The First Cut
It wasn’t the first time that bothered me, or the second, or third. It was the fourth. Something about the way this woman tapped me on my shoulder and asked me what the hell I was doing crashing her son’s bris. She cocked her head when she asked, just as her grandmother, sister, and cousin had done in the last ten minutes. I rolled up my sleeves in symbolic tribute to the occasion, touched my brow, and sighed. Here we go again, I thought. This was no way for a woman to learn about circumcision. Dayenu. Enough.
If circumcision in America is at the center of a sensitive debate, the bris itself is at the white-hot center of the center — a confluence of religion, scandal, politics, and physiology, all focused around a baby about to receive the “haircut” of a lifetime. And that’s merely what’s going on in the heads on top of our necks. Then there’s the one between a man’s legs. A father stands with family and friends, watching his son’s penis get sliced. It’s not easy for either parent, but the dads I spoke with over the past year repeatedly used two words to describe it: sympathy pain.
Yet not only could these men not look away, they noticed when other people went out of their way to look. One Chicago native told me his nephew’s bris had actual “crashers because the Jewish community there is so small.” Those not on the list presumed their invitation had gotten lost in the mail.
“There were men and women my sister full-on did not invite,” he said. “Bris crashers. And they dressed for it. Some girls in Louboutins watching my nephew get his schmekel chopped.”
Are we fetishizing the bris? Hey, I’ll find a fringe activity as perversely appealing as the next sicko, but this? This can’t be.
“Maybe we’re fetishizing the mohel,” said the dad. (The mohel performs the Brit Milah; he’s the one who wields the knife.) “He is kind of like a diamond cutter.”
Of course, it’s not all whitefish and wide hats. The attention mohels attract is not always benign. Right now a man in the Midwest is marketing the TLC Tugger, which offers “to undo some of the damage” and help restore foreskin by stretching the skin back over the glans. “Improving the world,” claims the website, “one penis at a time.” Oh, TLC Tugger. When it comes to the oldest known and most quiver-inducing surgery in history, who’s to say what improvement entails?
As for my own bris crashings? Okay, it should be noted that no one actually says the words, What the hell are you doing here? in real life — especially not the Chosen People, who don’t believe in hell to begin with. These grandmothers said it with their eyes. Clearly I did not belong. Perhaps it had something to do with me showing up at a random Orthodox temple at eight in the morning and accidentally entering through the men’s door. Perhaps it was my lack of black Louboutins.
Or perhaps it was the fact that I am a terrible liar. I had told one of my early interrogators, a grandmother with lace on her head and Sweet’N Low in her purse, that I was “a friend of the mohel.” I had found this particular mohel online and explained to him that I wanted to explore the controversial and ancient religious tradition of bris. Did that make us pals? I didn’t think so. Even if it did, I wasn’t sure how feasible a scenario that was: What are you doing Tuesday? Because I’m going to dip my finger in wine, cram it into a baby’s mouth, and remove the foreskin from his dick with a sharp edge. Wanna come with?
“You can’t crash a bris, idiot,” a family friend informed me when I inquired about attending her grandson’s foreskin-snatching a few months prior.
“Technically anyone in the community can come,” she explained. “The only reason we send out invites is so we know how many bagels to order. What kind of Jew are you?”
A bad one. Sorry, was that somehow unclear?
I was never bat mitzvahed. I had never before attended a bris and wouldn’t know a yarmulke if it fell from a chuppah, landed on my face, and danced the horah. I have dated mostly goyish men, none of whom I’ve had to drag into the bedroom to reenact Europa Europa in order to discover their religion — in that department, they’re all Jewish, even if their eyes are blue and their mailboxes are full of Advent calendars from Mom. Furthermore, unless if by “community” my family friend meant “population of Earth,” I had no business being at a stranger’s rite of passage. Yet I kept doing it. I crossed the country and back, setting my alarm early so I wouldn’t be late for temple. And why?
As a woman in America, I have no shortage of opinions about my body, about other women’s bodies, about what little girls are told about their bodies, about the degree of control we have over our physicality in general. The male body is simply not a topic of public debate, save for this one tiny thing. Women are perpetually in the position of having to take themselves out of the equation or put themselves back in. Yet I don’t believe I’ve read a single trend piece about “men’s issues” that begins, “As a man in America…” Looking into the world of the bris was a rare opportunity for me to watch the race without having a horse in it.
