Monday, May 10, 2010

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood by Oliver Sacks, 2001

A "joyous, wistful, generous and tough-minded memoir ..." Natalie Angier in a review in the New York Times, 11/4/2001

The neurologist Oliver Sacks has written a wonderfully eccentric memoir about his boyhood and his fascination with chemistry. What we learn, besides a lot of chemistry, is that he grew up in London in a remarkable, highly educated, traditionally Jewish family. (Abba Eben, the first Israeli ambassador to the U.N. was his first cousin.) This memoir is a tribute to his large and brilliant family. Both of his parents, who were doctors, and his highly accomplished aunts and uncles encouraged his curiosity and his talents.

An early sentence combines both science and religion: In Chapter One Sacks talks about how he loved his mother’s lighting the “shabbas candles. . . . I was mesmerized by the little cone of blue flame at the candle’s center – why was it blue?” Included are some discussions of his mother’s surgical practice in the house, his occasional trips with his father when he made house calls, and a description of home-grown science experiments encouraged by his uncles. Be forewarned that if you are not fascinated by science it will be more difficult to get through the chapters that discuss chemistry, electricity, photography, and spectography.

But we also learn a lot about the rest of his growing up, including the trauma of being evacuated from London and placed in a boarding school at  the age of six during World War II. There are loving descriptions of both the East End and Cricklewood areas of London pre-WWII including their involvement with the Walm Lane Synagogue and descriptions of London during the war. The memoir also includes photos.

To read an interview with Oliver Sacks in the Guardian that was published when he received the Jewish Quarterly Wingate prize, click here.

Mother’s side of family
Lazar Weiskopf – ancestor rabbi on mother’s side from Lubeck
Judith Weiskopf – Oliver’s  maternal great grandmother
    Mordechai Fredkin – author’s maternal grandfather; Fled Russia using name of Mordechai Landau; had 18 children – 9 boys, 9 girls who used the name Landau
        Rose Alexander
            Walter Alexander - her son;   
    Chaya; second wife of Mordechai (Fredkin) Landau
        Dave (nicknamed Uncle Tungsten)
        Elsa-  author’s mother
        Violet – married Moritz;

Family on Father’s side
Elivelva Sacks
    Samuel – author’s father
    Bennie – father’s brother
    Lina Sacks Halper– father’s sister;
    Alida Sacks Eban –father’s sister; married Yitzhak Eban, MD
        Aubrey (Abba) Eban their son; \
    Ida aunt of author
    Gisela aunt of author
    Moss, uncle of author

        Dennis and Neville – author’s cousins

Family of Samuel and Elsa Sacks
    Marcus Sacks
    Michael Sacks
    David Sacks
    Oliver Wolf Sacks - author
        Jonathan Sacks, author’s nephew

Huberfelds – couple evacuated from Belgium during the WWII and living with Sacks family
Miss Levy – his father’s secretary

Those connected to Walm Lane Synagogue
Cantor Schechter
Mr. Silver – worked in Pharmacy Cricklewood;
Mr. Bramson – grocer in Cricklewood
Mr. Ginsberg – greengrocer in Cricklewood
Mr. Grodzinski –baker in Cricklewood
Mr. Waterman – kosher butcher in Cricklewood

Places and Institutions
Joniski, Lithuania
37 Mapesbury Rd, in Cricklewood, northwest London;
Braefield – boarding school in Midlands
The Walm Lane Synagogue
The East End, Petticoat Lane, Marks of the Lane, Blooms on Aldgate, Ostwind’s, Strongwater’s, Silbersteins

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