too high,” he reported back to Ehrenfest. So by February of 1921, he had made other plans for the spring: He would present a paper at the third Solvay Conference in Brussels and give some lectures in Leiden at the behest of Ehrenfest.

It was then that Kurt Blumenfeld, leader of the Zionist movement in Germany, came by Einstein’s apartment with an invitation in the form of a telegram from the president of the World Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann’s telegram invited Einstein to accompany him on a trip to America to raise funds to help settle Palestine and, in particular, to create the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When Blumenfeld read it to him, Einstein initially balked. He was not an orator, he said, and the role of simply using his celebrity to draw crowds to the cause was “an unworthy one.”

Blumenfeld did not argue. Instead, he simply read Weizmann’s telegram aloud again. “He is the president of our organization,” Blumenfeld said, “and if you take your conversion to Zionism seriously, then I have the right to ask you, in Dr. Weizmann’s name, to go with him to the United States.”

“What you say is right and convincing,” Einstein replied, to the “boundless astonishment” of Blumenfeld. “I realize that I myself am now part of the situation and that I must accept the invitation.”

One person who was not only astonished but dismayed by Einstein’s decision was his friend and colleague in Berlin, the chemist Fritz Haber, who had converted from Judaism and assiduously assimilated in order to appear a proper Prussian. Like other assimilationists, he was worried (understandably) that a visit by Einstein to the great wartime enemy at the behest of a Zionist organization would reinforce the belief that Jews had dual loyalties and were not good Germans.

In addition, Haber had been thrilled that Einstein was planning to attend the Solvay Conference in Brussels, the first since the war. No other Germans had been invited, but Einstein was (in the words of Rutherford) “for this purpose regarded as international,” and his attendance was seen as a crucial for step for the return of Germany to the larger scientific community.

“People in this country will see this as evidence of the disloyalty of the Jews,” Haber wrote when he heard of Einstein’s decision to visit America. “You will certainly sacrifice the narrow basis upon which the existence of professors and students of the Jewish faith at German universities rests.”

Haber apparently had the letter delivered by hand, and Einstein replied the same day. He took issue with Haber’s way of regarding Jews as being people “of the Jewish faith” and instead, once again, cast the identity as being inextricably a matter of ethnic kinship. “Despite my emphatic internationalist beliefs, I have always felt an obligation to stand up for my persecuted and morally oppressed tribal companions,” he said. “The prospect of establishing of a Jewish university fills me with particular joy, having recently seen countless instances of perfidious and uncharitable treatment of splendid young Jews with attempts to deny their chances of education.”

And so it was that the Einsteins sailed from Holland on March 21, 1921, for their first visit to America. It is an exciting tale, filled with science and religion, Zionism and anti-Semitism and the birth of the modern age of celebrity. It includes Einstein being lionized by 20,000 near-riotous fans upon his arrival in New York City as well as him being mildly snubbed at Harvard and treated warily by American Jewish leaders such as Louis Brandeis. In addition, we can see in this year the refinement of his explanation of relativity theory, especially in a series of famous but complex lectures he delivered while visiting Princeton. This volume allows us to feel the excitement, day by day, of that amazing year. It both humanizes Einstein and also reminds us how he was transformed from great scientist into a historic public figure and icon of the 20th century.

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of EINSTEIN: His Life and Universe.