Religion & Beliefs

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Like the Mohel

I was never in the pro-circumcision camp yet when the ultrasound revealed that my wife, Jen, was carrying a baby boy, I found myself insisting that we get rid of his foreskin. I wasn’t a particularly observant Jew but the … Read More

By / January 6, 2010

I was never in the pro-circumcision camp yet when the ultrasound revealed that my wife, Jen, was carrying a baby boy, I found myself insisting that we get rid of his foreskin. I wasn’t a particularly observant Jew but the idea of having an uncircumcised kid was just too culturally unthinkable to me-on par with naming him Christopher or smearing the Ash Wednesday paste on his forehead. A lot of Jewish couples now have the circumcision done in the hospital followed by a unisex naming ceremony, but we decided to bite the bullet and go through with the traditional bris. However, I wasn’t going to trust just any bearded guy to cut my son.

The rabbi who married us recommended a local radiologist who was also an accredited mohel and we checked out his website. I understood that the circumcision itself was such a simple procedure that it was actually farmed out to medical students at most hospitals but I was still disturbed by the photos on Dr. Rubenstein’s website showing him hovering like a car mechanic over various newborns as the beaming parents and smiling guests watched. And when did mohels get websites?

We spoke to the mohel on the phone later that week.

"You’re a radiologist," I said to him, "not a people person. So why do you want to deal with crying babies and annoying parents?"

"It’s a common misperception that radiologists don’t like people," Dr. Rubenstein said.

"Not in my experience."  

"Michael!" Jen said, holding the other receiver.

He told us that carrying out halacha by performing the ritual of berit milah (circumcision) was his way of serving the Jewish community. He also bashed his competition.  "Halacha only requires that the top of the foreskin be removed," he explained in his slow sleepy tone, "and most mohels cut too little and the look of the penis is not very aesthetic, but I don’t cut too little."

"Have you ever cut too much?" I asked.

He laughed as if I were making a joke.  

"Have you ever had a mishap?" I asked.   

"How do you define mishap?"

"Why don’t you define it?"

"Well, I’ve been late to a house on occasion."

"Okay," Jen said to me, "enough."    

"How many have you done again?" I asked him.

"About 500."

"And no complaints?"  

Jen jumped in and asked him about his availability in late October and early November and whether two of our non-Jewish friends could be the godparents. Remembering that news story about the nutjob ultra-Orthodox mohel who’d given a kid herpes by sucking the blood from the circumcision wound, I asked Dr. Rubenstein if he’d ever sucked a circumcision.

"Michael!"

"I don’t want there to be any surprises."

"I know what you’re talking about," he said, "and no, I don’t do that. I think it’s disgusting."

"I’m sorry, Dr. Rubenstein," Jen said. I got Jen to ask around for a good mohel because I wasn’t sold on Dr. Rubenstein. She reported back that it basically came down to whether we wanted a medical doctor or someone with a more traditional background, and, as to the style of the circumcision, whether we preferred the mushroom cut or the pig in a blanket.  "Is this like the Dorothy Hamill?" I asked her.  

"Apparently, the mushroom is better because it’s less prone to infections."

"So which one do I have?" I asked.

"I don’t know."

I dropped my drawers.

"I still can’t tell," she said.

"I can’t tell, either," I said.

We eventually settled on Dr. Rubenstein, because the due date was around the corner and we still had to agree on a name.  On the night of the bris, Jen scolded me for being hostile to the lightly bearded and heavily bespectacled Dr. Rubenstein, as if I should have said nothing when he tried to get us to sign a sweeping waiver freeing him from liability for any infection or shaft injury that might befall our little Benjamin, and I should have been more genial as he undid Benjamin’s diaper and checked to see if we’d applied enough numbing lidocaine cream on his soon-to-be-mutilated foreskin and I should have ignored our forty or so guests and spent all my time trying to make him feel welcomed.   

"Stop staring at him like that," Jen said as we waited by my parents’ dining room table for the ceremony to begin.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about."

"We hired him," she whispered to me, "he’s not forcing this on us."

Dr. Rubenstein put a goofy yarmulke on Benjamin’s head and fed him a sip of Manischewitz, and it hit me that there were loads of movies about weddings being stopped at the last minute, featuring dramatic scenes at the altar, but nothing about a bris being called off. So spiriting my baby away now (coo coo ca choo, Dr. Rubenstein) would be unprecedented.

My friend Alex had flown in from California just for the day so he could attend the bris, and my college friends Ying and Amrish had rented a car and battled rush hour traffic so that they could make it. I’d thought that my non-Jewish friends would be so horrified by the bris that it might cause them to change their position on Israel, but instead they snapped pictures and seemed genuinely curious.

I gulped as Dr. Rubenstein assumed his car mechanic posture over my child. Benjamin was a whopping nine pounds and an ounce with a beautifully formed torso and a strong grip, but he was still a fragile thing with tiny fingers that seemed ready to snap off every time I tried to fit his wiggly body into an outfit. Dr. Rubenstein wanted me to cup my hand over his hand as he cut off my son’s foreskin, symbolic of Abraham circumcising his son Isaac in the bible, and I declined fearful I might unsteady his precision.

I placed my hand on his back.

Benjamin started crying, and I turned away.   

"It’s over," my father said to me, "you can look now."

I breathed easier.  My son’s penis was still there.