Thursday, September 3, 2015

Oliver Sacks' NYT Obituary: A Corrective

The following paragraph appeared in the New York Times obituary for the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), and was re-run in the Sydney Morning Herald of September 1:

"Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, in London, the youngest of four sons of Samuel Sacks and the former Muriel Elsie Landau, who were both doctors. His father, in Sacks' words a 'moderately Orthodox' Jew, read the Bible daily, and Sacks often demonstrated a spiritual impulse in his books. But in Uncle Tungsten, his 2001 memoir about his childhood love of chemistry, he explained that the inflamed Zionist meetings his parents held before the war helped turn him away from organised religion." (Author demystified brain's quirks, Greg Cowles)

So Zionist meetings turned Sacks off... religion?

Why would political meetings turn one off religion?

The NYT appears to be (deliberately?) conflating Zionism with Judaism here.

Yes, Sacks was an atheist, but it was not the aforementioned "inflamed Zionist meetings" which turned him away from "organised religion."

No, what they turned him away from was something very different - political Zionism and Zionists, as can be seen from the relevant passage in his 2001 memoir:

"Zionism played a considerable part on both sides of my family. My father's sister Alida worked during the Great War as an assistant to Nahum Sokolov and Chaim Weizmann, the leaders of Zionism at the time, and with her gift for languages, was entrusted with the translation of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 into French and Russian, and her son Aubrey, even as a boy, was a learned and eloquent Zionist (and later, as Abba Eban, the first Israeli ambassador to the UN). My parents, as doctors with a large house, were expected to provide a venue, a hospitable place, for Zionist meetings, and such meetings often took over the house in my childhood. I would hear them from my bedroom upstairs - raised voices, endless argument, passionate poundings on the table - and every so often a Zionist, flushed with anger or enthusiasm, would barge into my room, looking for the loo.

"Those meetings seemed to take a lot out of my parents - they would look pale and exhausted after each one - but they felt a duty to host them. I never heard them talk between themselves about Palestine or Zionism, and I suspected they had no strong convictions on the subject, at least until after the war, when the horror of the Holocaust made them feel there should be a 'National Home'. I felt they were bullied by the organizers of these meetings, and by the gangsterlike evangelists who would pound at the front door and demand large sums for yeshivas or 'schools in Israel'. My parents, clearheaded and independent in most other ways, seemed to become soft and helpless in the face of these demands, perhaps driven by a sense of obligation or anxiety. My own feelings (which I never discussed with them) were passionately negative: I came to hate Zionism and evangelism and politicking of every sort, which I regarded as noisy and intrusive and bullying. I longed for the quiet discourse, the rationality, of science." (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, pp 15-16)

The question arises: is the NYT covering for Zionism here?

PS: Considering his childhood experience of Zionist bullying, Sacks would have been well-placed to write another book with a title as catchy as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat - 'The People Who Mistook Someone Else's Country for Their Own'.

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