Monday, August 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath - A moving last article before he died on Aug. 30, 2015 and a remembrance by his cousin Nobel Laureate R. J. Aumann

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath


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. Just before evening fell, she would light the ritual candles, cupping their flames with her hands, and murmuring a prayer. We would all put on clean, fresh Shabbos clothes, and gather for the first meal of the Sabbath, the evening meal. My father would lift his silver wine cup and chant the blessings and the Kiddush, and after the meal, he would lead us all in chanting the grace.

On Saturday mornings, my three brothers and I trailed our parents to Cricklewood Synagogue on Walm Lane, a huge shul built in the 1930s to accommodate part of the exodus of Jews from the East End to Cricklewood at that time. The shul was always full during my boyhood, and we all had our assigned seats, the men downstairs, the women — my mother, various aunts and cousins — upstairs; as a little boy, I sometimes waved to them during the service. Though I could not understand the Hebrew in the prayer book, I loved its sound and especially hearing the old medieval prayers sung, led by our wonderfully musical hazan.


All of us met and mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons, if not interrupted by emergency medical calls for my parents, would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.

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.

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.

“I haven’t done anything,” I said, “it’s just a feeling — but don’t tell Ma, she won’t be able to take it.”
He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” (She was no doubt thinking of the verse in Leviticus that read, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”)

The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

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.

During the 1990s, I came to know a cousin and contemporary of mine, Robert John Aumann, a man of remarkable appearance with his robust, athletic build and long white beard that made him, even at 60, look like an ancient sage. He is a man of great intellectual power but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment — “commitment,” indeed, is one of his favorite words. Although, in his work, he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith.

He insisted I have a mezuza on my door, and brought me one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” I didn’t argue.

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.

In 1955, as a 22-year-old, I went to Israel for several months to work on a kibbutz, and though I enjoyed it, I decided not to go again. Even though so many of my cousins had moved there, the politics of the Middle East disturbed me, and I suspected I would be out of place in a deeply religious society. But in the spring of 2014, hearing that my cousin Marjorie — a physician who had been a protégée of my mother’s and had worked in the field of medicine till the age of 98 — was nearing death, I phoned her in Jerusalem to say farewell. Her voice was unexpectedly strong and resonant, with an accent very much like my mother’s. “I don’t intend to die now,” she said, “I will be having my 100th birthday on June 18th. Will you come?”
I said, “Yes, of course!” When I hung up, I realized that in a few seconds I had reversed a decision of almost 60 years. It was purely a family visit. I celebrated Marjorie’s 100th with her and extended family. I saw two other cousins dear to me in my London days, innumerable second and removed cousins, and, of course, Robert John. I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.

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 December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

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.

Oliver Sacks was a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine and the author, most recently, of the memoir “On the Move.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 16, 2015, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Sabbath.

And here are some words from his cousin, Noble Laureate R.J. Aumann mentioned in the above article:

"
Jerusalem - Two weeks ago, in the last essay Oliver Sacks ever published entitled “Sabbath,” he ruminated about his tenuous relationship with Judaism and how a serendipitous reunion with a long lost cousin brought the beauty of the day of rest back into his life.

The cousin in question is Nobel Laureate and Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Robert J. Aumann, who won the prize in economics in 2005 for his groundbreaking work in game-theory analysis. The two became close, and Aumann, 85, visited with Sacks a week before he died.
 
During a Sunday interview in his office at the Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Rationality in Givat Ram, Aumann said he vividly recalled his first memory of Sacks, who he did not know was his cousin until the early 1990s.

“My son Yonatan read one of his books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and without knowing he was related to us, he recommended the book to me, and I read it and was very much taken by it,” he said. “Then it dawned on me that he might be related to us.”

Aumann, who holds a visiting professorship at Stony Brook University – where he is one of the founding members of the university’s Center for Game Theory – said he looked Sacks up the next time he was in New York, more than 20 years ago.

In short order, the luminaries determined that they were first cousins, once removed, on Aumann’s maternal side.

