Q & amp;A with Mitch Albom


Mitch Albom, author of the critically acclaimed Tuesdays with Morrie, will speak at Congregation Shaare Emeth Oct. 29 about his latest work, Have a Little Faith. This new book tells the true story of two men of faith – one is an elderly rabbi who asks Albom to write his eulogy, the other is a Detroit pastor and reformed drug dealer who ministers to the poor and homeless in a decaying church. There is no cost to attend the talk, which is co-sponsored by the temple and St. John’s United Church of Christ.

In an interview with the Jewish Light, Albom, a former sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, discussed his book, his faith and his future plans.

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Tell me a little about the focus of this book. I understand it began when you were asked to give the eulogy for a rabbi.

He was my lifelong rabbi where I grew up in New Jersey. When he was 82, about nine years ago, he asked if I would do his eulogy at his funeral. It kind of stunned me. Number one, I didn’t live there anymore. Number two, I hadn’t been particularly religious at that stage of my life. I thought, “Who am I to do a eulogy for the person who does eulogies?” The only thing I could think of was to get to know him better as a man, so we began a series of visits that I thought would last a couple of months but he ended up living another eight years.

In the book, you also cover the story of a Detroit pastor. How did you interweave the story of the pastor and the rabbi?

They were happening in two different parts of my life. One was in New Jersey. One was in Detroit. One was where I grew up and one was where I live now.

The rabbi was an elderly white Jewish man, the pillar of his community.

The pastor was much younger and African-American. He’d been in prison for manslaughter and had been a drug dealer and a thief before he had turned his life over to God 20 years earlier.

As I moved between the two worlds, I thought they are such different places, yet they are united by the concept of faith, which is what gets them through their issues. With the pastor it was trying to keep his church afloat because it was crumbling all around him. For the rabbi it was facing his death. I just sort of go back and forth between the two stories which are very, very different but you see in the end how there is something that pulls them together.

How did you locate the pastor and what was the thought process behind putting him in the same book with the rabbi?

There really wasn’t going to be a book before I became involved with him. I didn’t begin meeting with the rabbi with the idea of writing a book. I was just getting to know him for his eulogy. About four years into it, I began to work with the homeless here in Detroit and started a charity to help them. As a result of that charity I was going around to a lot of different shelters in the city.

One of them was run out of this church which, when I went and saw it, had a big 20-foot hole in the roof. It was crumbling and dilapidated. Yet they ran this generous, spirited program for the homeless. That’s how I came into contact with the pastor.

That’s when I thought that this was a very interesting contrast between these different cultures and different people and I felt maybe there was an interesting book here.

In your talks over eight years, were there certain topics or themes that your rabbi seemed to return to frequently?

Well, at the beginning I was trying to get to know him as a human being, so we talked a lot about how one becomes a man of God and what drives you to it. I always thought there was a revelation, like a burning bush or something but instead he said that he had wanted to be a teacher and one thing just led to another. After we’d been visiting for a while the discussions became more theoretical and theological. We talked a lot about big picture stuff regarding love, forgiveness, heaven, family, marriage, atheism. The book is really broken down on the discussions on each of those topics.

When you talked to the pastor were there certain topics he focused on?

He told me very early on how he’d been raised dirt poor with seven people in a rat-infested apartment. They’d put bowls of rice on the kitchen counter so the rats would go for the bowls and not come into their bedrooms at night. I knew right off the bat that this was quite a different existence than what I had gone through. Later, he explained how he got into trouble and became a drug dealer and that he decided to give it all up when he thought he was going to be murdered and he asked God to save him and he felt God did. We’d also compare being Jewish to being Christian and have theological discussions about the two and how they can get along.

Were there differences as well as similarities that struck you about the spirituality of these two men?

Well, of course there were differences in the basis of the religions regarding the nature of Jesus Christ, salvation, sins being forgiven. It’s different obviously from how it’s approached in Judaism. But the idea of taking care of one another, the idea of building a community, they were very similar. Also the idea of God being merciful and God not answering every prayer that you had were very similar too. As it turns out both of these men, although I didn’t know it at first, had lost a child. The rabbi had lost a four-year-old daughter to an asthma attack. He had had a big question about faith. Why would God do that to him? He went through a lot of doubt just like everyone else. The pastor lost his firstborn son when he was five days old. It was interesting to see how they both remained steadfast in their faith despite what had happened. They both embraced their faith to weather bad times.

This is your seventh book and a return to non-fiction. Will you go back to fiction or stay with non-fiction?

I’m sure I’ll write again. I’m not trying to plan out too far ahead. I try to just find stories that are meaningful. Sometimes they’re fictional. Sometimes they are something that really happened. I don’t try to force anything. That’s why this is my first non-fiction in 12 years. Maybe it will be 12 more years before anything more happens in real life that I think there’s an overall message to. Until then I might work on novels or movies or something like that.

How did your own faith influence this book?

It wasn’t so much that it influenced it as much as it was affected by it. The simplest way of putting it was that about 10 years ago I was pretty cynical about religion. I believed the worst of it and had walked away from it, not because I had lost faith in God or become an atheist, I had just seen a lot of bad things done in the name of organized religion. Yet when I began to get involved with these two men and saw how devoted they were, I saw the little acts of faith that they did every day that nobody noticed or celebrated. It was just part of who they were. I began to be drawn back into it and lost a lot of my cynicism.

Mitch Albom

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct.29

WHERE: Congregation Shaare Emeth, 11645 Ladue Road

HOW MUCH: Free but donations are being asked to benefit the Shaare Emeth Youth Scholarship Fund and the St. John’s Community Service Food Pantry

MORE INFO: 314-569-0010. Attendees are also requested to bring a non-perishable food item to be donated to the St. John’s Community Service Food Pantry and the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.