He was slow in learning how to talk. "My parents were so worried," he later recalled, "that they consulted a doctor." Even after he had begun using words, sometime after the age of 2, he developed a quirk that prompted the family maid to dub him "der Depperte," the dopey one. Whenever he had something to say, he would try it out on himself, whispering it softly until it sounded good enough to pronounce aloud. "Every sentence he uttered," his worshipful younger sister recalled, "no matter how routine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips." It was all very worrying, she said. "He had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn."
His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to declare that he would never amount to much. These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted schoolkids everywhere. But they also helped make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern times.
His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom in ways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated. And as for his slow verbal development, he thought that it allowed him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. Instead of puzzling over mysterious things, he puzzled over the commonplace. "When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance," Einstein once explained. "The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have."
It may seem logical, in retrospect, that a combination of awe and rebellion made Einstein exceptional as a scientist. But what is less well known is that those two traits also combined to shape his spiritual journey and determine the nature of his faith. The rebellion part comes in at the beginning of his life: he rejected at first his parents' secularism and later the concepts of religious ritual and of a personal God who intercedes in the daily workings of the world. But the awe part comes in his 50s when he settled into a deism based on what he called the "spirit manifest in the laws of the universe" and a sincere belief in a "God who reveals Himself in the harmony of all that exists."
Einstein was descended, on both parents' sides, from Jewish tradesmen and peddlers who had, for at least two centuries, made modest livings in the rural villages of Swabia in southwestern Germany. With each generation they had become increasingly assimilated into the German culture they loved--or so they thought. Although Jewish by cultural designation and kindred instinct, they had little interest in the religion itself.
In his later years, Einstein would tell an old joke about an agnostic uncle who was the only member of his family who went to synagogue. When asked why he did so, the uncle would respond, "Ah, but you never know." Einstein's parents, on the other hand, were "entirely irreligious." They did not keep kosher or attend synagogue, and his father Hermann referred to Jewish rituals as "ancient superstitions," according to a relative.
Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.
Despite his parents' secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. "He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail," his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.
Einstein's greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor student who dined with his family once a week. It was an old Jewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbath meal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a medical student on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud, and he began his weekly visits when he was 21 and Einstein was 10.
Talmud brought Einstein science books, including a popular illustrated series called People's Books on Natural Science, "a work which I read with breathless attention," said Einstein. The 21 volumes were written by Aaron Bernstein, who stressed the interrelations between biology and physics, and reported in great detail the experiments being done at the time, especially in Germany.
Talmud also helped Einstein explore the wonders of mathematics by giving him a textbook on geometry two years before he was scheduled to learn that subject in school. When Talmud arrived each Thursday, Einstein delighted in showing him the problems he had solved that week. Initially, Talmud was able to help him, but he was soon surpassed by his pupil. "After a short time, a few months, he had worked through the whole book," Talmud recalled. "Soon the flight of his mathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow."
Einstein's exposure to science and math produced a sudden transformation at age 12, just as he would have been readying for a bar mitzvah. He suddenly gave up Judaism. That decision does not appear to have been drawn from Bernstein's books because the author made clear he saw no contradiction between science and religion. As he put it, "The religious inclination lies in the dim consciousness that dwells in humans that all nature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental game, but a work of lawfulness that there is a fundamental cause of all existence."
Einstein would later come close to these sentiments. But at the time, his leap away from faith was a radical one. "Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression."