Circumcision, kippot and hiding as a Jew

This was not the first time I had heard about religious tensions from families in Europe. But something changed for me on this trip.

August 11, 2019 21:13
Circumcision, kippot and hiding as a Jew

A kippah demonstration in front of a synagogue in Berlin. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘Can we push off the bris until we move back to Israel?” the father of the baby asked me a few months ago. “Unfortunately, no. But why do ask?” I replied. “It’s not easy here in Germany. Brit milah [circumcision] is frowned upon and if there’s an emergency after the mohel has left, it will be a very uncomfortable situation,” he told me.

We conversed for a short time and I assured him that if he flew me in, there would be little chance of that eventuality. My technique results in much less bleeding and quicker recovery. Plus, I would stay until the next day to make sure all was well. And so it was settled, I was going to Hamburg.

This was not the first time I had heard about religious tensions from families in Europe. But something changed for me on this trip. On my past visits – both of my own volition, and at the request of the families I visited – I wore a hat to cover my kippah. In fact, a few months ago when I was in St. Petersburg, I actually left without one. The family was so concerned they gave me a baseball cap to wear while wandering the city at night. Oddly, they gave me a Birthright hat with a huge Star of David on the front. I’m not sure it really solved the problem.

On my previous trips, concealing outward signs of religion seemed like the logical thing to do. I thought things like, “Don’t stir up any trouble,” “Why take the chance?” and “The locals know best.” But just before this trip to Hamburg I realized something: These problems are related. Both the pressure to hide my kippah and not circumcising our sons are one and the same thing – an attempt to make us go away. And just as I am not going to stop making these trips, I decided I could no longer hide my identity.
Unlike the distress and anger over our ritual objects, the pressure against brit milah is much more overt. Just last week there was an article in the UK Huffington Post titled “Child Protection Laws Are Clear – Except When it Comes to Male Circumcision.” This op-ed is a scathing attack on our sacred ritual. It opened with unattributed quotes such as “I am also a little bit jealous of uncut guys as they luckily get to experience a sensation that I won’t ever be able to experience.” And a woman stating, “Circumcised ones look scarred and mutilated, not an attractive look.”

The author, Ali May, assures the reader that these are actual quotes, but does it really matter? There is nothing new about the anti-circumcision movement’s use of body-shaming in an attempt to dissuade people from circumcision. These groups are completely obsessed with sexual satisfaction and peddle the lie that if you don’t have a foreskin then you are missing your real sexual potential. Their rhetoric is nothing more than antisemitism’s new incarnation.

SO MAYBE due to attacks like this one, when I left for Hamburg, I intentionally left my hat at home – even the Birthright one. Both in Istanbul (my layover) and in Hamburg, the stares I received seemed endless. But it made no difference to me. I had fire in my blood. My kippah was my way of saying, “I’m not hiding anymore.” That’s not to say there weren’t fears along the way, but while being surrounded by hundreds of hijabs, I knew it was the right thing to do.

When I landed in Germany, the father of the baby was quick to point out one of the most interesting facets of the city. In front of every home that was once owned by a Jew, there are gold squares called “stumbling stones.” They are embedded in the cement and contain the names of the people who once lived there, their birth dates, and where they were murdered in the Holocaust. They are meant to remind the city’s inhabitants of their history and ensure that it never happens again. It made even the most innocuous stroll weighty and frustrating but I was proud that those I passed saw a kippah and not a hat.

Thankfully, the bris in Germany was a meaningful experience with a wonderful family but I walked away with much more than just that. I returned home with a new sense of purpose. Our rituals are more than just a connection to our past, they are an assurance of our future. And as the glares continued while I was en route home it dawned on me: We, the Jews, are the world’s stumbling stones. This is the meaning of being a chosen people. We have to live by and remind the world that there is a thing called morality which God demands of us – all of us – and our rituals are the outward expression of the Divine will.

I have a message to the “antis” of the world, be they anti-circumcisionists or antisemites (which are most likely one and the same): Just because something doesn’t fit into your modern worldview doesn’t make it immoral. Judaism has withstood the test of time. Our ancestors were not Neanderthals whose teachings must be quashed by your enlightened justice. The philosophical underpinnings of our religion far surpass anything that your new age fads will ever produce. No matter how hard you yell or scream or shame us, we are not going anywhere. We will continue to keep our rituals, whether it’s donning a kippah or circumcising our sons until well after you are gone. And no movement or government – or anything else for that matter – will ever stop us.

The writer is a mohel who performs britot in Israel and around the world. He is also the founder of Magen HaBrit, an organization protecting both brit milah and the children who undergo it.

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