Back in the temple where the whole family interrogated me, the mohel began the ceremony by recounting the story of two separate Hebrew names. Well now, I thought, this is a bit excessive. But what do I know? Then the mother brought up a second baby. It was a bris for twins — a boy and a girl. What a new…twist. Here was a girl who had all the advantages of being blessed and cooed over with the bonus of leaving the synagogue exactly as she came in. I had the reverse of sympathy pains. Sympathy high fives.
“Looks like the first kid got the short end of the stick,” I whispered to the grandmother. “Am I right or am I right?”
She took a step away from me.
It was easy enough to track down brises in New York. I had my first eyes-on-baby-penis experience at a Reform temple where the baby was circumcised in the same room that held the reception. When I saw bottle-shaped Mylar balloons tied to every chair, I assumed they were giant penises. “Such a soothing color,” the mohel commented on the baby blue tablecloths, unfolding his instruments and fist-bumping the infant’s older brother.
This isn’t going to be so bad, I thought. Family and friends stood around gabbing at street-mime distance from the swaddled kid. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and my stomach growled at the sight of rugelach, quiche, coffee, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. It’s one thing to come to terms with the bris as a holy and beautiful process, as opposed to how writer Michael Chabon (who had a bris for his son) characterizes it in Manhood for Amateurs: “Mutilation: the only honest name for this raw act.” It’s another to have it make you hungry.
The mohel was very secular-looking, which was a relief but also a disappointment.
“Our mohel was disgusting,” one Denver dad had told me beforehand. “If you had a book of Jewish stereotypes clipped from Fiddler on the Roof, this guy would show up. Beard, black hat, dirty suit. And I mean dirty. I don’t think he’d bathed in weeks. He was covered in wine stains. I actually think he was drunk.”
I was almost looking forward to such a spectacle. It’s not my kid, after all, and one could argue there’s a reverse psychology when it comes to professionalism at a bris. These people are holy men of God. They’re not going to look like Tim Tebow, who tried his priceless hand at circumcising impoverished children in the Philippines. Or, as another new dad bluntly suggested, “Maybe they’re too busy chopping cock to shave and shower, and that’s what makes them good at their jobs. My wife and I just tried not to think about it.”
Meanwhile, the mohel at the Reform temple attempted to calm the squeamish among us with jokes: “Not to worry! The kid will be fine! He just won’t be able to walk for another twelve months.” The baby began to cry, his head turning beet red, his arms lifted above his head as if preparing for the single most un-fun roller-coaster ride ever. Like the baby’s father, I found myself flinching and looking away when the actual cut was made. Now I really wondered what it must be like for a man to watch his son go through this.
Then I heard a tiny sucking sound. I opened both eyes to find everyone in the room already looking up. One of the Mylar balloons had come loose, its tip being slowly sucked into a vent.
There are commonalities to every bris, which is short for brit (meaning covenant) and milah (meaning circumcision). A bris takes place, ideally, eight days after the baby’s birth. No matter how you slice it, it always involves a mohel, a blessing, a little wine on the tip of the finger — it’s the sugar, not the alcohol, that calms the kid — a little snip-snip, and the public naming of the child. Depending on how religious you are, there are other permutations. The bris is never done at night. A baby born via C-section may never have his bris on a Saturday. A baby born of a surrogate must be converted at birth even if both biological parents are Jewish. The clamps used are called the Mogen and the Gomco, and there’s a debate between Orthodox and Reform mohels about which is best. There’s even a debate regarding fees, since a bris is a mitzvah (blessing), and you’re technically not supposed to charge for it. Except that this is how mohels make their living, so the suggested fee is about $800 per chop.
“We didn’t do a bris,” said one New York executive, “and I fear I paid the price. Every bris I’d been to before had been like a Gallagher show, with slightly less anguished screaming but better bagels. So a nurse at the birthing center at Roosevelt Hospital did the circumcision, and now? Now he’s our little pig in a blanket.”
And all this is merely the to-bris-or-not-to-bris debate inside the Jewish community. It seems like circumcision is everybody’s business these days. Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told Congress that “evidence has accumulated that demonstrates the partial protective effect of male circumcision in reducing acquisition of HIV from an HIV-infected female sex partner. In 2005 and 2006, three randomized controlled trials […] of medically supervised male circumcision involving more than 10,000 men in sub-Saharan Africa conclusively demonstrated a 60% risk reduction […].” This past August, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy report echoing the CDC’s findings. But there hasn't been a corresponding upswing in “haircuts” throughout the world. According to the American Medical Association, circumcision in the US reached its height in the 1970s with nearly 80 percent of American males being circumcised, but since then the share has dropped to 56 percent.
