My first Brit Milah & why male circumcision is so popular

About two months ago, I attended my baby nephew’s bris, the Jewish circumcision ceremony. A week later, in writing class, my professor assigned us the task of writing about a fad, a cultural phenomenon that had gained a puzzling amount of popularity. Her examples were pink flamingos and zombies. I settled on male circumcision.

Below is the working draft of my essay. Please, please provide comments and feedback to help me revise! I hope you find the topic as interesting as I did.

On a blustery February day in suburban Maryland, a new life was being officially introduced to God. My nephew was eight days old, skin still dark pink in places from the friction of delivery. His black eyes fought against the weight of light and sound, opening only to half-moon slits.

I wasn’t really Jason’s aunt for another eight months, my fiancé would tease when my excitement about the new baby bordered on mania. Mike was the “real” uncle by blood and I was just the future sister-in-law to the new mom and dad. Our wedding in October would cement the hyphens, and draw up my rights to the new baby through ceremony. But the teasing stopped on Jason’s birthday, when we each held him close in the fluorescent white hospital room. He was no longer just an erratic pressure against his mom’s swollen belly. We knew we both held an irrevocable debt to this tiny, squirming person. Like his parents, we too were enthralled.

Now, one Sabbath later, we walked into the busy, sunlit home of Jason’s paternal grandparents for his brit milah, the Jewish circumcision ceremony. The family bustled about the house, clearing the dining table — today, the operating table — of the usual candlesticks and linens. On it sat a large, unblemished white pillow over a light-blue tablecloth. To one side, a chair for the prophet Elijah was strewn with a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, and a colorful pillow inscribed with Hebrew letters. Later, the mohel, or Jewish circumciser, would place Jason in this chair and ask Elijah for God’s assistance with the circumcision.

Jason’s grandmother arranged bowls of yarmulkes in the foyer for any unprepared guests. I made small talk with her (how’s the little guy doing? does he have any idea what’s coming?) and eyed the headpieces, completely blanking on whether they were gender-specific or restricted to only the Jewish family members.

I was unfamiliar with Jewish culture, I realized, a little embarrassed. Suddenly my exposure to Jewish tradition seemed unforgivably shallow and defined by stereotypes: I’d eaten latkes during the Hanukkah celebrations at school, learned the dreidel song, attended a bar mitzvah, read books about the holocaust. I could playact the cultural symbols — that was all. I’d heard the word bris for the first time only a week before Jason’s birth, when his Jewish grandparents and dad had begun to plan the event. Like me, Mike and his sister Katie had not been raised Jewish, though Katie had been welcomed into the tradition when she married Jordan, Jason’s dad. Mike and I joked about what the bris held in store, making fun of our ignorance – what if we showed up with a brisket and pretended we thought that was part of the custom? It probably wasn’t kosher, but Mike was always intent on his barbeque.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Was there an appropriate dress code for a circumcision? And where was I supposed to find a card that said something like, “Glad the doctor (would it be a doctor?) didn’t botch it!”?  My previous associations with circumcision were hardly helpful here; I’d read, horror-stricken, accounts of preteen African girls having their clitorises cut off to protect them from the temptations of sexual desire. Often, the women of the village were the ones who perpetuated the practice, intent on keeping their daughters pure and marriageable. My other exposure was more frivolous; a Sex and the City episode made light of Charlotte’s sexual encounter with an uncircumcised hunk. Once, when I was a teenager, a friend told me, giggling, about a similar occurrence – she’d started to hook-up with a guy, found out he was uncut, and then hadn’t known what to do or if she still wanted to do it. As novice explorers of male anatomy, neither of us knew what to make of this deviation from the health class diagrams.

Despite my status as novice observer to Jewish culture, I was to be one of Jason’s Kvaterin, and Mike his Kvater, the sort-of Jewish godparents. Katie and Jordan swept Mike and I aside a few minutes before the ceremony to tell us, eyes beaming. “Of course!” I said, grinning, before I could ask what this meant, or question whether I was qualified for the role. Later, I looked it up — “Kvaterin,” meaning godmother, honor, bringer of the baby, and a ceremonial title that bestowed a fertility blessing on a couple who desired children.

When the mohel called everyone together to start the ceremony I donned a pink yarmulke and held my breath. The room went silent. The two newly-initiated grandmothers lit the candles to start the ceremony. The baby appeared, gurgling, perfectly numbed, in the tiniest of hand-woven yarmulkes and a rather casual raccoon-decorated onesie. A half hour before, Jason was rushed upstairs for an impromptu change of clothes. Whether it was an act of rebellion at his impending surgery, or just a mischievous impulse to prove the inadequacy of his newborn diapers, there was no saving his outfit. The handmade gown his non-Jewish grandmother had painstakingly researched and ordered from Israel was no longer all-white.

As Kvaterin, I stood close behind Jason and his parents, a few feet from the table. When the mohel gestured for them to bring Jason to the table, I stepped forward with them, aligned.