“The fact that I didn’t know we were cousins may sound a little strange, but we have a huge family,” Aumann explained.

“My maternal grandfather was the first of 18 children, and Oliver was the son of No. 16, so that’s a lot of people out there.”

“When I went to see him, he was very cordial,” Aumann continued. “And we’ve had a very close relationship ever since.”

Indeed, the two struck up a close friendship, visiting one another annually in New York, as well as in Israel during Sacks’s last visit to the country a year ago to celebrate another cousin’s 100th birthday.

In “Sabbath,” Sacks described Aumann as “...a man of remarkable appearance with his robust, athletic build and long white beard that made him, even at 60, look like an ancient sage. He is a man of great intellectual power, but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment.”

Knowing that Sacks was nearing the end of his life, Aumann flew to New York last Sunday to visit the renowned neurologist in his Greenwich Village apartment to say a last goodbye.

“He asked me what my concept was of Haolam Haba [the afterlife], and we discussed that a little bit,” Aumann said.

“He was preparing for death.
He was very weak, but he was totally lucid.”

“I think he had a longing for religion,” Aumann added.

Although Sacks was raised modern Orthodox by his physician parents in London, when his mother learned from his father that the teenaged Oliver was gay, she called her son “an abomination,” and said “I wish you had never been born.”

The trauma of the encounter resulted in Sacks’s estrangement with Judaism.
“That outburst really hurt him, and I think remained with him for the rest of his life,” said Aumann. “He even mentioned it in the last essay he wrote.
Until his death, it made a tremendous impression on him.”

“He wasn’t really religious before that, but of course, he could have been,” Aumann explained. “I think it’s a little difficult to be religious and also a homosexual. He never discussed it with me.”

Despite Sacks’s renunciation of religion, Aumann said his cousin still held a deep respect for Judaism.

“I remember once we were sitting in a kosher restaurant in New York having dinner, and after the meal I benched [said the blessing after the meal], and when I was done he said, ‘Robert John, that was really rather fast. You must not race through it; I’m not even sure you said everything,’” he recalled. “So, he was aware of it, and that indicated that he hadn’t abandoned [Judaism] entirely. He still had a reminiscence of it, and I think some kind of longing.

I think that maybe formed part of the attraction, part of the relationship between us.”

If given the chance to eulogize Sacks, Aumann said he would note his cousin’s celebrated empathy and sensitivity.

“He was very sensitive to people and he had an understanding of people – especially people with difficulties,” he said.

“He saw beyond the illnesses – he saw into the souls of his patients. His main activity in life was being a physician and helping his patients.”

Additionally, Aumann said Sacks “had a tremendous knack for writing.”

“He was a writer,” he said.

“He was able to take these cases and to make them live in his books. That was his special ability. There were a lot of physicians around, lots of neurologists around, but none of them knew how to write like Oliver.”

It was Sacks’s ability to connect with his patients on a profound level, and help them through their seemingly insurmountable struggles, that truly made his cousin great, Aumann concluded.

“He related to them like human beings, not like cases,” he said.

While Aumann said he was not comfortable revealing the details of their final conversation, he did discuss the powerful final sentence Sacks wrote in “Sabbath”: “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.”

Asked if Sacks achieved his goal of finally resting “in good conscience,” Aumann was unequivocal.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” he said. “He definitely did. He was a tremendously influential figure.”

http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/He-saw-beyond-the-illnesses-into-the-souls-of-his-patients-413757



Saturday, August 29, 2015

The food that nurtures us

Several very interesting, at times counter-intuitive and different, articles about agriculture and food have been sent to me. Previously I have written about food, farming and Zen practice, especially the relieving of harm and serving being, in "72 Labors Brought Us This Food" as well as elsewhere. Here are excerpts from the recent articles and links.

"Another consequence is that Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data, while others in many developed countries—including the Netherlands, Belgium, France and New Zealand—spend at least twice that. People in less developed countries spend four to eight times as much.

