Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Several jurisdictions in the US have introduced--or talked of introducing--legislation to ban male circumcision. It is suggested that this is in line with changing attitudes, so that this is seen as preventing the mutilation of a human body before the child involved can decide for himself. Such a proposal is reported to be on the November ballot in San Francisco. There is also talk of a proposed State law that would prevent such a proposal as the one proposed for San Francisco.

I can't imagine that such an ordinance would pass without an exception on religious grounds, which would permit the mohel to continue to practice his trade. We are assured that this isn't an idea that's really "anti-semitic", that misleading phrase which is the euphemistic version of anti-Jewish.

I was not circumcised as an infant--or later, even!--but my sons were, soon after birth, as was generally routine fifty years ago in local hospitals. I don't think the doctor waited until the eighth day, since the procedure was being undertaken for "hygienic reasons" I sometimes wondered whether this practice was influenced by Jewish doctors, but we were told that there are health reasons for this procedure, largely for a reduced chance of certain cancerous conditions. It occurs to me that Jewish boys were not circumcised by an obstetrician, but were "done" in accordance with religious tradition.

Personally, I find this ritual to be unfortunate, and a relic from a more primitive age. But I am not Jewish, and this is not my business. It is interesting to me that not only Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed Jews continue this practice, but many secular Jews, who may never darken the door of a synagogue, continue the practice. Any move to change what is clearly significant to virtually all Jews, would need to start somewhere, and it seems to me extremely unlikely that this would happen in the foreseeable future.

For the rest of us, I don't think that an absolute prohibition is desirable. Nowadays, I tend to prefer adult baptism, rather than the more traditional infant baptism, but both my sons were baptized soon after birth, and I am not convinced that there is permanent damage to children who are baptized before they can make a decision for themselves. One cannot be "unbaptized", but my guess is that a high proportion of those baptized as infants simply "drop out" of Christianity. I believe that the parents of male Jewish babies should have the right to have them circumcised.

The word of my subject here (bris) actually comes from an Ashkenazi (or Yiddish) pronunciation. "Brit milah" is the full formal name of the procedure.

The males I really feel sorry for are those who convert to Judaism after infancy. It's a painful procedure--but I have never heard of any concession: if a male Gentile wants to become a Jew, he must sacrifice his foreskin.

Monday, July 18, 2011


I'm not a particularly tidy person, but I do find joy in putting items in the right order. This can be as simple a task as sorting out cutlery from the dishwasher, putting knives, forks, and spoons in the right place in a drawer. I don't waste a lot of time on computer games, but I do allow myself a daily hand of Free Cell, a form of solitaire, in which the object is to sort a deck of cards from a random formation into neat piles of 13 cards in each of the four suits.

When I was an Oxford undergraduate, each December I would work a daily eight-hour shift at the main Tunbridge Wells post office, sorting mail destined for the West of England. I found this deeply satisfying, especially when my detailed knowledge of the geography enabled me to complete an address, secure in the knowledge that the mail would reach its destination in ample time for Christmas. My "station" was set up for two sorters, but from the first year I persuaded my supervisor that I could handle the "West Road" alone.

The British have developed a specialized meaning for "sort": to straighten out or correct something. Example: "We'll soon have this sorted", said in an optimistic tone, when something significant has gone wrong. (Note that they don't add "out", although the meaning is similar to our use of "sorted out".) I find this comforting: it helps me minimize my tendency to become irascible and intolerant with bureaucratic mistakes.

We have been very satisfied for about thirty years with GEICO handling our car insurance, but in recent months we had some problems. It seemed simple: the Volvo we had kept in Colorado for a few years, having brought it from California, was once again in Berkeley, and we had bought a used Subaru for Colorado. This seemed to buffalo the polite clerks when we called GEICO--not usually from the same office, because in their system GEICO offers service from many locations, not from the same place. I became frustrated at unexpected incompetence, although I really try--and sometimes succeed--in being clear and calm.

