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My adult circumcision: how I made the cut for my new religion

To remain uncut, I was told, is to remain spiritually cut off from the Jewish people.

I understand the world doesn’t usually think much about adult male circumcision. It’s like having a chat about ball trampling or the Pentagon’s Kevlar underwear. Even on the covered-wagon side of the circumcision wars, where people fight for the foreskins of baby boys, no one wants to talk about grown men getting their corn shucked. Take it to Craigslist, please.

I get all this (and so much more). And yet as someone who knows the sting of this particular ritual – who volunteered for it, in fact, and signed his own check to the part-time reaper who did the job – I have to say: It’s not so bad. There’s no need for any of us to go on treating our junk like our father-in-law’s scratch-free Ferrari. It’s much tougher than you think.

I came to this knowledge on the way to the altar, of all places. I was engaged to a nice Jewish girl, taking some free conversion classes at a big, progressive Manhattan synagogue. I wanted to learn about something that mattered to her, and the more I learned the more it mattered to me, too.

This wasn’t a fur-coat-in-summer kind of congregation. It was part of the Reform movement: only game for the high holidays, mostly casual about pork, always down with gay female rabbis. When one of my own rabbis (gay, female) slipped me the number of a mohel, a professional snipper, I laughed it off: classic Jewish humor!

But no.

Medically speaking, I was already circumcised, along with most of the other babies born in America in the Eighties. But that’s no good for God. I needed a hatafat dam brit: a drawing of blood. To remain uncut, I was told, is to remain spiritually cut off from the Jewish people. That’s the idea of the “covenant.”

While bloodletting has always been a condition of the Orthodox and Conservative wings of Judaism, Reform congregations have been willing to welcome the sexually sheathed and uninjured. Biblical law doesn’t require otherwise. Neither do most of the arguments of the Talmud. But a funny thing happened on the road to gay, female, pork-friendly Judaism: The Reform movement began to ask more people to put some skin in the game. “In an era when the forces of cultural assimilation pose such a daunting challenge to our continued existence as a distinct people,” Rabbi Mark Washofsky explained in an essay in Reform Judaism, the official magazine of the movement, in the fall of 2008 (also the season of my snip), “this admittedly ancient tribal custom bears a message that we do well to hear.”

That’s how I found myself Biblically nude in a kind of spiritual locker room, a shower space in a converted brownstone, waiting on a man with a razor. The surroundings were civilized, more University Club than Russian Bath House. Blue-black tile ran along the floors and climbed the walls. A minty scent hung in the air.

But all noise had already washed away in the roar of my thoughts. I was 12 when Lorena Bobbitt cut her husband down to the size of an elevator button, igniting prurience and anger. It was hard to get to seventh grade in the morning without encountering Slice soda jokes and “Love Hurts” humor. It all made the very idea of external genitalia seem, well, kinda crazy, all of it so fundamentally exposed.

When the mohel arrived, he looked, I’m sorry to say, like Danny Devito in curls. We stood in silence. I opened my towel. Hello, groin. He opened a shaving bag with glinting instruments. Hello, knife. My mohel produced a pen-sized lance, which he wielded ever so gently, like Lady Grantham with a paring knife. He sliced, sliced, squeezed, dripped, and was done. The whole transaction was over in seconds, long before I could scream, or faint, or decide if I liked it.

Instead I felt the way I remember feeling as a child when, rising early, I could watch light fill the woods behind my house, revealing nothing at all scary. When the mohel finally spoke, he spoke in Hebrew and I couldn’t make out a word of it. But I had the feeling that the substance of his words was important and that if I could understand him I would be in the possession of something profound, a message from God: It’s only a penis.

Tony Dokoupil is a senior writer at NBC News. His book about the outlaw age of marijuana and his family's place in it, The Last Pirate, was published by Doubleday in April. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era