It was then that Blumenfeld came by Einstein’s apartment again, this time with an invitation—or perhaps an instruction—in the form of a telegram from the president of the World Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann. A brilliant biochemist who had emigrated from Russia to England, Weizmann asked Einstein to accompany him on a trip to America to raise funds to help settle Palestine and, in particular, create Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When Blumenfeld read the telegram to him, Einstein balked. He was not an orator, he said, and the idea of 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.” Weizmann was thrilled and somewhat surprised. “I wholeheartedly appreciate your readiness at such a decisive hour for the Jewish people,” he later cabled Einstein from London.
Einstein’s decision reflected a major transformation in his life. Until the completion of his general theory of relativity, he had dedicated himself almost totally to science. But the anti-Semitism that was oozing up around him in Berlin led him to reassert his identity as a Jew and to feel more committed to defending the culture and community of his people. “I am not keen on going to America, but am just doing it on behalf of the Zionists,” he wrote to his French publisher. “I must serve as famed bigwig and decoy-bird … I am doing whatever I can for my tribal brethren, who are being treated so vilely everywhere.”
And so Einstein and his new wife, Elsa, set sail in late March 1921 for their first visit to America. On the way over, Einstein tried to explain relativity to Weizmann. Asked upon their arrival whether he understood the theory, Weizmann gave a puckish reply: “Einstein explained his theory to me every day, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it.”
When the ship pulled up to the Battery in Lower Manhattan on the afternoon of April 2, Einstein was standing on the deck, wearing a black felt hat that concealed some but not all of his now-graying profusion of uncombed hair. One hand held a shiny briar pipe; the other clutched a worn violin case. “He looked like an artist,” The New York Times reported. “But underneath his shaggy locks was a scientific mind whose deductions have staggered the ablest intellects of Europe.”
Thousands of spectators, along with the fife-and-drum corps of the Jewish Legion, were waiting in Battery Park when the mayor and other dignitaries brought Einstein ashore on a police tugboat. The crowd, waving blue-and-white flags, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then the Zionist anthem, “Hatikvah.” The Einsteins and the Weizmanns intended to head directly for the Hotel Commodore, in Midtown. Instead, their motorcade wound through the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side late into the evening. “Every car had its horn, and every horn was put in action,” Weizmann recalled. “We reached the Commodore at about 11:30, tired, hungry, thirsty, and completely dazed.”