Use your imagination, go on. Photo: Getty
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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

Another Man
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Harry Styles’ starring role in Another Man magazine proves he is the perfect teen idol

Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – One Direction’s most famous face is as traditional a heartthrob as it gets. Music critics should know better than to write him off.

In As You Like It’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, Shakespeare splits the everyman’s life into seven parts. Three central, youthful ages stand out. The schoolboy, “with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.” The lover, “sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”. And the soldier, “full of strange oaths,” with a patchy beard, brimming with ambition.

Today, an equally significant work made its way into the world – the most recent issue of Another Man magazine, which stars Harry Styles in three separate editorial shoots, as well as interviews between him and Paul McCartney and Chelsea Handler, and an essay on his youth written by his sister, Gemma Styles. In each shoot, Styles bears a resemblance with each of these three Shakespearean stages – in one, he sports a boyish bowl cut outside his old school, another casts him as a wistful, long-haired lover decked out in red, the third sees Styles with a new, short crop (done for the upcoming film Dunkirk, in which he plays a soldier), more masculine tailoring and barely-there facial hair.

The photoshoot marks something of a milestone in Styles’ career – something he seemed to confirm himself when he preceded sharing the magazine’s three covers on his Instagram feed with three blank posts (now, when you click on Styles’ Instagram page, there is a clear white line between his pre and post- Another Man pictures). This is his first interview and photoshoot since he left One Direction, and cut off all his hair for an acting role, and aside from the odd grainy fan picture or long-lens pap shot, fans have hardly had a glimpse of him since.

So, if this is a statement about a decisive moment in Styles’ trajectory, what does it actually say? Do the three different styles of shoot represent the ghosts of Harry’s past, present and future? Is his sheer versatility a way of presenting the former boyband star as a full-blown actor? In terms of the magazine’s written content, we don’t really discover anything about Styles we didn’t know before.

In his short phone interview with McCartney, Styles’ questions (“When you first went from being in a band to being on your own, what was the creative side of that like?” and “How did you find going from touring with so many people around you, to going out doing songs you’d written every word of?”) suggest he plans to write and perform solo music, and he briefly discusses his acting work with Chelsea Handler (“It’s a challenge, but it feels good to be out of my comfort zone”).

But the rest of the issue feels firmly nostalgic. Styles reiterates how much he loves returning home to Holmes Chapel (“that’s one of the places for me where I feel like I disappear the most […] I go back to Cheshire a lot and walk around the same fields”), the rush he had performing with his former bandmates (“there’s no drug you can take that gives you that same high”), while his sister reflects on his moments spent boiling pasta, playing with the family dog, and running baths for their mum. “It’s cool to have such specific moments in your mind to look back on,” Styles tells Handler.

The three shoots are nostalgic, too. This latest issue of Another Man follows one themed around Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones and the “heirs to his throne”. As Styles is his most obvious successor (often compared to Mick Jagger in both looks and charisma), two of these shoots feel almost as though they were intended for that previous issue. Both the boyish, Sixties Beatles and Stones-inspired shoot – “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, shot by Alasdair McLellan – and the ragged rockstar story, “Anything That’s Part Of You”, shot by Willy Vanderperre – reference specific Jagger photographs and his general vibe.

On seeing the new covers, the Guardian proclaimed: “Harry Styles proves the heartthrob is dead: long live the artthrob”. It saw the shoots, with their high fashion aesthetic, and placement in a niche fashion magazine, as well as Styles’ ability to move from boyband star to actor to potentially authentic singer/songwriter as proof that the old concept of a heartthrob has died. The article says he is “not just a teen dream any more”, “revelling in a context that couldn’t be further from his One Direction past”, and adds: “To win hearts in 2016, you now have to offer artistic value. And you have to hustle.”

But what these visual callbacks to Jagger emphasise is that Styles is, in fact, a very traditional heartthrob – his very appeal may be due to the fact that he is the most traditional heartthrob we’ve had in years. Like McCartney, John Lennon, David Bowie, Jagger, Marc Bolan, or Kurt Cobain, Styles is creative, interested in fashion, androgynous, boyish and followed around the world by a stream of enthusiastic fans, who are mostly young women. And, perhaps in no small part due to that last detail, like all of them, he has been dismissed as a cheap fad by music writers who should probably know better.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot said that a truly “traditional” writer is that which has “a sense of the timeless, as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together”. This is also what makes that writer contemporary, and aware of his own specific moment in time. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

If we apply that logic to the long list of teen idols, Harry Styles ticks all the boxes. Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – Styles is as traditional as it gets. May he retain his place in the canon for centuries to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.