Ouch! Brit mila at 87

Surrounded by family, a haredi man struggles to correct long-ago error.

haredi 88 (photo credit: )
haredi 88
(photo credit: )
Involuntarily, my hand moves to my crotch as I watch attempts to convince S. to undergo the long overdue procedure. "Come on, dad, if you don't do it now you might never get another chance," pleaded S's sons. But so far S., 87, a pious-looking Jew wearing a black kippa and sporting a long white beard and sidelocks, is not budging. "I can't do it," he mutters, shaking his head. It is Sunday, the fourth day of Pessah. S. is surrounded by his sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, who have all gathered at Bikur Holim Hospital in downtown Jerusalem to support him. A non-profit organization called Brit Yosef-Yitzhak, which has provided more than 35,000 pro-bono circumcisions since it was founded 20 years ago, is footing the bill for the entire procedure. A doctor has assured S. that the cut will not hurt. A mohel has patiently explained the procedure dozens of times. A special kosher-for-Pessah feast has been prepared to celebrate completion of the brit mila. All that is needed is S's okay. He and everyone else undoubtedly have more pleasurable things to do than spending Pessah vacation in a hospital. But they are here because, according to Jewish tradition, a brit is not something that should be delayed. Each day that goes by without cutting the foreskin is a transgression, a rebellion against God's will. Nevertheless, I can't help but sympathize with S's apprehension as I watch another attempt to convince him to go through with the brit mila. It takes a lot of guts to allow another man, no matter how amiable he might be, to take a knife to one's member. It's not just the pain factor. How does a God-fearing Jew like S. come to terms with the realization that throughout his entire life he remained uncircumcised, like some primitive pagan? An uncircumcised Jew is fundamentally flawed. Agreeing to undergo a brit at the age of 87 would be an admission of this flaw. Better to enter denial. A debilitating stroke forced upon S. the revelation that he was not properly circumcised. While undressing his father, S's son noticed something strange. S's private part was presented to Rabbi Shlomo Mahpoud, a renowned circumcision expert. The ruling: not kosher. Apparently, when S. was born in Isfahan, Iran, the local mohel made a crucial mistake. S. was erroneously defined by the mohel as a baby born fully circumcised. Therefore, he only needed to have a drop of blood drawn. Over eight decades later this fatal mistake has come back to haunt S. According to Aryeh Amit, director of Brit Yosef-Yitzhak, S. is not alone; There are a whole lot of foreskins waiting to be snipped. "We believe there are 5 million Jewish men walking around without a proper brit mila," Amit said. "The rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late spiritual head of Chabad] said in 1984 that there were 10 million Jews living in the Soviet Union. If you assume that half were males and that the Communists prevented 95% of them from getting a brit you already have close to 5 million," he said. In addition, said Amit, there are thousands of Jews whose foreskins were removed with a "clamp," a scissor-like device that grabs the foreskin. "These clamps are a silent Shoah," said Amit, whose father, Yaron, established the organization in 1989, shortly after the Iron Curtain fell and hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, previously forbidden to practice Judaism, began reclaiming their heritage. There are also Jews who were circumcised by a doctor. These circumcisions are not kosher, because doctors, even Jewish ones, do not have the intention of performing God's commandment when they cut. "It is a real self-sacrifice to undergo a brit late in life," Amit said. "We try to do everything to make it as easy as possible. We arrange everything from transportation to and from the hospital, medical costs, the mohel, the festive feast after the brit, and we even change the bandages the day after." A circumcision costs an average of $1,000, he said. "Sometimes we have to send a mohel to faraway places like Taiwan, South Korea, India, Japan or even Yemen and the cost rises to $7,000 or $8,000 per circumcision." But you can only bring a horse to water. S.'s inability to go through with the procedure is an example of how difficult some find it to submit to a circumcision late in life. One of the rabbis at the hospital offered a decidedly metaphysical explanation for S's opposition. "There are always negative spiritual forces that fight against the performance of any good deed," the rabbi said. "The better the deed the more the opposition grows. [S's opposition] just shows what strong powers are contained in the foreskin."