The mohel set the baby on the pillow, instructing Jason’s grandfather, as the Sitting Sandek, to hold him in place. Close family, already familiar faces, encircled Jason. A family of doctors. Both sets of grandparents and parents are all doctors or dentists, medical aficionados. Jason’s mom is a pediatric resident and had performed circumcisions on other babies at the hospital. Stripped of her white coat, Katie watched the mohel prepare to do what she knew was a routine procedure, simple, on her own baby. She fidgeted, eyes intent on Jason as he lay on the white pillow. Would he feel pain?

What is it about this tiny flap of skin that bars communion with God? As if hearing this question, the mohel launched into the cliffnotes version of the Jewish practice. Within the Torah’s book of Genesis, God and Abraham make a pact; male circumcision will be a covenant between man and God, a physical act that demonstrates commitment to God and Judaic law. After Abraham circumcised himself and then his son Isaac as a 8-day old newborn, his descendants carried on the practice. In Islam too, circumcision is a sign of commitment to the faith with origins in the religious Sunnah texts of the prophet Mohammad.

It is easy to see how circumcision shows dedication to a religion, especially back in more ancient times. Imagine learning about this procedure before the advent of modern analgesics, sanitary practices, medical tools or training, or any sort of cultural context or history to support the deed. You’re going to do what to my what? might be your politest of reactions. Anti-semitism and disgust at this practice through the ages only strengthened the level of commitment it took to mark difference into a young boy’s flesh; ancient Greeks considered the practice the mark of a primitive people and the Roman Emperor Hadrian declared circumcision illegal, a crime punishable by death, for all Roman citizens and slaves. In Nazi-era Germany, a circumcised penis was a permanent yellow star.

Still, it remains an incredibly important part of the Jewish tradition, one that a majority of Jewish followers adopt. But how did this religious practice, one so emblematic of Jewish and Muslim traditions become popular among non-religious people and those of other faiths? In the U.S., an estimated 61% of male newborns were circumcised when they left the hospital in 2000; but this doesn’t count boys who are circumcised later or at home, as Jason was. Surveys of the community find rates between a whopping 76 and 92%. In contrast, rates of circumcised males in Europe, South and Central America and in most of Asia are well under 20%. The only countries that beat out the U.S. have large Muslim populations or African ethnic groups who traditionally practice circumcision.

When did America decide that this tiny piece of skin needed to be culturally excised?

Later, I wondered this aloud to my mother-in-law, a neonatologist who concerned herself with everything baby-related. She smiled and half-jokingly blamed the trend on the influx of Jewish immigrants and doctors in early twentieth century America. In fact, this was not a bad guess; in many cases, the practice of circumcision has spread all over the world thanks to contact and trade between different cultures. When Muslim communities migrated to Africa, many of the African peoples adopted their religious practices, circumcision included. Fast forward to present day and this pattern hasn’t changed much. After World War II, Spam wasn’t the only U.S. export to gain popularity in South Korea; the World Health Organization attributes the sudden rise in Korean  male circumcisions, from 0% of 20 year-old males in 1950 to 90% in 2000, to U.S. influence in Asia after the war.

Amazingly, we have evidence that people have been obsessed with this inconsequential flap of skin as far back as ancient Egypt. Between time spent building the pyramids and creating a language of hieroglyphics, ancient Egyptians performed public circumcisions on boys on the (dare I say it?) edge of manhood. Even Ra, the Egyptian God of Sun, couldn’t escape this fate — in the Book of the Dead he performs his own circumcision.

Some historians even argue that circumcision has been going on since before recorded history and many are mystified by its universality. Jews and Muslims practiced circumcision and preached it to other peoples they met as they emigrated. Ok, that makes sense. But at the other end of the uncharted world, the Australian aboriginals followed suit, adding male circumcision to the list of ritual scarifications. They sharpened seashells, burned eucalyptus to still the bleeding, and challenged pubescent boys not to run away. And in the western hemisphere, the Aztecs and the Incas cut off the foreskin and left it for the Gods before any foreign conquerors showed up. Among his many colorful observations of the native peoples of North America, Christopher Columbus noted their circumcised penises.

Granted, the modern neonatal operation is a much different sort of tradition, with much lower health risks, than the tradition circumcision of an adolescent boy. In one scene, a new baby is placed in well-trained, warm hands, usually numbed up, emits maybe a squeak or two when the doctor or religious figure does the deed. The risks are fairly small. In the other, a pubescent boy, by rights an awkward middle schooler, has to bare it in front of a village without any of the age-appropriate cracks to his voice. Afterwards, a feast.

So why is such a seemingly arbitrary practice of bodily alteration so global? Was Carl Jung right about there being a collective unconscious, a shared pool of mythologies and primordial ideas that all humans can tap into? And if so, does it contain some fundamental revulsion of the foreskin?

