Medieval Advice for the Circumcised

I’ve just come across an extraordinary piece of advice written by a 13th century French rabbi, Isaac ben Yedaiah. I found it on the website, and it attempts to explain, in some detail, why a circumcised man should never allow his wife to sleep with an uncircumcised man:

She will court the man who is uncircumcised in the flesh and lie against his breast with great passion, for he thrusts inside her a long time because of the foreskin, which is a barrier against ejaculation in intercourse. Thus she feels pleasure and reaches an orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasps him, holding on to his genitals, and says to him, “Come back, make love to me.” This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse with him, from the sinews of his testicles – sinews of iron – and from his ejaculation – that of a horse – which he shoots like an arrow into her womb. They are united without separating, and he makes love twice and three times in one night, yet the appetite is not filled.

I’m not really clear why Rabbi ben Yedaiah felt he had to say any of this. Was he answering a congregant’s question? (‘Rabbi, my wife wants to sleep with an uncircumcised man. It couldn’t harm our marriage, could it?’) Or was he recounting how the first Mrs ben Yedaiah had ended up living with her yoga instructor? Either way, he makes the strongest argument against circumcision that I’ve come across for a while.


Viva Big Elvis: An Account of a Trip to Las Vegas without a Single Mention of Gambling

Until a few weeks ago I’d never been to Las Vegas. And when I told people I was going, their reactions weren’t always predictable. A trainee rabbi laughed happily as he remembered the place. A liberal – apparently tolerant – friend angrily dismissed it as a moral vacuum. And these were people who’d actually been there. There were others who hadn’t, but who offered up comprehensive views anyway. Would anyone critique Helsinki or Lille without going there? And then there were those who didn’t tell me what they thought of Vegas, but told me, instead, exactly what I would think of it.

Why, I was wondering, were people so involved?

Possibly because they weren’t actually talking about Vegas at all. Weren’t they really presenting themselves as they’d like to be seen? In some cases, as moral individuals who frown on greed and superficiality, on dancing musical fountains and morbidly obese Elvis impersonators. And in others, as people who get it, whose highly developed senses of humour shine ironic light on seven-pound burrito eating contests, and indoor recreations of Piazza San Marco.

And if Vegas really does represent a scale on which we can all be judged, I might as well tell you that before I went, I really liked it there. But now that I’m back, I like it even more. For me, Las Vegas is all about emotion. Yes, it’s built on gambling and sex and extortion, and, yes, it only smiles on those who can pay. I was told – more than once – about the people who follow their shiny dreams to the city only to finish up living in piss-soaked tunnels underneath it. “Some people say they like it here,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson, “but then some people like Nixon, too.” Vegas wastes natural resources to the point where brushing your teeth in the morning feels wrong. But I loved it all the same. I’ve never been anywhere that’s had me so close to tears so often. And I never cry.

One of my first experiences – and I recommend it as an introduction for any visitor – was an old-style Vegas show called ‘Jubilee’. It’s full of showgirls in feathered headdresses with make up so thick I wondered for a while whether some were men in drag. But they weren’t because they all had breasts, some bigger, some smaller, all bouncing freely around the stage. And when they disappeared off at the climax of a George Gershwin medley, they were replaced by a startlingly detailed recreation of an ocean liner. For the next ten minutes I sat astounded as the showgirls (and showboys) returned to act out the sinking of the Titanic. They played shuffleboard, they panicked at the sight of an iceberg, they hummed ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as the ship disappeared into the churning Atlantic. And then the breasts (which had been covered up – presumably out of respect for the dead) returned for a Cole Porter tribute. It was all so sincere, so funny, so naive, so enthusiastic – and so moving. Yes, moving. Lots of ingredients come together in Vegas to create a currency of emotion, and the machines pay out if you’ll let them.

I was moved the next day, too, watching Big Elvis, the above-mentioned medically obese impersonator. The thing is, he’s not just obese, he’s also terrifically good. And that combination of talent and tragedy mirroring Elvis’s own, plus the fact that Elvis is a religion in the States, (Vegas being his Medina, if not his Mecca), plus the nicely down-home atmosphere of the bar in which he sings three times a day, makes Big Elvis another emotional experience. At first I felt like laughing as Midwesterners wept. Thirty minutes later, as he begged Dixieland to look away, I was crying myself. And I never cry.

I could go on. By the end of the trip I was moved by an impeccably dressed Pee Wee Herman impersonator posing for visitors’ cameras on the strip. Nobody was paying him much attention so I gave him a few bucks. He was very grateful. Hell, maybe he was Pee Wee Herman. Of course by this time I’d have been moved by my own reflection in a puddle. (I should add that a combination of jet lag and excitement meant that I was barely sleeping; this could be another reason for my vulnerable state. I should also add that I was only ever going to be staying for six nights. A lifetime in Vegas would be something else altogether…)

So there we are. Am I telling you that I loved Vegas to impress you with my highly developed sense of absurdity? Maybe. To alert you to my unusually empathetic and amiable personality? Probably. But don’t you see? You’ll love it there too.

