The storyteller

Mitch Albom brings his industry of hope and faith to Israel.

Mitch Albom 311 (photo credit: Brian Negin)
Mitch Albom 311
(photo credit: Brian Negin)
Mitch Albom tells stories just about as well as he writes them – with a combination of boyish charm, rhetorical magnetism and evangelical fervor. And this one about seeing himself portrayed in the Hebrew production of Tuesdays with Morrie is no exception.
Albom has seen himself portrayed onstage enough times that it doesn’t fluster him much anymore. There have been more than 200 productions of the play, based on Albom’s wildly successful 1997 book about his encounters with his old college sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was suffering from a terminal disease. And lots of actors have played the two characters in the play – Schwartz and Albom – since Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon, respectively, pioneered the roles in the popular Oprah Winfrey-produced TV movie in 1999.
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But the Cameri production, which has been running since December in conjunction with the Haifa Community Theater, contained a first, Albom explained to a rapt audience in Jerusalem a few nights after attending a gala performance in his honor. Veteran actors Yossi Gerber as Morrie and Yiftah Klein as Albom were just fine in their roles. But Albom was surprised to discover a third character had been introduced into his script – his wife, Janine. Only instead of Janine, which is pronounced like the Palestinian city of Jenin, the Cameri production gave her the name Rahel.
“They wrote in a character that plays my wife and they call her Rahel!” said Albom, telling the story with mock outrage. “If you’re going to write in a character, they should use the right name. So if you go see the play, when they say Rahel, shout out ‘Janine!’”
Telling stories – whether a comic interlude like that, or a heart-wrenching opus about life’s struggles and triumphs – has catapulted the sportswriter-turned-author into somewhat of an industry of inspiration. His books, including Tuesdays, the fictional Five People You Meet in Heaven and his latest, Have a Little Faith (much of it based on the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in which he grew up) are full of hope, folksy, down-to-earth observations and motivational themes designed to combat today’s cynical times. A tireless self-promoter as well as an industrious philanthropist, Albom travels the world giving lectures, doing charity work and ignoring critics who deem his work terminally sunny.
“I don’t mind being known as someone who tells stories that move people. I think there are worse monikers to have,” said Albom after he had finished speaking at Jerusalem Masorti synagogue Moreshet Avraham.
“Once when I had a new book out, one reviewer wrote something like, ‘The king of hope is back with another book.’ And I thought, I know he means that as an insult, but I can wear that crown. If that’s the worse he can say about me, that’s all right.”
Albom’s ability to make lemonade out of lemons, combined with a naturally calm disposition help keep the youthful-looking 51-year-old in a seemingly eternally good mood, despite a demanding schedule that would sideline a person not on a mission.
During his whirlwind time here, it was almost as if the country had declared a Mitch Albom week. The writer, who lives with Janine in Detroit, Michigan, was led around the country for a nonstop menu of receptions, two performances of Tuesdays, in Tel Aviv and Haifa, a meeting with President Shimon Peres, an appearance for the Israeli nonprofit organization Tishkofet, that provides support to patients who have serious illnesses, and was now guest of honor at the synagogue whose membership includes Orah Lipsky, the daughter of the subject of Have a Little Faith – the late Rabbi Albert Lewis of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Despite the fatigue and tumult, Albom appeared to be gracious at every turn. With a full head of hair, a glamorous wife and nonwriting successes ranging from a radio show to a regular gig as piano player in the all-star author rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, Albom should conjure up fierce envy in anyone he encounters. But instead, everyone wants to be his friend – because he makes them feel good.
ON A PODIUM, explaining the back story of Have a Little Faith, he speaks with the natural ease of an orator, but with the humility of an everyman. Afterward, he patiently spends a few minutes talking to each of the couple of dozen lecture attendees who brought their dog-eared copies of Tuesdays with Morrie for him to sign.
Outwardly self deprecating and humble, Albom still talks about his writing career – which has seen more than 30 million books sold – like it’s a happy accident, just like his whole entry into sports writing over two decades ago.
“I was in graduate school at Columbia and I was trying to pay my bills working at night as a piano player in a seedy little bar for $25-$30 a night. I went to the job board and they had a little notice for something at Sport magazine. And I went and got the job. If it had been for a business magazine, I might have ended up a business writer,” said Albom.
“From then on, every job I tried to get, all my clips were from sports, so they kept pushing me back into sports,” he added, imitating the “every time I try to get out, they pull me back in,” line Al Pacino recites in The Godfather: Part III. Albom eventually landed at The Detroit Free Press where he gained a national reputation for his sports columns, which instead of focusing on the usual statistics and trades, delved into the human interest stories behind the athletes, the teams and the fans.
