Ungar-Sargon 311 .
(photo credit: Courtesy of Cut/ PR)
For the past two months, Jewish filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has been driving
across the United States in a rented car, sleeping in strangers’ houses, and
screening his tradition-challenging documentary Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of
Circumcision to audiences as small as three, and as large as 140. It’s all part
of a 30-stop tour arranged by The Whole Network, a grassroots group of
circumcision opponents who are hoping Cut will raise awareness about the alleged
drawbacks of male infant circumcision.
In the film, Ungar-Sargon, who is
a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, queries rabbis,
mohels, Chicago professors and even his own brother and father, about a practice
that is perceived by many as central to Judaism. The film makes the case that
infant circumcision is physically damaging and ethically questionable, but does
so in a way that gives both sides their say.
The filmmaker’s upbringing
in a religious Orthodox Jewish family adds an intriguing angle to the
Ungar-Sargon says he currently belongs to two Jewish
communities in Los Angles, one is Modern Orthodox.Cut
was released in
2007 to critical praise –The Chicago Tribune
called it “informative and
thought-provoking” – but the film drew relatively little notice in a country
where circumcision is as American as apple pie.
However, according to the
director, there has been renewed interest in the film since this spring, when
the circumcision issue received a barrage of media attention due to a proposed
voter initiative in San Francisco that had sought to make circumcision illegal
That initiative was later removed from the ballot by a California
judge; however, interest in the circumcision question has remained. Ungar-Sargon
says the present tour would have been impossible when the film was released four
is being shown in art-house theaters, on college campuses,
and at Jewish community centers, public libraries and churches.
staying mostly with organizers, although sometimes it’s necessary to get a motel
depending on the driving schedule,” says Ungar-Sargon, who laments being away
from his wife Pennie. She’s back home in Los Angles, looking for a job in the
business end of the film industry.
“The rabbis set out laws about how
long a husband is allowed to be away from his wife. These laws were designed to
accommodate different professions. Sailors, for example, were allowed to be away
longer than men of other professions. Of course, filmmakers didn’t exist when
they had these discussions, but this tour is certainly leading me to a new
appreciation of this part of Jewish law,” he says.
Ungar-Sargon says being on the road feels very natural to him.
it’s because my family moved around a lot when I was growing up, but there’s
something beautiful to me about the simplicity of life on the go,” he
“Moreover, I have this amazing opportunity to meet remarkable
people all over the country. And the time-frame of the tour means that I stay
just long enough for people to get to like me and not long enough for them to
start noticing all of my flaws.”
A high point of the filmmaker’s trip
came during a screening at the University of Chicago where his father, Dr.
Julian Ungar-Sargon, was in attendance and fielded audience questions along side
“A member of the audience asked how I would have voted had the
San Francisco ballot initiative gone forward. I asked whether he wanted
to hear my father’s answer as well. The questioner stated that he knew what my
father would say. My father challenged him on that point and proceeded to
explain that he would have voted for the initiative, because more than a million
babies being circumcised every year in the United States was an ethical calamity
and he thought it was great that San Francisco was taking the lead on this
issue,” he says. Before making Cut
, Ungar-Sargon says he does not think his
father considered circumcision to be an ethically problematic act.