It may not be politically correct to say so, but Big Agra is far more productive than are small “family farms,” particularly organic farms. The yields on these farms, according to recent studies, including in the science journal Nature, range between 5% and 38% lower than yields on non-organics, depending on individual crop and on tillage method.

The typical response I get to all this is one of disbelief or insouciance. To many folk here Big Agra is the enemy, foisting endless amounts of tasteless food on unenlightened consumers, meanwhile despoiling the environment through vast quantities of animal waste and excessive use of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Such criticisms are debatable. Most experts on food point out that taste is more related to freshness than to organic or inorganic status or even production site. Given the high quality of American logistics, fresh, tasty food produced by large agricultural enterprises is readily available almost everywhere in the country, even if it is produced thousands of miles away...."

"Yet the indictment I hear most often is that American food is too cheap. Many locals point reverently to food journalist and guru Michael Pollan, who suggested in 2010 that we eat less and pay more, specifically, $8 for a dozen eggs and $3.90 for a pound of peaches in order to support local food systems. I wonder if the 45.3 million Americans living beneath the poverty line—14.5% of the country’s population and almost 18% of North Carolina’s—agree.

The organic sector, while growing, accounted for only 4% of “at home food sales” in 2012—and, perhaps ironically, Costco may already have surpassed Whole Foods as the biggest player in this niche market, with Wal-Mart coming up fast."

(One comment on the article: "No one understands that the U.S. has the same amount of corn acreage as it did in 1900 but it has 10 times the yields. Most small Africa farm yields or still stuck at the 1900 level.")

The full article is here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/trying-to-teach-big-agra-in-a-hotbed-of-locavores-1440801469?mod=djemMER

The second article has some surprising and at times almost contradictory perspectives:

"While Monsanto’s 2014 net sales of vegetable seeds, at $867 million, were a fraction of what it sold in seeds and traits for corn ($6.4 billion) and soybeans ($2.1 billion), according to the company’s SEC filing, Monsanto is building a robust division nonetheless. In 2014, it included 21 vegetable crops sold in more than 150 countries, allowing the company to slowly inch its way out of the center of the grocery store and into the world’s ever busier outer aisles.

Nor is this just about capturing the most lucrative and discerning broccoli-eaters: The company is setting its sight on global vegetable domination. “A big part of our focus is expanding the geographic scope of production in order to achieve a global market,” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, told Quartz. It’s testing several different seeds to make sure Beneforté can grow year-round, in different regions depending on the season, to make for a consistent product that is available everywhere, all the time. It doesn’t want Beneforté to be the Champagne of broccoli; it wants it to be the Coca-Cola of broccoli. If anyone can achieve that with a vegetable, it’s Monsanto. “A big part of our focus is expanding the geographic scope of production in order to achieve a global market.”  

 Beneforté broccoli and Monsanto’s other vegetables, like the non-tear-inducing EverMild onion, the smaller BellaFina bell pepper, and the sweeter Melorange melon, are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They are the results of selective breeding, the age-old process by which farmers make better crops by crossing varieties with desirable traits (though as Ben Paynter explained in Wired, Monsanto’s computer programs have both sped up and replaced much of the dirty work). Seminis’s technology allowed it to capitalize on the nutrition research by Beneforté’s original developers, breeding commercial broccoli varieties that had high levels of a beneficial compound."

For the full article:

http://qz.com/463731/monsanto-is-getting-into-the-vegetable-business-heres-why-that-matters/

For another aspect on food availability and nutrition, an excerpt from an article that was passed on to me:

“We buy huge portions at the store and we bring them back in a big car to a big refrigerator, and we’re not eating it all,” said Dana Gunders, who wrote the NRDC report Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40% of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.

In addition, she said, a lot of edible food is discarded prematurely because shoppers misunderstand the purpose of sell-by or use-by dates stamped on food labels. Infant formula is an exception, but in most cases, the dates aren’t required by the government, and, according to the USDA, they aren’t a threshold for food safety.

“They are meant to suggest peak quality,” Ms. Gunders said. “It’s not necessarily that the food will make you sick if you eat it after the date, but it’s come to be interpreted that way.”