Really. You will.

Philip Philip Everywhere

Several years ago I visited Manorbier Castle in west Wales. I enjoy walking round old houses and castles – particularly when there’s no one else there and I can maintain an illusion of ownership.

On this day, the castle was all but empty, and as I ambled round, I noticed an awkwardly posed wax figure. He was dressed in chain mail, winding up the portcullis. He seemed familiar. Moving on to the kitchens, I spotted what looked like the same man, this time stirring a pot.

Then I saw him again in another part of the castle – and it dawned on me that these men were all Prince Philip.

I asked a member of staff, who said that, yes, the castle had recently purchased “a job lot” of Philips from Madame Tussauds.

This was all a long time ago, but I sometimes wonder whether the Duke’s been relieved of his duties. Or perhaps he’s now assisted by other job lots…

The Last Great Escape

Looking through files in the National Archive at Kew, I’ve discovered that the last person to escape from the Tower of London wasn’t a Jesuit priest, a Scottish king or a treasonous royal physician. It was an RAF second lieutenant awaiting court martial in 1919 for passing dud cheques to the Café Royal.

Victor Napier was a South African who joined the Royal Flying Corps as a second lieutenant in 1917. In March 1919, aged twenty-one, he was tried before a General Court Martial on two charges: of closing a bank account without providing for some post-dated cheques made out to the Café Royal, and of escaping from the Tower of London on 14th February 1919.

Despite taking place on Valentine’s Day, Napier’s escape had little romance – or indeed drama – to it. He put on a visitor’s coat and strolled past his guards who failed to recognize him. Later that night he strolled back into the Tower and was re-imprisoned.

At the court martial, Napier was found guilty of passing the dud cheques, and pleaded guilty to escaping from the Tower. He was sentenced to be dismissed from the RAF. But ten days later, the Judge Advocate General refused to confirm the Café Royal conviction, finding that “the evidence did not justify the finding”. Only the guilty plea for escaping from the Tower now stood, and so Napier’s sentence was commuted to ‘a severe reprimand’.

What wouldn’t a few of the Tower’s better known prisoners have given for that sentence? Guy Fawkes was tortured for two days, before being hanged, drawn and quartered. Anne Askew, a Protestant martyr, was burned at the stake. No one even knows what happened to the sons of Edward IV. But Victor Napier, the Tower of London’s last ever escapee, walked away with a reprimand. I wonder whether he dined off that story for the rest of his life…?

Everybody’s Friend

According to a recent Evening Standard article, Debenhams has launched an Ossie Clark Revival Collection ‘with a mission to resurrect the legendary designer’s statement prints and fluid cuts’. Ossie Clark was the totemic designer of the 60s, a man who dressed rock stars and royalty, but when I came across him in 1996, his heyday was past and his resurrection was still years away.

I was a young barrister defending him on a charge of assaulting a police officer. The case, which was heard at Marylebone Magistrates Court, revolved around a display of petulance following a car accident. Clark had shoved the other driver, who turned out to be a plain clothes policeman. It was a fuss about nothing – but because the ‘assault’ was on a police officer, Ossie Clark looked to be going to prison.

At the time, Clark was very clearly down on his luck, living on benefits on a run-down estate. He was polite with me, but quiet and downcast, and accompanied at court by a much younger, very attentive male Brazilian lover. I took Clark’s instructions, and the hearing came to a close with a guilty plea. The case was adjourned for three weeks. I knew that Clark had been a clothes designer – only because he told me so – but I had no idea that he was the pre-eminent designer of his generation, friend to the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, friend to everybody. I only found that out back in chambers when somebody told me about him over a coffee.

I hadn’t thought about my brief, insignificant brush with Clark for many years, until I read of his ‘comeback’ in the Standard. When I did, I remembered my impression of him as a sad, resigned man, barely trying to resist his fall. Where, I remembered wondering, had his friends gone? Why was he not working anymore? I couldn’t quite understand how a man considered a genius was now penniless and almost alone. But at least his lover was looking after him. Thank goodness for Diego.

Three weeks after I represented him, Clark’s case came back before a stipendiary magistrate. I was in another court that day doing something else. Young barristers could be (and perhaps still are) almost interchangeable. So a plea in mitigation was made by the very able Janet Weeks. Sentence was passed and Clark was rightly spared prison. And shortly afterwards he was stabbed to death by the boyfriend. Diego, it turned out, was capable of more than kindness.

My memory tells me that Clark’s murder took place so soon after after the sentencing that had he been imprisoned he wouldn’t have been killed. I’m not really sure that’s right. It’s possible he died a while later and I’m conflating events to magnify my role. But my timing problem isn’t the real one. The real problem is that the “mission to resurrect” Ossie Clark comes several decades too late. Which probably illustrates the fickleness of fashion. And, in this case, of friendship too.

A Nazi Little Shock.

