A delicate job that requires a steady hand
Just what makes a man want to become a mohel, or professional circumciser? Danny Katz sets out to find the answer to that riddle.
Danny Katz, Reprinted from The Age January 22 2003
There's a very old joke about a guy who's walking down the street and he sees a shop with clocks in the window. He goes into the shop and says: "I'd like to buy a clock please." The shopkeeper says: "Sorry, I don't sell clocks, I'm a circumciser." The guy says: "So why do you have clocks in your window?" The shopkeeper says: "Well, what do you want me to put in my window?"
Sure, it's not the funniest joke ever, but it's kind of relevant because the other day I visited the home of Dr Hershel Goldman, a certified circumciser. When I walked into the place, I didn't know what I was going to see - I half-expected to see photos of foreskins on the walls and sharp little circumcising tools lying around. I'd even made a mental note to myself : Danny, if he offers you anything that looks like onion rings, just say, "No thanks, Hershel. I'm fine, thank you".
But it wasn't anything like that. This was a nice normal house and he was a nice normal guy. Hershel is a medical doctor in his early 40s and he's been performing circumcisions for more than 19 years, which means he's seen more penises than just about anyone I know.
Hershel and I sat down in his dining room and he told me all about his work.
"I'm what's known as a mohel," he said. "When a Jewish boy is eight days old, I'm called in to perform a ritual circumcision. I cut off the foreskin of the penis in a special ceremony known as a bris. The procedure is very quick and straightforward. It takes about a minute. Then there's some blessings and the child is given his Hebrew name."
He said ritual circumcision was an ancient tradition, going back to biblical times when God appeared to Abraham and commanded him to circumcise himself - which gave me a whole new respect for Abraham because the guy was 99 years old, so his hands would've been a little shaky. "It's the religious aspect of the job that makes it so rewarding," Hershel said. "I'm a deeply observant Jew, so when I perform a bris, it's a spiritual thing for me. I get satisfaction from doing it. That's why the money is not so important. I usually tell people to pay me whatever they feel comfortable with. One time I did a big fancy bris in a function hall with catering and a band and everything, and I was paid just $36. The guys in the band earned more than me."
Still, Hershel makes a pretty good living from his circumcisions. He earns an average of $300 a job, and he does more than 400 a year. I told him that if business ever started to drop off, he could always have a cut-price sale. He could advertise it as "25 per cent off, if you get 25 per cent off".
I asked him what made someone want to be a mohel in the first place? He explained: "After I finished high school, I wanted to be a doctor. But, right in the middle of my medical studies, I started becoming more and more religious. It occurred to me that it was my religious duty to become a mohel. In the end, I decided to become a mohel and a doctor."
He went to New York and trained under a mohel-mentor, learning his craft by watching and copying - which surprised me, because I always thought there was a circumcision university you'd have to go to where students studied "Foreskins I and II" and "The Theoretical Foundations of the Schlong".
Next we got on to a very interesting subject - the ethical debate about circumcision and how it's looked upon as being politically incorrect. These days, if you even think about circumcising your son, you can expect Greenpeace activists to abseil into the room and handcuff themselves to your kid's willy. Hershel agreed that circumcision was unfashionable, but he sensed things were starting to turn around.
"About five years ago I was doing mostly Jewish boys. Nobody else was interested in circumcision. But, just in the last 12 months, I've been doing more and more non-religious circumcisions. I think the general public is starting to realise the medical benefits of a circumcised penis - it stays cleaner, there's less risk of STDs, and less risk of cervical cancer in your partner. If you weigh all this up against the short-term pain of the infant, you can see how the pros definitely outweigh the cons. I'm doing Christians, Muslims, everyone. I don't discriminate, I'm an equal-opportunity mohel."
It was getting late, so I thanked Hershel. He said: "Before you go, do you want to see my equipment?" I said: "Ummm, I'm sure it's very nice but I don't think that will be necessary." He said: "No, I'm talking about the equipment I use in my circumcisions." I said: "Oh, right. OK then." So he went and got his knives and scalpels and a little metal shield called a "mogan". He described how he cut, which bit he cut, and I said: "So what do you do with the foreskin after you've removed it." He said: "Let me tell you - I take the foreskin and I make it into a little wallet. And it's really amazing - when I rub the thing, it turns into a suitcase!"
Circumcision may be ancient - but then so is the circumcision joke.