“There’s enough medical evidence to suggest we shouldn’t have been neutral before,” Dr. Michael Brady, a member of the AAP’s circumcision task force, told The Daily Beast.
If you thought a baby’s penis was a sensitive spot, the AAP’s endorsement has touched on an even more sensitive one: health care in America. If we decide the health of a baby boy now depends on circumcision, Medicaid should cover the procedure. Of course, the AAP can’t force anyone to do anything, but they can, you know, nudge.
It was as difficult to find a bris on the West Coast as it was easy to find one on the East Coast. For starters, about half the brises performed today are held in private homes, especially in areas where there aren’t temples around every corner. While I’m not sure where the Talmud falls on breaking and entering, I can guess. So that was out. There’s also not a massive religious Jewish community in to-each-his-own cities like San Francisco. Many families fudge the eight-day rule for convenience and perform the ceremony on the weekend.
“We don’t have any today,” said the receptionist at Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco’s largest. Today was a Tuesday.
“We have some this weekend.”
Then someone walked into her office, and the receptionist apologized for cutting me off — the only cutting that would take place on the premises that day. Which is why I was surprised to learn that a city so lax about the ax is host to the anti-circumcision movement’s most vocal supporter.
In 2011, Lloyd Schofield, a retired hotel credit manager, appealed to the city of San Francisco to make it, according to the proposed bill, “unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.” Schofield got over 12,000 signatures campaigning against circumcision, religious or otherwise.
“We’re fighting for a man’s right to choose,” Schofield told me over the phone.
He did not want to discuss religion. Mohels who had heard of Schofield described him either kindly as “a misguided man” or not so kindly as “a man with deep-seated penis issues that he’s trying to work out through the legal system.”
When I mentioned the CDC study to Schofield, he was quick with a retort.
“That study is not scientific. That’s an experiment and it was ended early because they weren’t getting the results they wanted.”
“So where would you suggest I go to get correct information?”
“Have you been to my Facebook page?”
The law in San Francisco remains intact for now.
The religious Jewish community makes Howard Hughes look like a press whore. Most mohels, if they’d speak with me at all, refused to go on the record. They’ve always been like this, but in 2004 — after a rabbi was linked to several fatal cases of neonatal herpes due to metzitzah, a Hasidic tradition of sucking blood from the baby — they really clammed up. In the department of Sounds About Right, the New York City Board of Health voted in September that all mohels should obtain written consent from a baby’s parents prior to performing metzitzah. But the following month, the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, Agudath Israel of America, and the International Bris Association sued to prevent the rule from taking effect. For them it’s a matter of infringement on religious freedom.
“We don’t talk to the media. Why? Because you never see articles about how moving the ceremony was and how gentle the mohel was,” said one of the first mohels I met. “You only see these one-in-a-million horror stories of mutilations resulting from incompetence.”
I pointed out, in so many words, that the world does not exactly have a hard-on for good news. You also never see headlines that read ROLLER COASTER STILL HASN’T KILLED ANYONE or LINDSAY LOHAN ORDERS SELTZER, BUYS HOMELESS MAN APPLE.
“Lindsay Lohan,” he countered, “doesn’t have people threatening her, calling her in the middle of the night, threatening to stab and cut her genitals.”
“Are we sure about this?”
He shrugged. I imagined this mohel on his front porch with a shotgun, mezuzah nailed to the doorframe behind him. Gran Torino-witz.
As he walked away, I realized that if I was going to get a mohel to really open up about bris culture, I needed to go somewhere that rewarded confession. Somewhere that thrived on making the private public. But where, oh where, would I find such a place in California?
Jewish life in Los Angeles is not like Jewish life anywhere else. On Fairfax Avenue, the Will Rise Tattoo shop shares a wall with Solomon’s Book Store. Behind multilingual graffiti you can buy rare sneakers in sparsely stocked stores run by Asian hipsters and then go next door to stock up on kosher wine and gelatin-free sandwich cookies. True, religious ideology has to coexist with the modern world everywhere. But even my interest in Hebrew Union College’s Berit Mila Program, a weekend religious training course for doctors, is a source of conflict here. At first I was told I could sit in on a class. Then I got demoted to interviewing students after class. Then just teachers. Then an interview by e-mail, until the board of directors just shut me out altogether.
