Einstein and pop culture: It’s all relative, says author Benyamin Cohen
BooksThe late scientist is a social media sensation

Einstein and pop culture: It’s all relative, says author Benyamin Cohen

In “The Einstein Effect,” the author paints colorful stories of the German-born, Jewish thinker as a kind of cultural activist who was ahead of his time,

Benyamin Cohen and a bust of Albert Einstein Photo by Shoshi Benstein
Benyamin Cohen and a bust of Albert Einstein Photo by Shoshi Benstein

Jewish journalist Benyamin Cohen sees Albert Einstein everywhere.

Yes, there’s the long shelf-life of E=mc2. And a lot of people still know Einstein from his opposition to deploying the atomic bomb, or his theory of relativity.

But the genius thinker, who is widely considered the Western world’s first modern-day celebrity, can be seen, Cohen likes to say, in our cars, our bathrooms and our minds.

If you like using GPS on your cell phone, or getting a pizza delivered, you can thank Einstein, Cohen said.

“Einstein is one of those few characters that is universally beloved,” said Cohen, 48, of Morgantown, West Virginia., who since 2021 has served as news director of the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper founded in 1897. “I think people relate to him.”

So, Cohen, who manages Einstein’s official social media accounts, wrote a book about his knowledge of Einstein. “The Einstein Effect” hits online giants like Amazon.com, as well as local retailers’ bookshelves, on July 18.

The thesis of the book: Einstein is more relevant in 2023 than he’s ever been before.

As a teenager, Cohen didn’t know much about Einstein. Yes, there was the Nobel Prize and, of course, the crazy hair.

But, while attending college at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Cohen read a book that revealed that a nimble-fingered coroner doing Einstein’s autopsy stole his brain to study what made Einstein such a modern marvel. The brain was never officially recovered.

“We were not taught that in school,” Cohen laughed. “It got me thinking: ‘What stories are there about Einstein that I don’t know?’”

For his book, Cohen traveled to an undisclosed location to meet the person who, today, keeps and studies Einstein’s brain. Cohen even held a piece of it, which is kept in Mason jars. But he’s being cagey about the specifics. The holder of Einstein’s brain needs to preserve their anonymity.

In “The Einstein Effect,” Cohen also paints colorful stories of the German-born, Jewish thinker as a kind of cultural activist who was ahead of his time, which he thinks makes him even more relatable.

“He was the most famous person on the planet — and he wanted to use his fame to speak out against things,” Cohen said.

After fleeing persecution in Germany in 1933, Einstein campaigned against the use of the atomic bomb and helped launch the refugee resettlement group the International Rescue Committee. (It’s still around today.)

Book cover (Image courtesy of Benyamin Cohen)
“I’ve tried to read other books about Einstein, but I never finished them,” actor and International Rescue Committee spokesperson Mandy Patinkin said of Cohen’s new book. “Benyamin has a tremendous sense of humor, and he displays it in the telling of our universal connection to one of the greatest gifts to humanity, Albert Einstein. I promise, if you pick up this book, you’ll never want to put it down.”

The list of Einstein’s activism efforts runs deep.

He fought for the persecuted Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teens accused of raping two white women in 1931. And he worked to end lynching of Blacks in the American South, Cohen said. When world-famous contralto Marian Anderson, who was Black, came to perform at Princeton University but was barred from staying at the town’s whites-only hotels, Einstein put her up in his home.

“I can escape the feeling of complicity only by speaking out,” Einstein once said.

As a political figure, Einstein helped groups of German Jews relocate to Mexico and to Alaska, Cohen said. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Einstein voiced support for Zionism and founding a Jewish state, going so far as to travel around the U.S. raising money for Israeli independence.

Einstein’s archives — some 85,000 documents strong — are held in Israel, at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, which Einstein helped to start. The officials behind those archives broke ground this summer on a museum dedicated to Einstein that will be the largest of its kind in the world.

Cohen is busy online, too. He typically posts to Einstein’s social media accounts 10 times a day and that dedication is reflected in followers; across platforms, 20 million people follow Albert Einstein. That’s more than the number who follow actor Tom Hanks.

The followers have made Einstein one of the most popular dead celebrities in social media spheres. And the number of followers keeps growing by about 10% each year since Cohen took over in 2017.

“John Wayne’s on social media,” Cohen joked. “And he’s got nothing to say.”

Cohen, who occasionally treks the 90-minute door-to-door from Morgantown to Pittsburgh to get good kosher food, is the son of an Orthodox rabbi — and sees his own spirituality, though not observant in religious practice, in Einstein.

“He was always seeking answers,” he said, “and looking at the universe.”

“I wrote this book for other people like me,” Cohen said. “I am sure a physicist will read this book and find mistakes in it. But I want to share how Einstein is relevant today.”

Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of the Forward, thinks Cohen is the right man to tell this unique, and sometimes humorous, story.

“(Cohen) is a completely unique character that I think the best fiction writer couldn’t come up with as an example of a Jewish newsman,” she said. “He just kind of lives and breathes news and Jews — and he’s really obsessively on top of pop culture.”

The Forward editor admits it’s “very hard to break news” to Cohen. He’s kind of a news junkie.

“It doesn’t work so well for his sleep,” Rudoren laughed. “He lives it, he breathes it and he curates it for our readers.”

Rudoren likes Cohen’s tone when he’s writing about Einstein. It makes the iconic figure relatable, and fun to get to know.

“(With Cohen) you’re never going to get a pretentious sentence,” she said. “I think that is one of Benyamin’s superpowers — to write and speak the way normal people do.”

“Normal people” in Pittsburgh soon might get to interact with Cohen in person. He’s been invited to speak this fall at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, as part of the synagogue’s science and religion speaker series. PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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