Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is now writing about his last days. I have always found his insights to be fascinating. Recently in the New York Times, he wrote an op-ed titled "Sabbath" where he describes his lifelong feelings about his Jewish identity -- as an adult and as a public figure, he's always been a secular Jew.

He begins with his early years, growing up in an Orthodox family in England, his separation from all Jewish practice after his Bar Mitzvah, and his current thoughts on his Jewish identity. He wrote:
I chanted my bar mitzvah portion in 1946 to a relatively full synagogue, including several dozen of my relatives, but this, for me, was the end of formal Jewish practice. I did not embrace the ritual duties of a Jewish adult — praying every day, putting on tefillin before prayer each weekday morning — and I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was 18. It was then that my father, inquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.
His family were totally unaccepting, especially his mother, and he cut himself off from them, mostly.

He moved from England to the US in 1960. Eventually: "Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct. This did not dissuade me, for I felt my roots lay in the great neurological case histories of the 19th century ... . It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years." 

Under the influence of a religious relative, he maintained a certain amount of Jewish consciousness as the years past. In 2014, he describes, he traveled to Israel, where he had last been 60 years before. He wrote: 

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.  
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

In conclusion:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

UPDATE: Oliver Sacks died August 30: NYT Obituary here.

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