We All Try to Beat Time – Mitch Albom’s "The Time Keeper" (Review)

“Tuedays With Morrie” Author Reminds Us To Live Life and Worry Less About Keeping Time

I have a feeling that author Mitch Albom timed the release of his new book, “The Time Keeper,” to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days. This work of fiction forces us to consider the meaning of time and why it is not good for humans to try to control it. Albom’s message, interwoven in a beautiful story, will likely bring much food for thought to Jewish worshipers during this contemplative season, known as the Days of Awe.

Albom is a self-proclaimed secular Jew, as he articulated in both “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “Have a Little Faith”; however, he cannot hide the godliness that permeates this novel. In the acknowledgement section of his latest work Albom writes, “First, thanks to God. I do nothing without His grace.” There can be no question that “The Time Keeper” comes from a place of deep spirituality, if not an overt association with institutional religion. Issues of free will, reward and punishment, divine intervention and profound prayer inform Albom’s characters throughout.

“The Time Keeper” opens by looking at the difference between humans and animals. While animals seem to just live their lives without considering or even knowing about the concept of time, we humans are always thinking about time. From generation to generation, we count the seconds, minutes, hours, days and years of our lives. While we have no control over time, we still wish to either speed it up or slow it down. (Spoiler alert…)

During the Days of Awe, Mitch Albom will talk about “The Time Keeper” at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles where his childhood Jewish day school classmate and friend David Wolpe serves as rabbi.

Albom has brilliantly constructed three characters who demonstrate how humans seek to control time. Creatively named Dor (Hebrew for “generation”), Albom’s first character lives 5,000 years ago and was the first human to measure time. Counting months and hours and breaths, Dor neurotically seeks to keep time while all those around him try to conquer God. It was during his generation that the Tower of Babel is constructed, a project conceived of by Dor’s best friend Nim. Dor tries to convince his childhood friend that conquering time was a more noble effort than building a corporeal structure to the sky to overtake the incorporeal, but Nim couldn’t understand that and banishes Dor to a life of exile.

When Dor’s wife falls deathly ill he runs rather than returning her from exile to get help. In his deep regret he wishes he could have stopped time. As a punishment for trying to gain human control over time he is sentenced to eternal life as Father Time in a cave where he hears the cries of all humanity throughout the generations. Their cries are about time and their desire to dominate it.

Dor wants to stop time, while Albom’s other two protagonists want it to either speed up or slow down time based on life’s circumstances. Sarah Lemon is an overweight, high school senior with low self-esteem, anxiety issues and a crush on an out-of-her-league boy. She is a bright student who gets perfect grades and has a promising future, but her teenage social struggles make her want time to end by committing suicide.

On the other side of the spectrum is billionaire hedge fund tycoon Victor Delamonte, who after a successful life and a long marriage is on dialysis to help him live but a few more months. Victor, however, will do anything to extend his life and buy himself more time on earth. He’s even willing to stop dialysis if it means having his lifeless body frozen in a Cryonics lab to return generations later when there’s a cure for his cancer and he can return to the life of wealth and luxury he has come to know. Sarah wants less time. Victor wants more time. And Dor is charged with the mission of helping them both realize that control over time is more of a curse than a blessing. As Dor himself learned, controlling time is no gift.

Rather than preach to us that we should end our futile preoccupation with time, Albom constructs a wonderful fantasy with characters both human and mythical to drive that point home. It is a skill that Albom has demonstrated before by offering wisdom through his dying professor (“Tuesdays With Morrie”) and his dying childhood rabbi (“Have a Little Faith”).

Dor delivers wise counsel after spending thousands of years in a “purgatory” of eternal life. “Everything man does today to be efficient, to fill the hour? It does not satisfy. It only makes him hungry to do more. Man wants to own his existence. But no one owns time,” Dor counsels Victor.

Albom’s Victor shows us that no matter how much money one has, it is impossible to beat time. After all, billionaires have the same 24 hours in a day that the homeless have. Victor has more wealth than he could ever spend, but he craves for an eternity. Again, the author has fun with his character’s names. Even the “Victors” have to play the cards they’re dealt and Sarah Lemon shows us that no matter how challenging life gets, you need to use the time you have to make lemonade from those “lemons.” [Note: Albom told me that he didn’t make these character associations intentionally.]

What is important is for us to make the best use of the time that we have. We are unable to stop time and we are unable to speed it up. However, we can seek to do the best we can in the amount of time we are given by God. All of us are time keepers. All around us, we have clocks and watches and calendars. Six millennia ago, Dor sought the key to keep track of time. Today, we are slaves to it. Time is kept on our wrists and computer screens, on our cell phones and on the walls of our home, but Mitch Albom teaches us that being a time keeper is not the way to live. Through Dor’s wisdom he warns, “There is a reason God limits our days … To make each one precious.” Perhaps that is the best message for the Jewish season of introspection.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Anthony Castelow Also Taught Mitch Albom About Faith

Last night’s premiere of Mitch Albom’s “Have a Little Faith” was an emotional tribute to both Rabbi Albert Lewis and Pastor Henry Covington.

It was great to see that so much of the film had been shot at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan’s largest congregation. Rabbi Harold Loss even made a small appearance in the background with Cantorial Soloist Neil Michaels.

Anthony “Cass” Castelow with his daughter and Mitch Albom

One of the most moving parts of the film was Mitch Albom sitting in the car and listening to Anthony Castelow’s story. Every time Mitch came by the I Am My Brother’s Keeper church, “Cass” would ask him when he was going to hear his story. Finally, Mitch took the time to listen to his life story which is about repentance. “Cass” was a junkie who stole ham sandwiches from the homeless shelter and was then invited to live in Pastor Henry Covington’s home. Today he is a deacon of the church.

With Anthony Castelow, Deacon of the I Am My Brothers Keeper Church in Detroit

I had a chance to meet Anthony Castelow at an event to raise money for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation after his book Have a Little Faith was published. During the event I sat behind Castelow and then listened intently as he addressed the audience with his young daughter by his side. Mitch had already inscribed a hardcover copy for me, but I brought an advanced paperback copy that I received to the event and asked Cass to sign it. He seemed honored to have the chance to inscribe a book. The honor was all mine.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Mitch Albom’s Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had — “Mitch Albom’s Jewish?” they asked.

Mitch Albom’s Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Apparently they hadn’t read his most recent book “Have a Little Faith,” in which Mitch Albom’s childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of “The Live Albom” (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball’s Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.

Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn’t until his autobiographical book “Tuesdays with Morrie” came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom’s Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn’t say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom’s at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His “Have a Little Faith” book was Albom’s first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn’t belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the “A World of Difference” institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.

Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of “Have a Little Faith”) and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism’s value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he’s learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight’s premier of “Have a Little Faith”:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller