Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mitch Albom's Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame's annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had -- "Mitch Albom's Jewish?" they asked.

Mitch Albom's Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.
Apparently they hadn't read his most recent book "Have a Little Faith," in which Mitch Albom's childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom's sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn't a secret, but it also wasn't something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of "The Live Albom" (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball's Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.
Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn't until his autobiographical book "Tuesdays with Morrie" came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom's Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn't say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom's at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His "Have a Little Faith" book was Albom's first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn't belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom's Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of "Have a Little Faith," Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the "A World of Difference" institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.

Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of "Have a Little Faith") and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom's Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism's value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he's learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight's premier of "Have a Little Faith":


rachel kapen said...

I enjoyed readin Have a Little Faith as I did some of his previous books, most notably: Tuesdays with Morrie, but I knew of his Jewishness all along. I even found out that he had a Jewish Day school education. He mentioned it when a few years ago, onh Mother's Day, my son, Udi, spotted him in the same restaurant that he and his wife dined. Udi found out that he attended a recent play in which he starred and a friend of Mitch also participated. I remember telling him that my eldest son, Gilead, who attended Brandeis at the same same time he did, bought me the Hebrew translation of the book so I have it in both languages and that the hebrew name: Yemei Shlishi im Morrie can be perceived as : Tuesdays with my Teacher.
Perhaps the reason that Mitch isn't known exlusively as a Jewish writer is because he is involved in causes of a universal nature as can be dedo uced from reading Have a Little Faith.

M. Perko said...

Dear Rabbi,
My name is Mandi Perko. I teach 6th and 7th grade reading in Illinois. I was given Tuesdays with Morrie a couple of months ago, and I haven't been able to read it yet while trying to keep up with my students and their reading. (Sometimes we race to see who can finish first!) Anyway, I watched the movie based on his book, Have a Little Faith. I was moved to tears many times and was so inspired. Every year, I do a project called My 3 Words to celebrate who they are inside, their dreams, their hopes and desires, and their hard work that they have accomplished all year. It is based loosely on the segment My 3 Words from Good Morning America. While the presentation goes into much more detail highlighting student writing and such, for the past 3 years it has been a night where God's grace and presence are felt in all the people who attend. Every year I am amazed at the kids and their hearts for others...their desire to show people that middle school kids aren't just disrespectful kids with an "I don't care" attitude. They do show people what is really inside of them, and this project has become so precious to me. I have big hopes for this year, and while it is going to take place the second week of May, I have been planning it for over two months now. Everything we do in class is tied together in this project. Matthew West, a Christian singer/songwriter, has agreed to send in a video. (I asked him because of the story of Dax Locke of Washington) This little boy was dying, and all he wanted was one last Christmas. Everyone in our town and around the country and even in other parts of the world heard of this story and put up their lights early to give Dax one last Christmas. Matthew West has done so much to help Dax's parents raise money for their quest to fund St. Jude for one million dollars. They are halfway there. After watching the movie about Mr. Albom tonight, I was moved by the incredible steps God can take to make good of all things that happen in this world. It just reiterated my belief in God, faith, and what love and compassion can do in anyone's life. Is there ANY possible way you could put me in touch with Mitch Albom so I could propose his participation in ANY capacity for the My 3 Words Premiere this year. Now, I would be so honored if he volunteered to be the keynote speaker, but I would understand if his busy schedule didn't allow it. I just felt moved to find some way to get in touch with him. I saw that you have met him on several occasions. Is it possible you could put in a good word for me? If you have any further questions, I would be more than happy to answer them, or if Mr. Albom has any questions, I would be delighted to answer them as well. It is an incredible project, and if I had permission from all my students from last year, I would upload it on YouTube for you. Or maybe I can send you and Mr. Albom a DVD? Thank you so much for your time and consideration for this project for which I care so deeply.
Mandi Perko,