Mitch Albom didn’t set out to repair the world, and certainly didn’t expect to become a best-selling author known for writing uplifting books about depressing topics. That all happened, he told an audience in North Caldwell on Oct. 21, through those tiny twists of fate that decide so much of life.
“Basically, it’s one big accident,” the New Jersey-born sports writer, novelist, and philanthropist told the audience of around 400 people attending the Green Brook Country Club Book Club’s final event of the 2014 season.
Albom described how he came to write his first book, Tuesdays with Morrie. It all began on his first day at Brandeis University, when he was warmly greeted by Professor Morrie Schwartz in a class he almost didn’t take. Some 16 years after graduating, flipping through the TV channels, Albom came across an interview with his beloved teacher, who, at 78, was dying from ALS. Albom decided to go visit him, and then went back week after week before Schwartz’s death in 1995.
The book came about because of one question he asked: “Are you afraid of dying?” Schwartz wasn’t, Albom said. “He was 10 times more contented with his life than I was with mine,” but he was terrified of the health-care costs his family would face. Albom set out to help, by recording Schwartz’s wise and witty views on life and death.
Publisher after publisher rejected his proposal before he found one taker. The book became the best-selling memoir ever published, a thumb-in-the-eye to the naysayers that he clearly relishes. But Albom takes even greater satisfaction from his reason for writing it. “Finally, for the first time in my selfish life, I did something for someone else,” he said. “And I did it for the right reason, not to aggrandize myself.”
He first learned such values growing up in a Jewish family in Passaic and attending Jewish day school in Lower Merion, Pa. That’s also where he learned the art of storytelling, sitting at the kitchen table, listening to relatives tell their stories over and over. “Especially if you’re Jewish, you know what that’s like,” he added. His 2009 book, Have a Little Faith, chronicles Albom’s experience after his childhood rabbi, Albert Lewis, asked him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral.
His latest book, the first phone call from heaven, was inspired by his mother’s struggle with locked-in syndrome, or LIS, and he has a new one in the works. All somehow relate to the end of life, and what comes after.
“Death ends a life, but not a relationship,” Albom said. “If all you do is worry about work and your makeup or looking buff, then when you die, you’re 100 percent dead. But every act of kindness and sharing, those little interactions, the time you give to someone else — those are a little hedge against death.”
Albom acknowledged practicing his own version of tikun olam, repairing the world. “When I notice that people need help, I try to find a way to help them,” he said. Selling around 35 million books around the world has enabled him to do a lot of that.
While he and his wife don’t have children of their own, they have found great love, he said, with the children in the orphanage they established in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He has established seven other charities, most in his beleaguered home city of Detroit, acting on one of his favorite Morrie Schwartz sayings, “Giving is living.” (Information about his philanthropic efforts is at mitchalbomcharities.org.)