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The New York Times - SundayReview  |   OPINION 

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath


AUG. 14, 2015

MY mother and her 17 brothers and sisters had an Orthodox upbringing — all photographs of their father show him wearing a yarmulke, and I was told that he woke up if it fell off during the night. My father, too, came from an Orthodox background. Both my parents were very conscious of the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”), and the Sabbath (Shabbos, as we called it in our Litvak way) was entirely different from the rest of the week. No work was allowed, no driving, no use of the telephone; it was forbidden to switch on a light or a stove. Being physicians, my parents made exceptions. They could not take the phone off the hook or completely avoid driving; they had to be available, if necessary, to see patients, or operate, or deliver babies.

We lived in a fairly Orthodox Jewish community in Cricklewood, in Northwest London — the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the greengrocer, the fishmonger, all closed their shops in good time for the Shabbos, and did not open their shutters till Sunday morning. All of them, and all our neighbors, we imagined, were celebrating Shabbos in much the same fashion as we did.

Around midday on Friday, my mother doffed her surgical identity and attire and devoted herself to making gefilte fish and other delicacies for Shabbos.


The Second World War decimated our Jewish community in Cricklewood, and the Jewish community in England as a whole was to lose thousands of people in the postwar years. Many Jews, including cousins of mine, emigrated to Israel; others went to Australia, Canada or the States; my eldest brother, Marcus, went to Australia in 1950. Many of those who stayed assimilated and adopted diluted, attenuated forms of Judaism. Our synagogue, which would be packed to capacity when I was a child, grew emptier by the year. ...

After I qualified as a doctor in 1960, I removed myself abruptly from England and what family and community I had there, and went to the New World, where I knew nobody. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found a sort of community among the weight lifters on Muscle Beach, and with my fellow neurology residents at U.C.L.A., but I craved some deeper connection — “meaning” — in my life, and it was the absence of this, I think, that drew me into near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s.

Recovery started, slowly, as I found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx (the “Mount Carmel” I wrote about in “Awakenings”). I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly, with little encouragement from my colleagues. 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 (and I was encouraged here by the great Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria). It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.

... In a remarkable 2004 interview, Robert John spoke of his lifelong work in mathematics and game theory, but also of his family — how he would go skiing and mountaineering with some of his nearly 30 children and grandchildren (a kosher cook, carrying saucepans, would accompany them), and the importance of the Sabbath to him.

“The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” he said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society — it is about improving one’s own quality of life.”

In December of 2005, Robert John received a Nobel Prize for his 50 years of fundamental work in economics. He was not entirely an easy guest for the Nobel Committee, for he went to Stockholm with his family, including many of those children and grandchildren, and all had to have special kosher plates, utensils and food, and special formal clothes, with no biblically forbidden admixture of wool and linen.

THAT same month, I was found to have cancer in one eye, and while I was in the hospital for treatment the following month, Robert John visited. He was full of entertaining stories about the Nobel Prize and the ceremony in Stockholm, but made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.

... 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?

... 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.

The New York Review of Books

Speak, Memory



In 1993, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories that had lain dormant for upward of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them— memories, especially, of my boyhood in London before World War II. Moved by these, I wrote two short memoirs, one about the grand science museums in South Kensington, which were so much more important than school to me when I was growing up; the other about Humphry Davy, an early-nineteenth-century chemist who had been a hero of mine in those far-off days, and whose vividly described experiments excited me and inspired me to emulation. I think a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated, rather than sated, by these brief writings, and late in 1997, I launched on a three-year project of writing a memoir of my boyhood, which I published in 2001 as Uncle Tungsten.1

I expected some deficiencies of memory—partly because the events I was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared their memories, or checked my facts, were now dead; and partly because, in writing about the first fifteen years of my life, I could not call on the letters and notebooks that I started to keep, assiduously, from the age of eighteen or so.

I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial—were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.


The New York Review of Books




Walter B., an affable, outgoing man of forty-nine, came to see me in 2006. As a teenager, following a head injury, he had developed epileptic seizures—these first took the form of attacks of déją vu that might occur dozens of times a day. Sometimes he would hear music that no one else could hear. He had no idea what was happening to him and, fearing ridicule or worse, kept his strange experiences to himself.

Finally he consulted a physician who made a diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy and started him on a succession of antiepileptic drugs. But his seizures—both grand mal and temporal lobe seizures—became more frequent. After a decade of trying different antiepileptic drugs, Walter consulted another neurologist, an expert in the treatment of “intractable” epilepsy, who suggested a more radical approach—surgery to remove the seizure focus in his right temporal lobe. This helped a little, but a few years later, a second, more extensive operation was needed. The second surgery, along with medication, controlled his seizures more effectively but almost immediately led to some singular problems. ...

... In my ... letter to the court, I wrote:

Mr. B. is a man of superior intelligence and a real moral delicacy and sensibility, who at one point was driven to act out of character under the spur of an irresistible physiological compulsion ....

... The all-or-none reactions that Walter had shown were characteristic of impaired central control systems; they may occur, for example, in parkinsonian patients on L-dopa. Normal control systems have a middle ground and respond in a modulated fashion, but Walter’s appetitive systems were continually on “go”—there was scarcely any sense of consummation, only the drive for more and more. Once his physicians became aware of the problem, medication readily brought it under control—albeit at the cost of a sort of chemical castration.

... His seizures and his Klüver-Bucy syndrome remained well controlled by medication, and his wife stood by him throughout his years of prison and home confinement. Now that he is a free man, they have largely resumed their previous lives. They still go to the church where they were married many years ago, and he is active in his community.

When I saw him recently, he was clearly enjoying life, relieved that he had no more secrets to hide. He radiated an ease I had never seen in him before.

“I’m in a real good place,” he said.


Version: 18 November 2015
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Joachim Gruber