Role Models & Heroes: Sondheim and Einstein (2013)

By September 23, 2013 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models
The following essay on Stephen Sondheim and Albert Einstein was written by Caleb Klein, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Caleb Klein
September 29, 2013

The Oxford dictionary defines “hero” as a person admired for great deeds and noble qualities, or is the chief character in a play or story who does great things. A “role model” is defined by the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy as “a person who serves as a model in a particular behavioral or social role for another person to emulate.”

To me, a hero is someone who you want to be like, and that you have great admiration for. A hero in stories is also a person who saves lives, or stops other lives from being harmed. Some of my favorite heroes from the storybooks are Hercules, Odysseus, Theseus, Perseus, Robin Hood, and Percy Jackson. A majority of these heroes are Greek, and have special qualities or powers. I added Robin Hood to this list because of his good will and quest for equality. My favorite of all of these is Theseus, because when he is old enough, he sets out to seek his father’s kingdom, and finds the people in despair. He volunteers to help them against one of the worst monsters in all of Greek mythology, the Minotaur. The value he has that makes him my absolute favorite hero is humility, because he steps out to help others and practically gave himself a death sentence, all for the sake of his father’s people, so he didn’t think of himself as more worthy than any other person who lived there.

In my view, a role model is someone you look up to, because they live lives that you think are amazing, and somehow their lives help you along the winding path of your life. I can determine if someone is a role model for me when I notice that I want to be similar to that person. For example, I want to have the creativity of J.K. Rowling, and the humility of Rafael Nadal.

For my role model paper, I have chosen to discuss two people: Stephen Sondheim and Albert Einstein, because they each reflect an intellectual passion of mine– theater, literature, and music; and logic and scientific studies.

Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930 on the upper west side of Manhattan into a very troubled family. When his parents divorced, Stephen Sondheim and his mother moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he sewed dresses that his mother designed. While there he attended the New York Military Academy and George School, where he wrote his first play “By George!” at the age of ten. Around the time that his parents divorced, he became friends with James Hammerstein, son of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who later on became one of his many role models. Stephen Sondheim hated his mother because he felt that she treated him like a servant. It is reported that when his friends once gave him a plate as a gift, he wrote back saying, “Thanks for the plate, but where’s my mother’s head?” Because of his troubled relationship with his mother, Oscar Hammerstein became like a second father to him, and this relationship got him started in his playwriting career.

In one of his most famous works, as the lyricist for West Side Story, he expressed the values of equality and acceptance. The whole story is about a lack of equality and acceptance between the Jets and the Sharks, or the Americans and the Puerto Ricans. This theme suggests to me that Stephen Sondheim, himself, may have experienced a lack of acceptance.

I admire Stephen Sondheim because he is never afraid to express his feelings in his work. For example, when he wrote Into the Woods, so many of the songs were about the characters’ experiences of growing up, like the songs, Giants in the Sky, I Know Things Now, On the Steps of the Palace, and It Takes Two. They all are about seeing the world from a new perspective that the characters never could have imagined before their experiences with giants, spells, the wolf, and unbelievable and difficult journeys. I imagine that at the point that he wrote these lyrics, he was remembering his own experiences as a child, and how difficult it was for him. This music reflects the values of courage, determination, creativity, and intellectual passion.

My other intellectual passion, science, is also an important part of my life. Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists, was born in Ulm, Germany, March 14, 1879. He had a sister Maja, who was known as Maria. He led a fairly normal life until he dropped out of high school before he graduated in order to leave Germany. It is known that even though Einstein was one of the most amazing geniuses of modern times, he did not perform very well in school! So, after he left Germany, he joined his family in Italy, where he enrolled in a new school. He then moved to Switzerland and had his first child a year later, out of wedlock—which at that time was considered unacceptable, with his future wife, Mileva, and he later put his daughter up for adoption. He eventually divorced Mileva, and married his cousin, Elsa.

In 1915 he wrote his miracle paper on light quanta and relativity. He continued his career in scientific studies, but was interrupted during World War II. He moved to the USA, where his wife Elsa died. Three years after Elsa’s death he signed the letter to FDR urging research into the atomic bomb. After World War II his ideas were not believed to be true because he was Jewish, and they were called “Jewish ideas.” In 1952, he was offered the presidency of Israel, but he declined. Three years later he died of a ruptured aneurism at the age 76. His ashes are scattered along the Delaware River, and his brain is preserved for medical research.

Albert Einstein impresses me with his overpowering knowledge of physics, and all things scientific. What I truly admire about him is his ability to question things that hardly anyone could even think about, for example, when he questioned the science behind a solar eclipse. It is also very impressive how determined Albert Einstein was, that he still continued his work, despite his experiences of others doubting him. He also follows his intellectual passions because throughout all his hardships, he continued on with his work, and became the most famous scientist in the world.

Albert Einstein was a non-religious Jew, but when he was 12, he wanted a bar mitzvah and his parents, although they were non-practicing Jews, allowed him to begin his bar mitzvah preparations. While he was working on his bar mitzvah studies, he got involved in his early scientific studies. He began to feel that his scientific studies proved some of the bible stories to be impossible, so he soon decided to stop his bar mitzvah practice. Later, as an adult, even though he wasn’t a religious Jew, he still supported the Jewish people.

Stephen Sondheim had very little exposure to Judaism as a child. He had no bar mitzvah, and did not enter a synagogue until the age of 19. His mother, Etta Janet, despite a religious upbringing, wanted little to do with religion as an adult and therefore limited her son’s exposure to Judaism.

Throughout my experience writing this essay, I have learned many things about myself, and my religious beliefs. I also learned about my intellectual passions in researching these two people, for example, there is pain and suffering behind the scenes of creativity and invention, and concern about whether or not people will like what you create. I also learned what my role models think about Judaism, and I learned a little bit more about how I think about Judaism, myself. For example, Albert Einstein decided not to have a bar mitzvah because of his growing fascination with science and logic. But, he was still very supportive of the Jewish people, and still called himself “Jewish.” This affects me because I, myself, am not very religious either, but am still very affected by what happens to the Jewish people in the world, both today, and historically. Stephen Sondheim and Albert Einstein inspire me, and show me that you should not let go of your intellectual passions because they may turn out to be your greatest traits someday. I hope my intellectual passions turn out to be just as successful as theirs.

In conclusion, these two men, Stephen Sondheim and Albert Einstein, are famous people with strong passions. I look up to them as my role models because they are like the two halves of me, and I hope to follow in their footsteps, to create my own special career and follow my passions.