In 1989, as a result of a merger between his paper and the Detroit News, the weekend sports section was going to be absorbed by the News, leaving Albom without his Sunday column. He was asked instead to write a column dealing with American life and values.
“So I began, long before Tuesdays with Morrie, to write about other things. Because I didn’t want to be embarrassed writing about sports in a non-sports section. I developed more of a worldview than the average sports writer, and after a period of time, it began to feel natural. I realized I was never in it for the sports, I was always in it for the storytelling.”
But that’s not what compelled Albom to take on Tuesdays with Morrie, after writing two New York Times best-selling sports books in the late 1980s and early 1990s – on legendary football coach Bo Schembechler and on University of Michigan men’s basketball team. It was, rather, a sense of desperation.
“I only wrote it to pay Morrie’s medical bills,” said Albom, referring to his former professor Schwartz, a Brandeis University sociology professor who battled Lou Gehrig’s disease before his death in 1995. The book begins 16 years after Albom’s graduation, when he learns of his former teacher’s illness on television, reunites with him and records his insights and life lessons.
Despite his track record, Albom couldn’t interest any publishers in the story, even Warner Books which had published his two sports books.
“I went to them first and said, ‘Listen, it’s a simple book. Here’s exactly the amount of money I need – to pay his bills. Give me that and we’re done.’ And they said come back when you have another sports book,” said Albom.
Albom did finally get his advance to pay Schwartz’s bills (three weeks before his death), but when Tuesdays was released in 1997, it didn’t make much of a splash in the publishing world.
“Even after I wrote it, it wasn’t like the publisher thought it was going to be a big book. They only printed 20,000 copies, and they probably thought, ‘We’ll be lucky if we can sell these.’ I thought I’d be selling them from the back of my car for the rest of my life,” said Albom.
But through word of mouth, the book gathered steam and entered The New York Times best-seller list more than three months after its release, where it remained for many months.
“It was a total shock, nobody could have predicted that, and I certainly wouldn’t have,” he said. “And I still don’t think it’s anything I did. I think Morrie connected with people. I was just the guy who carried the water and wrote the book.”
WHILE WRITING has proven to be Albom’s bread and butter, his heart has always belonged to music. An accomplished pianist and rock music enthusiast, Albom supported himself in graduate school with his playing, and after graduating from Brandeis in the late 1970s, he even found work as a piano player and singer in a taverna in Crete.
Even though his writing career ended up taking hold, Albom has been able to exercise his muse by living out his rock and roll fantasy with the charity-driven Rock Bottom Remainders, a band consisting of accomplished writers, including Dave Barry, Scott Thurow, Amy Tan and Stephen King, who are, like him, amateur musicians.
“For me, it’s kind of living out the dream, but playing for the Harlem Globetrotters instead of the NBA – you know, playing basketball but you’re not really playing basketball,” said Albom, who just before his visit here toured with the band on the US East Coast to raise money for Haitian refugees and American literary programs.
Despite the heights they’ve reached in their own careers, the authors find it liberating to get out and do something out of their comfort zone, a phenomenon Albom said he’s encountered with many public performers.
“Sure, there’s a lot of frustrated authors who want to be rock stars, but I’ve found that athletes want to be rappers, rappers want to be athletes, rock stars want to be authors – everybody has some other fantasy going on,” he said, adding that in a perfect world, he’d be making music instead of writing books.
“No question, I would take a music career over writing right now. It’s more innate to me. I love to write and tell stories, but it’s a little work. Whereas music is totally natural,” he said.
“What enabled me to be a decent sports writer was that I didn’t care that much about sports. I mean, I liked it, but I didn’t live and die with it. Consequently I was able to bring some perspective to it and I was able to look for human stories, and I didn’t get so crazy about whether a team won or lost, or whether it was a curve ball or fast ball.
“Music – I love it so much, that it was very frustrating to be in the music business. Because if anyone said anything negative about something I played, I couldn’t control myself. Whereas with writing, it’s just an inch more dispassionate for me and I’m able to separate myself just enough to be productive at it. That’s probably why it worked for me as opposed to music. I learned long ago that your passions don’t always make the best living.”
Albom could certainly fool his readers that writing is not his foremost passion. They devour his book by the millions, including his growing fan base here. According to Moshe Triwax, head of Matar Publishing, which has translated Albom’s books into Hebrew, his books are steady sellers.