In America at least, male circumcision began as a medical fad based on a miracle story; in 1870, Lewis Sayre, a surgeon from New York, claimed he had cured a young boy with two paralyzed legs. How? By removing an irritating part of the boy’s foreskin. But why would that help? No one was quite sure. But from here Sayre and many other American physicians seized circumcision as the miraculous treatment for all sorts of mysterious illnesses, such as syphilis, cancer, epilepsy, insanity, tuberculosis. Above all, it was the superior cure for the most evil affliction of the times — masturbation. America’s puritanical roots, along with the sex-phobic ideals of Victorian England primed doctors of the English-speaking world to find the source of all human problems in the foreskin. Beyond moral hygiene, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory in the late 19th century finally convinced people that bathing was good and B.O. was bad. The smegma, a word that I still cannot say without cringing, under a man’s foreskin was “proof” of sin and disease. Advocacy by Jewish doctors for the practice and the rise of hospital births in early 20th century America eventually cemented male neonatal circumcision into the medical routine for childbirth. Male babies of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and religions went under the knife to safeguard their moral and physical health.

Only a few of these benefits of circumcision turned out to be correct. Uncircumcised men are perfectly hygienic. Circumcision can sometimes reduce the risk of UTIs, penile cancer, and the spread of certain STDs — HIV, in particular. But pediatricians across the world don’t agree on whether it should be a recommended or routine procedure. The American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits outweigh the risks, but not by enough to make it a universal recommendation. Medical standards in Canada, Australia and much of Europe say there is insufficient evidence that the benefits are greater than the risks to the health of the infant.

Of course, these policy statement only speak to circumcision as a medical procedure, not as a potentially valuable affirmation of faith, tradition, and community.

When I asked my sister-in-law weeks after the event why they’d chosen to have Jason circumcised, and hold a brit milah, she replied it had never really been a question in their minds; Jewish culture was important to them. While Katie is not Jewish, Jason’s paternal family observes Jewish cultural traditions, without the stricter religious mandates of keeping kosher or shunning electricity on the Shabbat. It is part of their familial structure.

Jason’s maternal family comprised doctors who worked within the medical assumption of male neonatal circumcision. Katie anecdotally estimated 9/10 male babies are circumcised; she hadn’t seen many who weren’t in her work in Pediatrics. Most boys were taken shortly after birth to a small, bare hospital room with a pediatric surgeon and a nurse or two while the parents waited down the hall expectantly. Katie’s own mom, the neonatologist, recalled the time when Mike was born, when male babies were whisked away to be circumcised without a second glance or signature.

Now, parents are given multiple opportunities to opt-out of the procedure, but the default in the U.S. is still neonatal circumcision. When I surveyed an online group of recent moms, only one said they’d chosen not to have their little boy circumcised. Many of the others cited hygiene and cultural acceptance as the reason they chose to do it.

With cultural acceptance, comes an enormous social pressure. I think back to that red-faced conversation with my friend in high school, our naiveté in all sexual matters unable to cope with another uncertainty, especially with the body part in question. While I would like to focus on the recent movements that urge us to love our bodies no matter the shape or size, my mind falls darkly on the rise of high-def, manufactured online porn, plastic surgery, and inadequate Sex Ed in America. When our media is littered with photo-shopped, surgically-enhanced bodies that fit our unrealistic ideal, why would anyone think twice about a simple, low-risk procedure that complies with our bodily norms? In the words of one mom, “I don’t want my son to be embarrassed by his body.”

In a blue-starred dining room on the 8th day of Jason’s life, a gathering of family and friends marked ceremony with sound. We sang another Jewish prayer aloud, us non-Jewish folks mumbling along. Then, a snap from the clasps of an ominous black briefcase — out came the scalpel and clamp. The mohel breathed in deep, concentrating. A squeak from his latex gloves. The little girl behind me whined that she couldn’t see the action. I hesitated (should a six year-old be watching? I was twenty-five and squinting) before shifting to allow her a peephole. Jason cooed and gurgled, oblivious to the cuts and alterations happening outside his field of vision. When the wine and sugar-soaked cloth fell briefly from his mouth, a tremolo. His grandpa retrieved the cloth. The crowd tittered, relieved. I released a breath and smiled at Mike. It was done.

The family boomed and clapped, rushing into the kitchen for wine and snacks. I snagged a few pictures of the scene and then meandered after the others.  On the countertop sat the traditional platters of bagels and lox, along with plates of veggies and dip, chips and salsa. Following custom, I loaded up my plate with goodies. One bowl held odd, chocolate-covered, mushroom-shaped cookies. I peered at them, wondering whether it was inappropriate to comment on how fitting their shape seemed for the occasion. Another guest came up behind me and guffawed. “They look like little penises!” she said, holding one out for me to see. I laughed with her, then moved along, wondering once again if our preoccupation with this body part was primed by the day or just part of our genetic coding.

In the fading light, the guests swelled then thinned. Food dwindled, then reappeared. Bottles of wine clanged on glasses and everyone passed around the baby. His trimmed-off excess had left with the mohel, an absence already forgotten and forgiven. In most arms, he slept, exhausted from the day’s performance. His brows rested low across his eyes — content as all those people who looked upon him and called themselves family.

Want to learn more about this topic or peek at my sources? Take a look at my Bibliography-circumcision.


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