Luckily, one of our two excellent part-time helpers (Nancy Laws) is superb in dealing with bureaucrats. She is calm, firm, demanding, and terrier-like in following through until she is satisfied.

When we have problems with merchants, banks, and authorities, our best answer is "Let Nancy sort it."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Two British Peculiarities

1. When Barbara and I were in England recently, we were amazed at the number of pages in English newspapers. One Sunday paper had 110 pages, with three additional separate supplements. Imagine the Sunday edition of the "New York Times" every day...

I also noticed the strange British habit of treating the names of football teams and county cricket sides as plurals. For example, (imaginary): "Villa seek new manager". I can interpret the shorthand names of teams (in this case "Aston Villa"), but I still find it very strange to see a singular subject and a plural verb. I suppose the logic (if you can call it that) is that sports teams necessarily involve a number of players, and the singular noun becomes an implied plural.

Most American football teams have a "coach", normally paid much more than the General Manager. In UK soccer, the "Manager" does the coaching, usually with several assistants.

2. Important features of British life are the two annual "Honours Lists". One of these is issued as the New Year opens, and the other is the so-called Birthday Honours List. This is issued on the Queen's "official birthday". It is also an occasion for celebration and pageantry, all good for the tourist trade. (A supplementary List may be issued on the resignation of the Prime Minister, etc.)

Not only politicians are featured in the Honours Lists. Movie stars, sports figures, and many other people from all walks of life are recognized. Few new hereditary titles are added, although occasionally an existing hereditary Baron (say) may be raised to a Viscount, and so forth. There are many Life Peers being created, however.

An exception is made for Royalty. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (aka William & Kate) are wildly popular, and their wedding was the Event of the Season.

The Queen's actual birthday is on April 21, in the early spring. In some years that will be a bright sunny day, with displays of daffodils in the many London parks and elsewhere, but there is the old saying that "April showers brings May flowers", and the ever-present threat of rain often makes it unsuitable for parades and picnics. Also, there aren't many tourists around in April - they are more likely to be spending "April in Paris".

I don't know who invented the concept of an "official birthday" at the time of its origin in 1748, but I hope the clever person who came up with the idea received a suitable award in one of the Honours Lists.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


In my recent blog about euphemisms, especially words and phrases about--er, bathroom fixtures--I omitted a common British word: "cloakroom". There is an ambiguity with the word: in some places (such as a theater or restaurant in colder climes than California's) the room so designated is indeed a place to store hats, coats, briefcases, etc. It is usually a place presided over by a woman, who often makes a pretty good income from tips.

"Cloak" as a verb is a useful word, implying a complete covering, as in "the ground was cloaked in snow". As a noun, I visualize a "cloak" to be a garment with no buttons, and probably no sleeves. It is the sort of outdoor covering that Little Red Riding Hood would have worn with her hood. It would go well with an opera hat--a sort of collapsible top hat--and a silver-headed cane: in fact, there is such a garment as an "Opera Cloak", very similar to a "cape", but longer, also designed to be worn over evening clothes. We don't see many such cloaks in California now.

We mostly encounter "cloak" these days in the phrase "cloak & dagger". Sometimes this refers to espionage, and always implies secrecy and mystery. The phrase probably originated from a form of one-on-one combat, in which a cloak was used to disguise the movement of the dagger, and generally to distract the opponent. (Compare a matador's use of the muleta to distract the bull he is about to dispatch.) Some considered this form of fighting deceptive and even "dishonest", by comparison to fencing openly with a rapier or other dueling weapon.

Probably the most famous cloak in English history is the one deemed to have played a vital role in what is considered a great example of "chivalry". Virtually every English schoolchild knows the legend, which may be based on an actual incident. Reportedly, Sir Walter Raleigh cast down his cloak over a puddle, to protect Queen Elizabeth's shoes from the mud. Indeed, this may be considered chivalrous, but I sincerely doubt that Sir Walter was expected to wash out his own cloak! That would have been a job for one of his servants.