“His books touch a nerve for Israelis. They’ve acquired the reputation of ‘must reads,’” said Triwax, who added that Have a Little Faith (Im Rak Ma’aminim) has sold 10,000 copies in the five months since its debut, and Tuesdays with Morrie has sold 85,000 copies here since it was released in Hebrew nine years ago.
“It’s going to be an evergreen,” predicted Triwax. Which is fine with Albom, who, unlike most of the big names in books, does not have a quota to fill to his publisher.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m not on a writing schedule. Most writers are,” said Albom. “Most well-known writers, the John Grishams and James Pattersons – they have to produce a book every year, sometimes more than one. I could never do that, and I would never sign a contract that would demand that of me because I knew I couldn’t do it.
“I try to wait until something moves me in some way. It was six years between Tuesdays and Five People You Meet in Heaven [his first stab at fiction] and three years between my last book For One More Day and Have a Little Faith.”
AT FIRST, Albom didn’t even plan on writing Have a Little Faith. It began with an unusual request in 2000 from his hometown, Cherry Hill, New Jersey rabbi Al Lewis – then 82 – to deliver his eulogy when he died. Even though Albom had attended a Hebrew day school, he had drifted away from Judaism as an adult and Lewis’s appeal came like a line drive into left field.
“It was as if a surgeon came to me and said, ‘Here’s a scalpel, will you perform open heart surgery on me?’ It was totally out of my element,” he recalled. “What did I know about giving a eulogy to a rabbi? I always thought they had those things covered with each other – if you go first, I’ll do you, and if I go first, you do me.”
But Albom agreed to the request and over the course of the next nine years (“You would think when someone asks you to write their eulogy, they know their time is going to be up soon,” laughed Albom), he met regularly with the elderly rabbi, connecting with the man and with his own lapsed Judaism. But he still didn’t think of it as a potential book.
“I knew there were wonderful lessons I was learning from Rabbi Lewis. On the other hand, I had already written a book about sitting with a man at the end of his life learning lessons,” he laughed.
It was only when Albom became involved with a Detroit pastor – Henry Covington, a reformed drug dealer and convict who worked with the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof – that he discovered a theme for the book: how two very different men employ faith similarly in fighting for survival. The older, suburban rabbi, embracing it as death approaches; the younger, inner-city pastor relying on it to keep himself and his church afloat.
“It was only when I put the two together did I start thinking, ‘Okay, now there’s a real story here.’”
But it wasn’t just a good story that had Albom returning again and again to Lewis’s home throughout the decade. Their meetings – as well as his encounters with Covington – ended up transforming Albom’s outlook on life.
“If you had talked to me in 1999, you would have thought I was a pretty cynical person. I saw a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to faith, and that’s part of the reason I removed myself from it. I would see these people praying in a church or synagogue and I’d think they’d be going home and doing this or cheating on that,” said Albom.
“I think that by spending time with Rabbi Lewis and Pastor Covington, I was able to see these men of God on Mondays and Wednesdays, not their on days but their off days,” he added, recounting how Lewis, well into retirement, would still take time out to call older members of the congregation to check on their well-being.
“I would ask him why are you doing this – he wasn’t working he had been retiring for a long time – and he talked to me about this notion of a kehilla kadosha – a sacred community. And that’s what a synagogue was really supposed to be, a place where you felt you belonged.
“To see him at 88, 89, still calling these people to see that they were a part of it, I never saw that when I was in the seats in shul. I didn’t realize that was how he spent his time. He had always left messages on my answering machine like, ‘I just wanted to say, I enjoyed the article you wrote about so-and-so.’ I realized it wasn’t just me, he was doing it to everybody. It really melted me.”
That’s how most readers react to Albom’s book as well. But despite the millions of books sold, the movies and the plays, Albom said that on his resumé, he would consolidate all of his skills and talents into just one word – storyteller.
“I’m a storyteller, that’s all I know how to do. I always say to people it’s not like I’m doing dentistry and rodeo riding. Look at what I do, it’s all the same things. I tell stories in columns, I tell stories in books, I tell stories on the radio, I tell stories in music,” he said, referring to two recent columns he had written for The Detroit Free Press.
One, which he wrote while here, was a tribute to Ernie Harwell, the much-loved Detroit Tigers broadcaster for decades, who had just died, and the other was about earthquake orphans in Haiti where Albom had visited last month.
“There’s no connection between the kids of Haiti and Ernie Harwell except that they’re both compelling stories about human beings. In that way, they’re totally connected.” And through his writing, Mitch Albom manages to connect us all.