Here’s an unsettling thing that happened recently. As I was searching the internet for a newspaper article, I was instead directed to a neo-Nazi website, where members with names like ‘Wolfslair’ and ‘Sydney Patriot’, were saying revolting things about me. It was a bit of a shock. I was no more prepared to find my name on that site than you would be. Unless maybe you’re Mel Gibson.

I was there because of a book I published a while ago about the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. It contained some stories of misbehaviour during the Blitz, of looting and ration fiddling, balanced by many more stories of stoicism and dogged survival. A couple of newspapers had turned these stories into articles, and it is one of these articles that has turned up on the site – reprinted in full – but it wasn’t there to prompt a discussion of the hardships and deprivations of life in wartime Britain. It was there as fodder to attack the Jews.

‘Levine is a typical Jew,’ wrote Sydney, ‘attempting to erode any positive national memory by doing what so many Jews do best, promoting the lowest common denominator in western history and eroding any sense of national pride that might exist.’ This was a bit rich, coming from someone whose strain of ‘national pride’ would have seen him interned as a wartime traitor on the Isle of Man.

Then Wolfslair – an East End thug to Sydney’s Oswald Mosley – put the boot in with an epic story about the ‘good thrashing’ his father once gave a Jew. ‘Who knows,’ he says, ‘it might have been one of Levine’s own family!’ Ha! Who knows, it really might!

And on it went. I was astonished. I have come across very little anti-semitism in my life. Until I was thirteen, I attended an almost exclusively Jewish school in London, where my class consisted of twenty-three Jews, and one Sikh boy who graduated with a basic knowledge of the Talmud. Not much scope for Jew-baiting there, although, if I think back, I can remember watching one Jewish school friend teasing another, by rubbing his nose with his forefinger, and chanting ‘Stinge!’ over and over again. How’s that for embracing your opponents’ worldview?

Every now and again, though, I’ve sensed the odd mood, heard the occasional exchange. Once – when I was a pupil barrister – I sat in on a meeting of board members of the Platignum pen company. After an hour of grinding tedium, someone mentioned a particular man. He was, apparently, miserly, grasping, ridiculous – and Jewish! Suddenly five dreary pen executives turned into gleeful children as they laughed at the Jews. “I’m not sure whether you’re aware that Mr Levine is Jewish,” interrupted my pupil master, and we were soon back to discussing the articles of incorporation.

In truth this incident didn’t bother me too much. Or at all. It just confirmed my belief that low-level anti-semitism is pretty widespread – even though my name usually goes before me like a leper’s bell, keeping the coast clear. But it didn’t prepare me for Wolfslair and Sydney Patriot. They are not sniggering pen salesmen. They are Nazi sympathizers, with hate to give. And they’ve been talking about me.

Now, it is never nice to discover that people don’t like you. But when they don’t know you, and their dislike is based on something beyond your control, it’s frightening too. If Wolfslair can hate me irrationally, then he and his kind might be capable of other irrational acts. Could they find out where I live? Could I become a target for physical abuse? It was now me thinking irrationally, and had the bully boys seen me, they might have claimed a victory.

But at the same time, a part of me was proud to have been attacked. I’d written a book that I wanted people to read, and my words had become the subject of strong opinions. But there’s more to it than that. My practical links with Judaism may now be tenuous, but an emotional attachment remains, as does respect for a tradition of courage, creativity and, if Shylock is right, sufferance. So besides shock at being caught with my head above the parapet, I also had pride that it was there for the snipers to hit. But there’s another question: should I even be taking these people seriously?

On the one hand, yes. Anti-semitism has not gone away. It is still rife in many parts of the world, in Eastern Europe, for example, where graves are regularly desecrated, and in the Arab world where it has a political agenda. And while it would be easy to imagine that the British National Party’s supporters are too busy hating the black and Asian communities in their midst to care much about a small number of British Jews they’ve never met, such an attitude would be complacent. Hatred is irrational, it thrives on ignorance. History offers plenty of examples of hostility flaring when danger seemed a thing of the past. Sydney and Wolfslair are with us right now, and they are not alone.

But looked at another way, we needn’t take them seriously at all. The internet is a virtual submarine which takes us down to the depths, where we come across ugly bottom feeders, all bared teeth and spines. But the point is – we can only see what we’re allowed to see. In reality, chatrooms and forums are a haven for the opinionated, who can seem much more influential than they really are. They’re also a haven for the inadequate, people keen to reinvent themselves, to pretend to be what they could never be in real life. It was clear that my new friends were opinionated, and I’d place a bet on high levels of inadequacy too.

In the end, I want to laugh at Sydney and Wolfslair. Ridicule is the most effective way of showing these half-men how preposterous, imbecilic, and narrow-minded they are. There is no contradiction in understanding how serious something is while refusing to take it seriously. So I’ll share my mental picture of Wolfslair as an online Wizard of Oz – a diabolical presence until a curtain is pulled back to reveal a pigeon-chested humbug, tapping away in a pair of lightly soiled underpants, surrounded by empty scotch egg packets. Yes, he exists, and yes, we should be aware of him. But there is absolutely no need to take him at his own estimation of himself.

I feel better now.


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