While the U.S. government hasn’t tried to figure out how much food waste is avoidable, the U.K., which tosses about 30 billion pounds of food annually, has.

In its campaign to curb waste, the U.K. concluded that 60% of its wasted food could have been used."

http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-difficulty-of-taking-a-bite-out-of-food-waste-1440780766

After post the above material I was sent another article which is interesting and challenges many "accepted" beliefs:

"It has happened to all of us. You’re standing in the produce aisle, just trying to buy some zucchini, when you face the inevitable choice: Organic or regular?

It’s a loaded question that can mean many different things, sometimes all at once: Healthy or pesticide-drenched? Tasty or bland? Fancy or basic? Clean or dirty? Good or bad?

But here’s the most important question for many customers: Is it worth the extra money?

The answer: Probably not.

Higher price doesn’t really mean higher quality....

(and furthermore)

Organic produce is not necessarily better for the environment....

Organic farms don’t treat their workers any better."

 http://qz.com/488851/buying-organic-veggies-at-the-supermarket-is-basically-a-waste-of-money/

 








Friday, August 21, 2015

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There is an ongoing pattern of anti-Christian (and anti-Yazidi) genocide by Islamic State. Is there anything skillful for us in this?

One suggestion is "Americans are renowned for personal generosity toward the afflicted. Private charities, churches and individual citizens should challenge the government to provide visas for Christian refugees whose funding and care private Americans would guarantee."

Here is the full opinion article titled "Exterminating Christians in the Middle East":

http://www.wsj.com/articles/exterminating-christians-in-the-middle-east-1440112782

Here is another report about these areas.

http://www.meforum.org/5451/heroes-rescue-isis-victims

From the following excellent review:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/aug/13/mystery-isis/

"I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise."

Also see:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/opinion/david-brooks-when-isis-rapists-win.html?ref=opinion&gwh=0ADA54F053C218D036C277E619AEC8FD&gwt=pay&assetType=opinion


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fundamental Buddha Practice and a Political Decision



A fundamental aspect of Buddha Practice is seeing what is so and doing what is called for of us. Sometimes we  speak of this as insight and skillful actions. "Seeing what is so" is not limited to our usual self-centeredness, our usual dualistic perspective. This is body-mind dropped away, body-mind of self and others forgotten as myriad phenomenon manifest our life; - just this. Skillful actions is manifesting this not-two wisdom and compassion.

Of course, what is called for of us varies according to who, what, where and when. If we are a monk in a practice place what is called for is different than if we are a parent at a child's party is different than if we are a police officer is different than if we are a mayor is different than if we are a carpenter is different than if we are a cook is different than if we are a farmer.

An interesting articulation of this, and to me a surprise to find in this material - whether we agree or disagree with the positions and conclusions - is the following political statement that was sent to me:

"If one thinks Iran will moderate, that contact with the West and a decrease in economic and political isolation will soften Iran’s hardline positions, one should approve the agreement.  After all, a moderate Iran is less likely to exploit holes in the inspection and sanctions regime, is less likely to seek to become a threshold nuclear power after ten years, and is more likely to use its newfound resources for domestic growth, not international adventurism.

But if one feels that Iranian leaders will not moderate and their unstated but very real goal is to get relief from the onerous sanctions, while still retaining their nuclear ambitions and their ability to increase belligerent activities in the Middle East and elsewhere, then one should conclude that it would be better not to approve this agreement.

Admittedly, no one can tell with certainty which way Iran will go. It is true that Iran has a large number of people who want their government to decrease its isolation from the world and focus on economic advancement at home. But it is also true that this desire has been evident in Iran for thirty-five years, yet the Iranian leaders have held a tight and undiminished grip on Iran, successfully maintaining their brutal, theocratic dictatorship with little threat. Who’s to say this dictatorship will not prevail for another ten, twenty, or thirty years?

To me, the very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great. "

The above is an excerpt from a statement by US Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

https://www.schumer.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/my-position-on-the-iran-deal