I am an anthropologist and psychiatrist. I hold an academic post at University College London and am an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Essex.
I was born in the East End of London; within the sound of Bow Bells, so I suppose that makes me a real Cockney. Both my parents were born in England. My grandparents originated from Eastern Europe. My maternal grandmother came to the UK from Poland in 1907 and my maternal grandfather came to the UK from Leningrad in 1912. My father worked as headwaiter at Blooms, reputedly the most famous kosher restaurant in the world (sadly now closed for serving non-kosher meat). My mother was a housewife. I have one brother, who is a barrister.
My early years were spent in Redbridge; an area in East London, which, twenty years ago, was predominantly occupied by lower middle class Jews, many of whom were taxi drivers. I attended a local grammar school, where Jews were in a minority and most of my fellow students were Christian. At school I experienced a lot of anti-Semitism. I remember one day walking into school and someone saying; “Here comes the morning Jew”.
There were a few other ethnic minority students at my primary school, and they were also discriminated against by other students. Words such as Paki were frequently banded about in the classroom. Bullying was rife. This was not just taunting; at times it amounted to frank physical violence. This experience had a significant impact on me. It sensitized me to the plight of other people who were discriminated against‚ and caused me to affiliate with minority groups in general.
My intention was originally to study pharmacy, but just before I finished secondary school, I decided instead to study medicine. I was accepted at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School and started there in 1977. Although I enjoyed the basic science and clinical curricula, I felt dissatisfied with the emphasis on science and the total neglect of arts and humanities.
In particular, since I was fourteen years old I had been interested in religion and philosophy, so while attending medical school, I decided to expand my education by going to evening classes on a wide range of subjects; including Marxism, philosophy and comparative religion.
I suppose I had always been keen to understand why so many people believed in God, without evidence for his (or her) existence. I had lost most of my extended family in Auschwitz, and could not understand why so many Jews persisted in their belief in a God who had not helped them avoid the Holocaust that engulfed European Jewry during World War 2.
I qualified in medicine in 1983 and have worked as a doctor ever since then. Following a brief period as a general practitioner, I trained as a registrar in psychiatry at Guys Hospital in London. There I was privileged to meet Dr Maurice Lipsedge, who had a profound influence on both my clinical and academic careers. He encouraged me to pursue a Master’s degree in social anthropology, which I completed in 1991, and then go on to a PhD in social anthropology, which I completed in 1999.
While at Guys Hospital, I worked with many ethnic minority patients; mainly from African and Afro-Caribbean cultures, and this experience stimulated my interest in cultural psychiatry. During my psychiatric training I spent a few months in Madagascar, studying ritual and traditional healing. I also spent several months in the Philippines, studying psychic surgery.
Anthropology has taught me to question Western assumptions that are taken for granted in the scientific and in the popular world view of Western people, and to try to understand cultures as complex wholes, with each part mutually influencing the others.
Another formative influence on my academic career has been Professor Roland Littlewood. Apart from being a very close friend, we have published several papers together and co-edited one book. We share similar interests in culture, religion and psychiatry. We are currently working on a project examining ‘the voice of God’‚ and other projects looking at the phenomenology of religious experience. In addition, we co-direct a Master’s degree program in Culture and Health, together with Dr Sushrut Jadhav, at University College London.
While religious practice has fascinated me for much of my life, I have struggled for many years with the possibility of becoming more religiously observant myself. However, I find Jewish ritual empty and unsatisfying. I remember, as a child, going to synagogue on the festivals and seeing people sitting praying, whereas at other times they would eat non-kosher food and go out on the Sabbath, thereby behaving like hypocrites.
In 1991, I went to live in Stamford Hill in North London, among a community of Hasidic Jews. I stayed until 1999. My motivations were various; I suppose I wanted to try out another, more religious, lifestyle. I decided that Orthodoxy was not for me and found it difficult to put up with the severe restrictions which I perceived it to impose upon me.
On another level, it was an academic quest to understand what makes people become so religious. I was living in the community when the spiritual leader, the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, died. His followers believed that he was the Messiah. This gave me a unique opportunity to examine the response to failed prophecy in its evolution, and I have written extensively about this phenomenon.
Finally, I now work clinically as a consultant psychiatrist. However, my main clinical interests are in oncology and palliative medicine, and much of my work is with dying patients. This clinical work meshes with my academic interests in religion and spirituality, and how these areas enable people to cope with serious, often life-threatening illness, as well as with death and dying.
I am married to Kalpana, a consultant forensic psychiatrist. She is originally from Kerala, India. I have two children; sons age eight and two.
Life includes a lot of memories. The memories are a part of us and it is not always easy to share them publicly. Some of them include happiness and others sadness, but altogether they form our life. When one of my mentors and friends, Ron Wintrob, asked me to share
July 5, 2007