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2.5.16 Issue

by Mark Kirchhoff, Center for Jewish Life

Thursday, Feb. 18 from 1-2 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library, the Dorothy Kaplan Book Discussion Group will welcome Jeremy Wright as lead discussant for its February selection, Uncle Tungsten: Memoires of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Wolf Sacks.

Author Oliver Wolf Sacks was a British neurologist residing in the United States who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Sacks was born in 1933, the youngest of four children, to a prosperous North London Jewish couple: Sam, a physician and Elsie, a surgeon. When he was six years old, he and his brother were evacuated to what was later described as a grim, sadistic boarding school outside of London in order to escape the German “Blitz” bombings of the city. They resided there until 1943. He recounts in Uncle Tungsten that upon his return home he became somewhat of an amateur chemist and learned to share his parents’ enthusiasm for medicine. He went on to earn degrees in physiology, biology and chemistry and qualified to practice medicine in Great Britian. After earning American medical recognition in the 60’s, he consulted at a chronic care facility in New York.

Sacks’s 2001 work, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, is an interweaving of childhood memoir, family saga and chemical history. Sacks’s youthful obsession with chemical tinkering was tolerated and even fully supported by his physician parents, who granted him a spare room for a makeshift laboratory for the exploration of the elements on the periodic table. “The feeling of the elements’ stability and invariance was crucial to me psychologically, for I felt them as fixed points, as anchors, in an unstable world,” Sacks wrote. The Uncle Tungsten of the book’s title is Sacks’s Uncle Dave, who manufactured light bulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire and who first initiated Sacks to the mysteries of metals. Through this memoir he chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded.

Jeremy Wright is a licensed mental health practitioner in private practice in Omaha and also teaches part time at Bellevue University and Metropolitan Community College.  He and his wife worked with Boys Town youth for seven years. Jeremy has worked at Community Alliance in programs that support clients with severe and persistent mental illnesses. In 2013, Jeremy returned to school for a second bachelor’s degree, majoring in pre-med. It is his attraction to science that encouraged the group to seek him out as discussion leader for Sacks’s work. “I’ve been studying inorganic and organic chemistry, anatomy and genetics, with each class more fascinating than the last,” said Jeremy. “In the ‘hard’ sciences, there are facts to memorize, but it’s much more about thinking through problems in a different way. When Oliver Sacks describes his discovery of sciences as a boy, he talks about feeling connected to other scientists even when he is alone. It is like being part of a fraternity with some of the members far away and others long gone.”

The Dorothy Kaplan Book Discussion Group meets on the third Thursday of each month from 1-2 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library. New members are always welcome to join in the discussion. Contact Library Specialist, Shirly Banner, at sbanner@jewishomaha.org or 402.334.6462 with questions. The discussion group is supported by the Center for Jewish Life whose mission is to maximize involvement of Omaha’s Jewish community in imaginative, compelling and meaningful Jewish experiences.