Uncle Xenon: The Elemental Oliver Sacks
Sitting in his office, fully immersed in the delightful multitudinous stream issuing forth from Sacks’ brain, we lose all sense of time and space. Finally, Noah asks a question—“What is your favorite kind of bagel?”—that leads Sacks to Judaism, not among his favorite subjects. “In general I don’t talk to people about religion, any more than I talk to them about politics or sex,” he tells us. “I think those are all dangerous subjects, charged with unreason.”
But Sacks is happy to divulge that he loves pumpernickel bagels, especially “topped with herring.” Naturally, the topic veers to smoked salmon, which was a favorite of Sacks’s—along with Bach—when he was five. “I still say much the same,” he adds with a laugh.
One of the photographs he shows us is of his first cousin, Sir Robert John Aumann, a mathematician awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics for game theory. Aumann is Orthodox; it was he who gave Sacks the mezuzah that hangs on his apartment door. Sacks is an atheist. “Personally, I do not feel any need for religious belief,” he says. “On the other hand, I respect other people’s need for it.” He celebrates holidays with friends and, although he rarely attends shul, has a preference for Orthodox services held in Hebrew, which he considers a “sacred language.”
“Judaism is a profoundly historical religion,” he says. “A profoundly ethical one.” But he fears religious intolerance, and doesn’t find Judaism exempt. “I consider religious fanaticism more likely than anything else to combine with technology to destroy the planet,” he says.
It is, in part, his disdain for extremism of any kind that keeps him distant from Israel. In 1955, he spent three wonderful months there, visiting Jerusalem, Tsfat and Eilat, where he made his first primitive but joyous scuba dive. He also stayed on a kibbutz near Haifa called Ain ha Shafet. “I enjoyed the unworldly idealistic communal life in the kibbutz,” he says. “It was good for the xenon part of me. It was a healthy, important experience for a solitary intellectual, pathologically shy person to work on a farm, do physical work and be in the community.”
But he has felt out of sympathy with Israel since 1967, when it came into possession of the territories. His feelings, he admits, have also been influenced by personal matters. His mother died there, and he believes that another of his first cousins—the late Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban—was sidelined because he was not sufficiently partisan. “He was a man deeply versed in Arabic literature and I think, increasingly in the 1960s, when things hardened in Israel, the whiff of his sympathies itself became ground for suspicion,” says Sacks.
Sacks has never returned to Israel but once considered traveling to an Arab village on the West Bank where a fifth of the population is born clinically deaf and villagers, hearing and deaf alike, communicate in sign language. He eventually decided against it, although he liked the idea of a visit for medical research. “I’m a great believer in being nonpolitical and nonpartisan.”