Daniel Levin is a British pharmaceutical research, development, and manufacturing executive who lives in Southern California with his wife and son. He earned a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University and began writing about East of Eden after visiting the National Steinbeck Center.

Daniel Levin

About Daniel Levin

Daniel Levin is a British pharmaceutical research, development, and manufacturing executive who lives in Southern California with his wife and their three children. He earned a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University and began writing about East of Eden after visiting the National Steinbeck Center.

Sharing East of Eden for the Jewish Festival of Shavout

Image for Jewish festival of Shavuot

The Jewish festival of Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Hebrew Bible and the ethical laws Torah contains. Though John Steinbeck wasn’t Jewish, the ethics of good and evil behavior, both within and outside ethical laws, are prominent in his writing beginning with The Grapes of Wrath, and the theme of Timshel—one’s response to evil—is a dominant feature of his partially autobiographical novel East of Eden. With that in mind, I recently took the opportunity to present a talk on Steinbeck’s treatment of Timshel in East of Eden to my local Jewish community as part of a program of Shavuot lectures in the Los Angeles area.

In my remarks I quoted passages from East of Eden (e.g., “the Hebrew word, the word Timshel—‘Thou mayest’— . . . gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not’”) to explain Steinbeck’s fascination with the word Timshel in dramatizing the ethical choice we are given: whether to resist or succumb to the evil influences in our lives. I reviewed recent psychological research on how nature and nurture dictate our behaviors, as well as the Jewish teaching that emphasizes the responsibility of personal choice over good or evil, irrespective of nature, nurture, and perhaps even Divine influence. I also reflected on the intriguing typographical and transliteration mistake Steinbeck made in adapting the Hebrew word timshol to Timshel in East of Eden, along with Steinbeck’s influence on contemporary culture following this error.

My talk marked the conclusion to a remarkable personal East of Eden journey that brought with it a number of gratifying connections. As I noted in a previous post—“Discovering Unexpected Connections to East of Eden—my adventure began with a visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, where I examined a replica of the hand-carved box Steinbeck made to convey the manuscript of East of Eden that he gave to his beloved editor and publisher, Pascal Covici. The ensuing research I carried out into apparent errors in the Hebrew carved on the box prompted enjoyable discourse with archivists, academics, rabbinical scholars, and other experts around the world. It led to a report on my findings in a paper published in the winter 2015 issue of Steinbeck Review, and to my presentation during the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

All in all, a fascinating series of experiences, as a consequence of a family vacation visit to the National Steinbeck Center that was, in turn, inspired by my reading of The Grapes of Wrath when I was growing up in the United Kingdom.

Discovering Unexpected Connections to East of Eden During a Family Trip to Northern California

Cover image from a British edition of East of Eden

John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath made a deep and lasting impression on me when I read it as a school-curriculum book whilst a young teenager in the UK. I consequently became a lover of Steinbeck’s writing, reading many of his other books over the years that followed. After moving to Southern California for work a few decades later, I visited the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas with my family en route to San Francisco and our holiday home rental farther up the Northern California coast, in the picturesque village of Mendocino (pop. c. 1,200). The towns of Salinas and Mendocino have appeal for fans of Steinbeck like me, and I recommend stopping at both when you visit Northern California.

Image of Levin family visit, National Steinbeck CenterAs a chemist I found the National Steinbeck Center engaging for the insights it offered into Steinbeck’s life and career as a journalist, novelist, and (briefly) “bench chemist” for the Spreckels Sugar Company. But there was more. An exhibit depicting Steinbeck’s epic biographical novel East of Eden caught my attention because of the biblical and philosophical commentary concerning man’s responses to evil influences that it revealed. This prompted me to purchase a copy of East of Eden in the bookstore as we were leaving. I read it during our stay at the idyllic sea-view house we rented in Mendocino overlooking rugged coastal cliffs and resident sea lions, a dramatic setting in which to experience Steinbeck’s multi-generational saga.

Steinbeck’s discussion of the Hebrew word “timshel” in East of Eden fascinated me as a metaphor for our choice in how and whether to response to evil, and I was moved to look up the passage in the Hebrew Bible that contained the word—from the story of Cain and Abel—that Steinbeck quotes. When I discovered that Steinbeck had incorrectly transliterated the Hebrew word timshol, I consulted Hebrew and other sources about its meaning and Steinbeck’s use. My research was eventually published in an article by Steinbeck Review, as reported in a post at SteinbeckNow.com.

Image of the Ford House Museum and Visitor CenterWhilst staying in Mendocino and reading East of Eden, I encountered unexpected connections to Steinbeck and his novel during a visit made by our family to the Ford House Museum and Visitor Center to learn about the history and culture of the area. The story of the Ford House began in 1851 with Henry Meiggs, the Gold Rush sawmill owner who built Fisherman’s Wharf on San Francisco’s famous Embarcadero. Learning that a ship with cargo from China had sunk off the Mendocino coast, Meiggs sent an employee named Jerome Ford to the wreck site to search for salvage. Ford failed to find the ship, but he discovered something of even greater value to his employer: a magnificent forest of redwoods stretching many miles inland from the rocky Northern California shore.

Following Ford’s advice, Meiggs arranged for sawmill equipment to be shipped around the Horn from the East Coast to Mendocino, where the first sawmill opened in 1852, with Ford as superintendent. The second house constructed in Mendocino from lumber cut by Meiggs’s mill was built for Ford and the woman he married in 1854 in Connecticut, the time and setting chosen by Steinbeck for the opening section of East of Eden. Readers will recall that 10 years after publishing East of Eden Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley about seeing the redwoods in and around Mendocino while driving down the Northern California coast with his wife Elaine—a century after the Fords settled into their redwood home.

Image of John SteinbeckI discovered one more connection between East of Eden and Mendocino during my family visit to the Ford House: Mendocino was a shooting location for the 1955 movie adaptation of East of Eden that starred James Dean. Scenes were also shot in Spreckels, the sugar company town outside Salinas where Steinbeck worked while a student in high school and at Stanford. Years ago I was introduced to Steinbeck in school in the United Kingdom, so it was a delight for me to discover unanticipated connections between his life and writing in Northern California as an adult.

Many thanks to Jenny Heckeroth of the Ford House Visitor Center and Museum and to Lisa Josephs at the National Steinbeck Center for their help.