Thus I find myself not in a classroom but waiting in a booth at Canter’s Deli to meet Mohel Number One. After weeks of e-mails, this mohel seems sufficiently convinced that I have no intention of stabbing her genitals. She’s ready to spill. As if the mainstream American fetishization of Jewish culture were ever in doubt, Carson Daly is sitting at the booth behind me with a shiksa model. The two of them are surrounded by a camera crew and are almost-but-not-quite eating bagels and lox.
When my mohel arrives, she is indeed a she — the mere fact of which, in the view of most Orthodox Jews, makes her a walking ball of unkosherness. This mohel, who we’ll call Leah because she asked for an alias and because I think it should be a biblical one, schooches across from me and immediately begins straightening the silverware. She’s nervous. Being a female mohel brings its own identity challenges.
“You know Moses’s wife, Tziporah? She was such a biblical badass. She’s a woman and she circumcised their son with a rock. A rock. So are you going to tell me that Moses’s kids aren’t Jewish?”
I decide against ordering the chopped salad.
“Anyway, there’s so much anxiety. You’ve got an eight-day-old baby, and you’re about to hack at its penis in front of a bunch of people and then eat food. But people need to know about the bris. Absolutely they do. You can ask me anything.”
I start out casual. I ask her if she knows any good mohel jokes and she offers one.* I then focus on post-apocalyptic scenarios.
“I’ve heard you have to bury the foreskin,” I whisper. “What if we lived in a water world or a world made only of pavement and God has taken away all the shovels? What then?”
“There’s no mandate about what to do with the foreskin. Some people plant it under a tree, and then someday you use the branches to build the chuppah the man gets married under. But it’s not like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have my tree!’”
“What about sex changes for adults? What if I am a Catholic woman and I want to become a Jewish man?”
“As long as you can draw blood. If you have a sex-change operation, you’ve created a penis out of the clitoris. Presumably you built it without a foreskin. I know mohels who go into the operating room to make the first cut. Then they say, ‘L’shem gerut,’ which means ‘in the name of conversion.’”
“And what about cut versus uncut?”
I ask her if she knows that in the realm of gay porn, uncut is apparently a pretty big thing. Literally. She blinks at me for a second. I begin to think this may not be what Leah meant by “ask me anything.”
“I don’t have a penis, so I don’t know. As for the pornographic videos, if being uncircumcised is a commodity, well…then maybe everyone who is circumcised is just doing Jewish porn. Maybe it’s been Jewish porn this whole time. Listen, you’ll find most things when it comes to the bris are up for debate. Take the clamps. The Orthodox claim there’s no blood with the Gomco and therefore the bris doesn’t count. It’s ridiculous. Of course there’s blood.”
When I walk into the Orthodox rabbi’s office off Wilshire Boulevard, I see the “Hollywood” sign framed, dead center, in the window behind him.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say to Mohel Number Two. “Parking.”
I extend my hand, which floats stiffly in the air between us. After forthcoming and casual Mohel Number One, I think I’m on a roll. This doesn’t last long.
“Okay.” He claps. “That I’m not going to shake, but I would be happy to get you a glass of water or tea.”
I nod and thank him. I realize my mistake: He can’t touch me because I’m a woman; I could very well have my period, thus making me unclean. I don’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.That’s South Park, not the Old Testament, but times like these, I think they’re practically interchangeable.
“I’m Jewish, you know,” I explain when he returns with tea. I want to put my bid in for direct eye contact before getting started.
“I figured.” He relaxes slightly. “Only a Jewish person would write this. Most of the media have a very skewed view of American Jewry.”
“Most of the media are Jewish.”
“Still skewed. I know I grew up with the stereotype that religion is backward thinking, an opiate for the masses. The Jews who are entrenched in Hollywood? There’s a certain association we have with our heritage that is unsettled. Californians don’t want anyone telling us how to live our lives, but it was always bashed into our heads that being Jewish is important. So how should we be? We’re fighting an uphill battle on the West Coast, where everyone is so much more assimilated and liberal. If you go to a Reform temple here, you won’t even know you’re in temple.”
His cell phone rings and he speaks briefly with one of his children, tapping a Ferragamo loafer under the table. This rabbi doesn’t seem like a typical Orthodox mohel. Sure enough, he hadn’t planned on being one. But while in rabbinical school in Israel he became close with a rabbi who was “the premier mohel in the world,” famous for performing more than 100,000 circumcisions in his lifetime.
