This post presumes knowledge of the following three terms:
Bris – The ritual Jewish circumcision. Besides the religious aspect, a bris differs from a hospital circumcision in two important ways. 1. Instead of a hospital intern, who has maybe done a handful of circumcisions, a bris is done by a specialist. 2. A bris is often catered.
Mohel – Rhymes with royal. Refers to the person (almost always male) who performs the ritual surgery. Some are doctors. Others learn through a lengthy apprenticeship.
Sandek – The person who holds the newborn steady during the procedure. I was the sandek for one of my nephews. It’s like in biology class, where the mohel is your lab partner who’s all into it and does everything, and you just help out and try not to blow it.
Years ago, in the old country, a new father went into town to secure the services of the village mohel. He didn’t know the address, but each storefront had a prominent sign indicating its trade.
One shop had an anvil hanging over the front door. The man went in to ask the blacksmith for directions. But the blacksmith had no idea where the mohel was located. Up the street the man noticed a large shoe hanging over a storefront. He decided to ask the cobbler for directions. But the cobbler too hadn’t a clue where the mohel worked.
On a side street the man saw a shop with a wheel hanging over the door. He went inside for directions, only to find the town mohel! Perplexed, the man asked, “If you’re the mohel, why do you have a wheel hanging outside your shop?” The mohel responded, “What do you want I should have on my sign?”
The first mohel we contacted rejected us. His name was Dr. Diamond, from New York Magazine’s short list of recommended mohels (motto: Nothing Cuts Like a Diamond). He was described as serving the “metropolitan area,” which I presumed included the metropolis. But when I called him from the maternity ward, Dr. Diamond sounded reluctant to make the drive from Long Island to Tribeca. Harsh.
A mohel is often the second call a Jewish father makes after his son is born. Jewish law holds that a son be circumcised when he is eight days old. (There is some medical logic to this: after a week a newborn’s blood clotting mechanism is more stable.) Accordingly, it is impossible to schedule a bris months or even weeks in advance. (Someone somewhere is citing the exception of a planned C-section. At ease.)
Fortunately I had my own list. Next was a recommendation from Didi, my best friend’s mom. She was very impressed with her grandson’s bris, advising me that this mohel does “good work.” (With three sons of her own, I figured Didi knows from good work.) What’s more, Rabbi Kedmi was available, praise be to Allah. (1-800-4-A-MOHEL.)
Full Disclosure: for linking to his site, the rabbi has agreed to take 10% off if I have another son.
As an aside, any non-Jews planning on circumcising should look into hiring a mohel. Some will do the procedure in a non-religious capacity. Just be sure and find a few likely candidates well in advance of childbirth. Mind you they can
cost an arm and a leg be pricey.
Jewish Fun Fact: You’re not supposed to invite people to a bris. Why not? Because you don’t want to put someone in a position to decline an invitation to an event where Elijah is present. ¿Say what now? Elijah is a Jewish prophet who apparently attends every bris. (That would explain who ate all the coffee cake.) To get around this, casually mention when a bris will occur, without formally inviting anyone. Like with a rave.
Okay back to my son’s bris. Almost two years on, my recollection oscillates between hazy impressions and patches of clarity. You’d never guess from outward appearances, but I’m not too comfortable being point-man at social gatherings. With so much going on, I awoke that morning feeling more nervous than a snake in a belt factory.
Family and friends began streaming into our apartment in late morning. My sister-in-law scrunched her nose, genie-like, and produced a sumptuous spread of comestibles. It’s an oddity of Jewish custom that minor surgery be combined with a hearty repast. But if the Irish can hit the bottle at a wake, why shouldn’t Jews enjoy a good nosh at a bris?
The mohel and his wife came up in the elevator. Their arrival produced an excited hush. They made preparations while conversation resumed its digressive din. We kept our son sequestered in his nursery, allowing only a visit from his 93 year-old great-grandmother. She gazed upon him and their eyes searched each other for meaning across generations.
For all of the anticipation, the actual bris is a study in brevity. My wife and I brought forth our son from his room. The women strained for a view of the swaddled celebrant. The men silently wondered why the big fuss over babies. My mother and mother-in-law each maneuvered closer in the hopes of gaining precious extra seconds imprinting.
The mohel led us in a song, a blessing and a prayer. He dipped a wad of surgical gauze in sweet wine for my son to suck on, to numb his tiny senses. The infant was placed on his grandpa’s lap while those in attendance either concentrated their gaze or else thoughtfully examined a spot on the ceiling.
The practiced motion of the mohel was too fluid for me to describe. Fox gave an annoyed but brave squawk. The mohel dressed the wound. And the assembled company exhaled. I expected some crying, but it never came. Sarah cradled our son and returned to the quiet of his nursery.
Before leaving the mohel instructed us in proper care for speedy healing. I thanked him profusely for his astounding mastery and professionalism. Rabbi Kedmi smiled graciously. I produced a check, then discreetly pressed a crisp banknote into his hand and said “Keep the tip.” I had waited years to make that joke. Lame, perhaps, but who knows if I’ll ever have another son? (I hastened to explain that the cash was actually meant to cover parking and tolls.)
There’s more I could add to convey the beauty and poignancy of that day. But I’ll end by simply acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude I owe Didi for putting me in touch with the mohel. Two years on I can confirm that he does very good work indeed.
Feel free to leave comments. But anyone wishing to debate the merits of circumcision should redirect their remarks to my post on that topic, Making The Cut.