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Rabbi Jonathan Romain says he became a supporter of assisted suicide after witnessing an agonising death.
Having never met a rabbi before, I am not quite sure what to expect. What I definitely do not anticipate is someone welcoming me to the synagogue wearing a kangaroo outfit — complete with pouch and toy joey.
Moments later Rabbi Jonathan Romain arrives — in perfectly normal attire, including a fetching navy duffel coat — and explains that the dressing-up is for the Jewish festival of Purim.
Similarly I am not sure what to expect from a rabbi’s book of spilling the synagogue beans. What I do not expect is for it to be stuffed with sex.
Chapter one of Romain’s new book, Confessions of a Rabbi, is titled Sexual Misdemeanours. It begins with a tale of a lonely widow who, in Sharon Stone legs-apart style, attempts to seduce a flustered Romain in his synagogue office.
The book is a satisfying mix of the rabbi’s real-life encounters (all names changed, of course) and quasi-advice manual. Chatting in the aforementioned office, Romain repeatedly insists that the people featured are not just from Maidenhead, in Berkshire, where he has been the rabbi since 1980.
Any thoughts on your MP, Theresa May? “It’s the other way round: she’s not my MP, I’m her rabbi,” he quips, before praising her effusively.
Returning to the book, within the first 37 pages we have tales of men dying during sex, love children, a bride running off with her father-in-law, wife-swapping and endless adultery. It’s enough to make Jilly Cooper blush.
So, Rabbi Romain, why did you kick off with rumpy-pumpy? “It came naturally. A lot of the stories are about the sexual or emotional conflict that we get ourselves into, and sex is one of the driving forces in our lives,” he says.
An anecdote of an au pair who sleeps with not just the husband but also the family’s three teenage boys beggars belief. “You couldn’t make it up,” he says.
To anyone familiar with Romain, the forthright nature of the book will not come as a surprise. One of Britain’s best-known — and least reticent — rabbis, the 62-year-old has for decades put his head above the parapet on everything from legalising prostitution to supporting gay marriage. Almost 30 years ago he enraged the Jewish community by supporting interfaith marriages, which were then “the taboo subject”.
“I was crucified for ‘selling Judaism down the road’. I’ve changed attitudes — most rabbis will now be supportive [to those couples] and won’t slam the phone down or shut the door,” he says. He was made an MBE for his work in this area.
Today’s taboo — for society generally — is somewhat different: death. “We’ve reversed our position from the Victorians, who were very heavily into death, but never talked about sex. Now we’re in your face about sex, which is great, but death and dying has become the big taboo,” he says.
Thankfully, in his book it is on death where the rabbi’s wisdom particularly shines through. For example, he suggests how to talk to children about it (essentially not in “Mummy went to sleep” euphemisms) and gives advice for the bereaved (including “never turn down an invitation”).
Funerals should be as much a part of children’s education as taking them to a museum.
He feels “very strongly” that children should be told about death — and funerals are “as much a part of their education as taking them to a museum”, he says.
“The worst thing is when children or grandchildren are not told about a funeral and are just picked up from school that day as if nothing has happened,” he adds.
In fact, argues Romain, children are much better at dealing with death than adults. “We use all sorts of euphemisms, such as ‘big C’ or ‘passed away’, and they say, ‘He’s died’ and ask very practical questions. It is us imposing our stereotypes, fears and worries onto them.”
A moving part of the book is Romain’s description of the agonising death he witnessed that triggered his U-turn on assisted dying. He now advocates that terminally ill, compos mentis adults should be allowed to end their lives. His voice quickens as he tells me how in America the state of Oregon has a system similar to the assisted dying laws being proposed here, and that while thousands sign up for permission to end their lives, very few actually go through with it.
“A lot of people want to have it as an emotional safety net if things become unbearable. But in real terms most of us carry on till our dying breath,” he says.
He is similarly passionate in his contempt for faith schools. “It seems absolutely daft to ghettoise children. Even if that’s not the intention, we’re effectively creating an education apartheid society,” he says.
His triumph in turning the tide on interfaith marriages means he has added confidence to fight these other corners. As he puts it: “I was right then and the rest of the world was wrong — maybe I am right in these issues too.”
Speaking bluntly and asking awkward questions is part of Romain’s role as a congregational rabbi. For example, anyone coming to him with relationship troubles is asked off the bat when they last had sex. Invariably, he says, it’s been a long time. “Physically making love is a very good barometer of the emotional side of the relationship,” he says.
Romain’s own relationship is with Sybil Sheridan, his wife of 35 years and a fellow rabbi. He believes they were the first two rabbis in the world to marry. Their four grown-up sons are “not particularly religious, but being Jewish is a big part of their DNA”.
His own synagogue has grown from 80 families to about 820, making Romain a very busy man. When not visiting people’s homes (where refusing cake is his “golden rule”), prisons, hospitals and schools, he’s taking services, giving talks or writing. The stands of his beloved Reading FC offer sanctuary because it is too noisy to answer his mobile. During our chat, the phone rings four times.
What has he learnt from talking to so many people over the years? “Essentially, most are nice, decent people trying to make a way in life. Ultimately, most want to be loved, and if you show a little kindness, love and respect, that’s actually the solution to many problems,” he says.
Does he ever wish he’d just stuck to his congregational duties and kept shtoom on thornier issues? “Quiet is boring,” he laughs. “I don’t want to look back at my life and think, ‘I never stood up for anything, I never changed anything.’”
There’s no danger of that. As I leave, the “kangaroo” sends me into the sunshine with a hamantasch, the traditional pastry for Purim.