“That’s fifteen per day. When my father-in-law found out I knew this man, he said, ‘Imagine being offered to learn the guitar from Jimi Hendrix! How can you say no?’ It’s such a simple procedure. The most common mishaps are that too much skin is left or that too much is taken off. By putting on a guard, you could get part of the head of the penis in the guard. If you look around long enough, you can find all kinds of horror stories. I can’t possibly convey to you how rare they are.”
I gesture at the Hollywood sign and ask him if he’s performed many celebrity brises.
“This is LA you’re in. Need I say more? I did one in the grand ballroom of a five-star hotel. They had a full waitstaff and a full orchestra. I think when a person understands the nature of the mitzvah, there’s less of a need to glorify it. A mitzvah is supposed to change you, and rarely do you find one that transforms you both spiritually and physically.”
I ask him what another one would be.
“There isn’t another.” He smiles.
Back in New York, I meet my final mohel at a Chelsea coffee shop called Café Grumpy. This turns out to be an aptly named venue for my chat with cantor Philip Sherman. Sherman does not need an alias. He has performed more than 20,000 brises and been featured on the cover of New York magazine; the “supplies and post-care” link on his website (emohel.com) reads like God’s rider. He is more than willing to point out the distinctions between himself and some of his colleagues.
“Do not compare me and what I do to a doctor mohel. There are no comparisons on any level. There are doctors today who take a two-day minicourse in these Reform and Conservative movements. That’s not a mohel.”
Sherman has performed brises on just about every continent. He describes one he did in Bermuda, calling it a “drive-by” in reference to how fast he flew in and out. In response, I make a bad joke about the image of a drive-by bris, where you just hold the baby out the window of a car.
“No, we’re not going to do that,” he says, tapping my tape recorder. “You said that, not me. Listen, I don’t tell jokes. Especially when I do a bris. That’s unacceptable. It totally demeans the dignity of the ceremony.”
If these statements seem lacking in social grace, ask yourself this: Who do you want in the White House, your drinking buddy or the man most qualified for the job? Now imagine we’re talking about your penis.
“It’s not just an issue of his competence,” said a father whose son was relieved of his foreskin by Sherman. “Though he’s certainly that. But in general the bris is a chance to see how your body became what it is now. Call me crazy but I happen to love a good bris, though it freaks out my non-Jewish friends.”
“People say it’s barbaric,” Sherman says, shaking his head, sincerely disappointed. “They say it’s mutilation. Maybe with some mohels. I just saw it this morning. It was being done by a woman doctor mohel and she spoke for twenty minutes — I timed it. She spoke about herself, and then the way she did the circumcision was totally horrific because she left the clamp on for five minutes. The way I do it, it takes under twenty seconds.”
This didn’t scratch the foreskin of unacceptability.
“If you are a traditional mohel, certain clamps are unacceptable. The Gomco causes incredible discomfort to the child. You also have to make multiple incisions, which is unacceptable. A lot of nontraditional mohels do bizarre things, which I have seen with my own eyes. They arrive early and inject the baby with lidocaine or use topical anesthetic. It says right on the label: ‘Don’t use on infants.’ I use the Mogen clamp, but I modify it. You know, the anti-circumcision movement got the wind knocked out of its sails by that CDC study. Imagine how many lives can be saved through circumcision. How can these people say it’s barbaric?”
Oddly enough, my recent immersion in bris culture has given me the one thing every circumcised boy on the planet actually gets to keep: balls.
“Yes,” I say, “but who cares?”
“For argument’s sake, what if the CDC discovered the reverse was true and you were actually more likely to transmit a virus through circumcision? Would it affect your beliefs?”
“Then how can you use it as a check mark in the pro-bris column?”
“Because.” Sherman’s face lightens slightly. “God is all-knowing. The analogy is similar to keeping kosher. Back when they used to serve kosher meals on airliners, people would order them because they felt it was healthier. But that’s not why we keep kosher. We do it because it’s God’s law.”
In the end, no matter the interpretation, mohels across America can agree on that much. Having a bris is God’s law. Well, that and the fact that it probably hurts to have your foreskin removed. They know it. The baby knows it. The kid isn’t crying because he’s cold or because he’s a baby and that’s what babies do. He isn’t crying because a bunch of family and the occasional bris crasher are staring at his exposed schlong. He’s in distress. But mohels view the bris as a microcosm of a man’s life — and no matter your religious beliefs, nobody will ever live a pain-free one of those. We should all be so lucky as to have an existence that is 10 percent pain and 90 percent Johnnie Walker Blue.