Springtime in Washington means a lot of things. And one of them is the influx of tourists who come to enjoy the balmy weather and the many attractions unique to the capital. First, they flock to see the ornamental cherry trees (this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first 3000 trees from Japan). And they visit the Smithsonian, which (to people from out of town) sounds like one big museum, kind of like the Louvre. Actually, there are 17 different Smithsonian museums in Washington (plus two in New York City) – enough to keep you occupied for weeks. But trees and museums aren’t always enough for the typical tourist. Rightly so, for there are some very impressive monuments to behold – well over 100, in fact.
Do you know which one is my favorite? It’s not one of the huge stone edifices commemorating a President, General or Veterans of War. Nor is it a gallant man sitting heroically atop on a horse (of which there are more than 30 in DC). It’s of a scruffy-looking dude with rounded shoulders wearing a sweater that lies in rolls around his waist. He sits casually on some steps, with one hand on the ground for balance and another holding an open notebook with scribbles all over it. He looks a bit tired, or maybe perplexed, and not the least heroic. But, he’s a hero of mine and is known around the world for his theories explaining the physical world. He’s none other than Albert Einstein – declared “the greatest physicist ever,” by a 1999 poll of 100 of the world’s leading physicists.
He sits by himself on a major street corner in DC, hidden behind holly shrubs and elm trees. On the plaza in front of him is a circular dais made of Norwegian granite pockmarked with 2700 metal studs representing objects of the night sky – the sun, planets, moons, and stars. It’s a reference to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which made possible the Big Bang explanation for the formation of the universe. Albert fits right in – as one of the world’s great stars! When I visit, I want to be there too, so I climb onto his lap and rub his nose. I’m certainly not the only one who’s done this – witness how shiny his nose is, much like a Buddha’s belly.
Why have I always loved that monument so? In part, because of its drollness – very appropriate since he had such a well-tuned sense of humor (think of the classic photo him sticking his tongue out as his long white hair billows behind, or any of his numerous quotes – for example: “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”) I like the monument because he looks so haphazard. Not what you’d expect from such a genius of a man, without whom we’d know so much less of how the world works. And, because the monument is so understated, hidden from the masses of tourists, a calm respite from the madding crowds (so to speak) on the Mall. And, because it’s a memorial that allows you to get up close and comfy – to interact with a heroic figure, and to pretend he’s your grandfather.
And now I have a new reason, speaking of grandfathers…. I’ve just learned that there’s relativity (not in theory, but in fact!) between me and Albert Einstein. It comes via my own grandfather – who was not droll or haphazard, humble or humorous. He was a German Jew, born poor in a small town in Prussia, now eastern Germany. He received little formal education, but on his own he became a man of many accomplishments: a scholar and avid reader, a collector, a Zionist, a department store magnate, a philanthropist and founder of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a patron of literature and the arts, and the founder of internationally recognized book and newspaper publishing enterprises.
So, what does that have to do with Einstein? It turns out that among his collections, my grandfather, Zalman Schocken, owned Einstein’s handwritten text of the theory of relativity. Pretty cool, I’d say. The two men were contemporaries, Jews who lived under similar pressures, sending them from Germany to Switzerland, Palestine and finally the U.S. Though they were not friends, they traveled in the same circles, meeting in 1919, if not before, in Berlin at a gathering establishing an Academy of Jewish Science, a research center to promote the cultural renewal of German Jewry. They convened with other prominent German Jews throughout the 1920s at exclusive clubs and associations promoting Jewish arts and science. And, as founders of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, they were together at the university’s formal opening in 1925. Both were strong proponents of philosophy, science, the arts, ethics and scholarship, and the belief that people of all walks of life should have opportunity and freedom.
While they held many of the same noble truths, they were very different men. And, to illustrate that fact, the monuments portraying them couldn’t have been more different. Einstein’s invites you to climb all over him, to finger his appendages, and to straighten the wrinkles in his pants or tweak his overgrown mustache. He looks you in the eye and you can imagine it twinkle with some revelatory or humorous thought. On the other hand, the granite bust of my grandfather – which sat on the piano in our living room throughout my growing up – makes you want to look away, to avoid his glance as he avoids yours. His bald pate and stern demeanor exude seriousness and disinterest, even to the inclinations and aspirations of his own offspring.
I was not yet three when my grandfather died, so I have little personal memory of him. But, I’ve heard the stories and read his biography – The Patron: A Life of Salman Schocken, 1877-1959. I know of his many feats and talents, and I’m proud to be his granddaughter. Truly, I am. But, I also feel like I never had the kind of grandfather who I could get close to, to appreciate for a gentle, humble spirit and/or some quirkiness. (My paternal grandfather died many years before I was born). I would have liked to have a Grandpa Albert. Instead, I have a big bronze statue in downtown DC to embrace. And, you do too, if you want to make use of it.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, my grandfather donated Einstein’s handwritten paper on relativity to Hebrew University in 1925, days after he (and Einstein) attended the university’s formal opening. (And, Zalman/Salman can be spelled either way….)