For the past six years, the journalist Benyamin Cohen has managed social media for the Albert Einstein estate. “The world’s favorite genius,” Cohen, news director at the Forward, writes on LinkedIn. “He has more than 20 million followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—more than most living celebrities.”
In 2008, Cohen penned the book My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith. His latest book—out this month—is The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms and Our Minds.
Cohen, who was previously a top editor at America Jewish Life Magazine (formerly Atlanta Jewish Life) and Jewsweek, answered several from JNS about his new book.
Responses have been lightly edited for style.
Q: Do you feel pressure running Einstein’s social-media accounts, and was it strange to correct Ivanka Trump when she misquoted Einstein?
A: I feel an awesome responsibility speaking for anyone other than myself, but especially a Nobel Prize winner and someone so intellectually beloved as Einstein. I have access to his social media on my phone, and I am constantly checking to make sure I don’t put pictures of my dog on it instead of my personal one by accident.
As far as correcting Ivanka, that was a unique experience because not only was she misquoting Einstein, which happens every day on the Internet, but she was using a quote about changing the facts. This was all during the debate of fake news and alternative facts, so for her to put words in his mouth was a bridge too far.
Q: Do you think Einstein is the most famous Jew ever after Jesus?
A: I think he was the most famous Jew of the 20th century for sure. In his time, when he was alive, he was the most famous person in the world. He was the Brad Pitt or Bill Gates of his era. Throngs of people chased him down the street trying to get his autograph or to ask him a question.
Q: You write that Einstein has said his only role in the nuclear project was penning a letter to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But isn’t it hard to know if the Manhattan Project would have gotten off the ground without the funding he helped it secure?
A: When you’re in a time of war and you’re worried about what kind of weapons your enemies are developing. I don’t think Einstein made that happen. I think he’s part of a puzzle that helped make that happen. But I wouldn’t say without him it wouldn’t have happened. He worked tirelessly to promote international peace. He was a pacifist. He hated war.
Q: You write about the pathologist who stole Einstein’s brain, which you saw in person. Would Einstein have been mad about what happened to his brain?
A: Einstein wanted to be cremated. He didn’t want people coming to his grave like it was a celebrity attraction. I do not think he would be happy that the pathologist stole his brain after the autopsy.
That being said, once it was taken, the executor of the Einstein estate reluctantly agreed for it to be studied for scientific purposes. It took many decades for that to happen, and the studies didn’t come out until about 50 years after his death. I guess he would want it buried, cremated or in a lab. The day I saw the brain, it was in a cardboard box in the back of someone’s truck in Princeton. I assume he wouldn’t be too happy with that.
Q: You cite experts, who maintain that he had a greater intellectual capacity due to the physical nature of his brain—based on grooves or size. Others dispute that. Was his brain special physically?
A: It goes back to the chicken and the egg controversy.
Did he have this special brain, and that’s what made him so smart? Or did his brain evolve because he was so smart? I don’t know how much we can tell from the brain.
Remnants of the brain can’t take an IQ test or have a neshama, a “soul,” to be able to think. There were incredible scientists who said it was unique. But I think some went into it knowing it was Einstein’s brain, so they were looking for something unique. Scientists should do blind studies. I am not a believer that a bigger brain means you are a smarter person,
Q: Was it a legitimate offer, when Einstein—who didn’t speak much Hebrew—was offered the second presidency of Israel?
A: I think so. It’s a ceremonial position and not prime minister.
I explain some of it in my book, but Walter Isaacson in his book has a whole chapter on it. Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion really wanted Einstein, who was the most famous Jewish person at the time, for the job.
Ben-Gurion thought not only would it be great publicity, but he would be able to build great relationships with people outside of Israel. So, I do think it was a serious job offer.
Would he have been good at it? Einstein himself was the first to admit he was not a politician and hated going to parties or doing social niceties. He hated getting dressed up. He loved wearing pajamas.
But because of the Holocaust, Israel was this response that the Jewish people would survive. He was a big proponent of that. Even though he didn’t speak Hebrew and there were things he said that made people think he wasn’t the biggest Zionist in the world, he was an extreme supporter of the creation of the State of Israel, and I think that’s why he decided to leave his estate to Hebrew University.
He knew that every time someone bought an Einstein mug, they would make a few shekels, and they would be able to make money in perpetuity.
Q: How do you reconcile the critical role Einstein played in helping create the Global Positioning System (GPS) with his lack of a driver’s license, inability to swim and reportedly getting lost when he would go boating?
A: He is the classic absent-minded professor. He would lose his keys to his apartment all the time. There’s a story where he was staying at a friend’s apartment, and they gave him an extra set of keys, and he lost that.
He was a classic big thinker of how the universe worked and what was going on in the cosmos. So, when someone’s mind is literally in the clouds, it’s hard for him to remember to pick up the dry cleaning or not lose keys. I think he was a big fan of irony. I think he would find it funny that he helped give birth to GPS but at times would be directionless.
Q: You interviewed Christopher Lloyd, who played Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown in “Back to the Future,” in which his dog is named Einstein. Lloyd also modeled Brown on Einstein. Do you think that film helped put Einstein in the popular culture zeitgeist?
A: He has said that of all the characters for which he’s famous, people still speak about that role to this day. Almost every weekend, he is at another fan convention signing autographs at a “Back to the Future” table. He said he really thought it inspired a younger generation to become scientists and become involved with technology, and he was very proud of that. It speaks to what Einstein stood for as well.
Q: You also spoke to actor Mandy Patinkin, the spokesman for a refugee organization that Einstein helped found. Patinkin told you that he respected Einstein for standing up for civil rights. Why do you think Einstein spoke up for justice?
A: I think Einstein felt a responsibility to help the less privileged and marginalized. Some of his friends in Germany became militaristic. He just didn’t understand how these otherwise smart people could get swept up in this kind of stuff.
When he got fired from his position in Germany and had to flee, he didn’t understand how people could be so vicious to people with whom they had been friends. When he came to America, he thought he was coming to a better place, and, of course, it was a much better place than Germany.
But when it came to the civil-rights movement, blacks were not treated as well as whites. He saw he had a personal responsibility to stand up. Going back to his celebrity, he realized he had a voice and if he said something on a topic, people would listen. As much as he hated celebrity and fame, he did like the fact it gave him a podium to talk about the things that were important to him—Israel, helping Jews leave Germany and helping blacks in America.
Q: What was it like to visit Nagasaki, Japan, more than 70 years after it was the site of a nuclear attack?
A: It was a very eerie feeling to go there.
I write in the book that it was so strange going into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Anyone who has been to a Holocaust museum has seen the shoes or the luggage of the people who died in the Holocaust. It’s a very visceral feeling, and you see the same thing at the museum of Hiroshima.
You see the shoes of children, who were burned. You see belongings, bicycles that were burned. It was very much like going to a Holocaust museum. It was a place of destruction. It was an eye-opening experience because many Jews have seen something like that only in a Holocaust museum.
In that story, Americans caused that destruction. It makes you look at things from a different perspective.
Q: What’s another surprising thing you found out researching this book?
A: Einstein snored.
But still, someone stealing his brain is, I think, the greatest heist of the 20th century. We all think we know so much about Einstein, but I think that’s still the most surprising thing.