One Joyful Sunday

Sunday 11th September, 2016

Today I took the children and Jon to De Hortus. They loved it. It’s a magical place. The children particularly enjoyed the butterfly enclosure and the two enormous greenhouses with the rock lined paths, hidden pools, and an enormous variety of plant species. Inspired by Oliver Sack’s commentary on his visit to Amsterdam we headed off to do various things he did when he came to visit. I added a visit to see the Spinoza monument, which is cast in bronze and decorated with flowers and birds by way of paying homage to the natural world. It’s ironic that Spinoza should be so celebrated in Amsterdam given that he was excommunicated from Judaism and consequently abandoned by his community here. He sought refuge in The Hague. His home has been turned into a museum, which I’d like to visit at some point.

We went on to Rembrandtplein to see the statue of Rembrandt, but I thought the sculptures of the Nightwatch more impressive. Of course, the square is extremely touristic, so we very quickly boarded our bikes with the children on the back and headed towards the seventeenth century Portuguese Synagogue, of which Sacks writes. There was no one inside, so it was still and peaceful. It’s a huge room filled with impressive wooden pews, columns and enormous gold chandeliers. After a little respite we headed to the Jewish museum across the road where there’s a children’s section set up like a traditional Jewish home complete with Kocher kitchen. The children were allowed to make bread for the Sabbat in the kitchen, which they enjoyed. The house is inhabited by a fictitious Jewish family who explain about Jewish family life and particular rituals on television screens. We sat and watched them set the table for Sabbat.

Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about the Sabbat, which his family practiced in the London community he was brought up in. It’s an affectionate and pleasant commentary on Jewish family ritual. Sack’s is such a fascinating figure. He was a prolific diarist. I read his autobiography. He’s a very engaging writer. What stands out is his dedication to his work as a neurologist, especially the fact that he never stopped treating patients, even when he could not get paid employment. He just simply visited hospitals, saw patients and wrote up their case histories. He had a vocational calling. It was like an awakening when he lived in L.A. post amphetamine addiction. It replaced Judaism for him. 

As I child I always felt a bit like I was missing out because my family had no faith. I felt bereft of the sense of ritual and occasion afforded to the devotees of religion. I particularly enjoyed religious instruction at school, and perhaps it was the precursor to an interest in philosophy. I’ve sought to foster this fascination for enquiry in my children and will continue to do so. Out front of the Jewish museum whilst sitting eating our lunch I anointed each child’s head solemnly with my forefinger and theatrically pronounced them Spinozians with the central mission to foster a joyful affirmative life and to celebrate and uphold the natural world. They seemed to like it. We all laughed and danced about before riding home.