Pavel Ok, a musician from the southern town of Kiryat Malakhi, was born in Kiev and immigrated to Israel at the age of 8. Like many other immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, he was not circumcised. And until the end of his high-school years, he hadn’t intended to do anything about it.
“The first significant dilemma came up at about the age of 18, when things start with girls,” recalls Ok, who’s now 33. “There was one girl who said in advance that she didn’t want to sleep with someone who was uncircumcised. Another one slammed the brakes on me one second before. I also have a memory of going to my mother in tears and telling her that a girl broke up with me because I wasn’t circumcised.”
He made the decision to have the belated circumcision during his army service. “I had a religious commander who saw that I was searching for myself, and he suggested that I speak with the rabbi at the base. The rabbi talked about how the brit milah [Hebrew for circumcision, which has its biblical basis in Genesis 17] is very important, that it’s the gateway to paradise,” he says. “Things started to come together: the girls, the rabbi, my traditionalist friends from Kiryat Malakhi, the claims that circumcision has hygienic advantages. I decided to go for it.”
Ok was 21 when he received the requisite referral for the procedure. “The operation itself went just fine,” he says. “I was given a local anesthetic and I didn’t feel a thing. The healing process was also easy enough. For the first two days it hurt when I had an erection, but after a week everything functioned normally.”
At that point Ok didn’t imagine that the surgery would have far-reaching consequences. “It took a few years for me to understand that I had lost something. At first you don’t get it. A girl goes down on you and it’s terrific, and then another one goes down on you and it’s less terrific. As time passes, you understand that there was something you had really enjoyed at one time, but suddenly it becomes just routine sex. But it’s not only in oral sex. The feeling is 180 degrees different. In someone who’s not circumcised, the tip of the sexual organ is covered with a super-delicate, moist tissue. If you don’t have the covering and it’s constantly touching your clothes, it becomes less sensitive over time. It’s something else – people who are circumcised at eight days have no clue.”
Try to give me a clue.
Ok: “If you train in a gym without gloves, you’ll get blisters on your hands. When you peel off the blister, the contact with the exposed skin hurts, but when you touch the skin before peeling it off, it’s a regular feeling. That’s the gap. You know how, if you’re touched there a second after you come, you shake all over? So, for someone who is not circumcised that can be a constant feeling. You feel it in your entire body, it’s that sensitive.”
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One of every three men in the world is circumcised. In Israel, and among Jews generally, and in the Muslim worlds, the overwhelming majority of males undergo circumcision, whereas in Europe, Asia and most of Latin America it’s much less common. In the United States it’s fairly routine even among Christians, but that is changing: In 1979, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 64 percent of American males were circumcised, whereas in 2010 the figure stood at 58 percent.
Does circumcision fundamentally detract from sexual pleasure, as Pavel Ok maintains? A number of studies have tried to answer that question, utilizing creative methods. But in Israel a special situation exists, which allows the issue to be approached directly: Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union underwent circumcision here after becoming sexually active, which means they have a basis for comparison.
During the past few months, I spoke with 50 immigrants who were circumcised only as adolescents or adults, and heard about the aftermath of the procedure. Seventy percent of them reported that their enjoyment of sexual relations and masturbation had been adversely affected. In rating the degree of reduction in pleasure they experienced, 22 percent said there had been a significant decline, 10 percent said it was medium, and 38 percent characterized it only as a minor drop. Thirty percent said there had been no change for the worse. (It should be noted that the interviewees did not necessarily rate the degree of reduced sexual pleasure by themselves; those categorizations were made by Haaretz on the basis of the interviews with them.)
In the past, studies that examined the subject came up with contradictory findings. In 2007, researchers in San Francisco examined reactions to moderate pressure on the head of the penis. They found that the glans is less sensitive in circumcised males and suggested that part of the foreskin is the most sensitive region of the organ. According to a later study, based on questionnaires, circumcised men need to make a greater effort to achieve release, they have a less intense orgasm and many of them often experience pain or itching. On the other hand, a 2016 Canadian study found that circumcised men responded to stimuli the same way as those who are not, and concluded that having a foreskin does not augment sexual pleasure.
Researchers in Denmark in 2011 set out to examine whether women respond differently during sexual relations with circumcised men. The answer was crystal clear: Female partners of circumcised men reported more difficulties in achieving orgasm and about pain during intercourse. Anti-circumcision activists (“intactivists,” as they call themselves) believe that this conclusion is self-evident, because the thick secretion, called smegma, that accumulates under the foreskin improves lubrication during penetration. Because in circumcised males, the glans is wider than the shaft of the penis, it collects part of the female partner’s lubricants every time the penis pulls back. As a result, the longer that intercourse lasts, the greater the unpleasant friction for the woman.
What about the health issue? The American medical establishment is mired in an ongoing debate over the advantages and risks of circumcision. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading national public health institution in the United States, recommended that infants be circumcised for health reasons. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that there is no evidence that the benefits of the procedure outweigh the possible consequences and complications. In sub-Saharan Africa, a connection was identified in the past between circumcision and a reduced risk of HIV infection, but the studies were viewed with skepticism in terms of their statistical validity. Other studies found that circumcised infants suffer less often from urinary tract infections. According to physicians who are against circumcision, even if that correlation exists, it’s unreasonable to maim the sexual organ in order to solve such a minor problem.
'There were a few other Russian children and men there, and we all had to lie on tables. A kind of assembly line. No one thought to explain what was about to happen.'Yaakov Zisser
Damaged sex life
Many of those who were interviewed for this article spoke of a gradual loss of sensitivity. In some cases, the operation caused serious, even critical, damage, to both the individual’s sex life and his ability to form a lasting relationship. In other cases, the negative consequences of circumcision converged with disappointment and frustration relating to the experience of integrating into Israeli society.
Yaakov Zisser, 62, who immigrated to Israel but returned to Russia after his university studies, underwent circumcision when he was 17.
“When we came to Israel, my parents agonized over it,” he says. “My mother, who is a doctor, decided that if it hadn’t been done at eight days, it wasn’t worth doing now. We lived in Givatayim, and I felt that I simply wasn’t able to integrate into secular Hebrew society. I felt like an outsider, I was tremendously lonely. One day I met a religious man on a bus that passed through Bnei Brak, and he persuaded me to get closer to ultra-Orthodox society. I started going to a yeshiva, but the condition was that I be circumcised.”
Speaking with Haaretz by phone from St. Petersburg, Zisser, a retired real estate man and translator, remembers the ads in the Russian-language press in Israel, urging immigrants to undergo circumcision for free. “My mother saw the offers, and warned me against it, but I guess I thought her authority was insufficient. The rabbi took me to a veteran physician who did the procedure with a local anesthetic, professionally and with no complications. The operation was a success, but my mother was distraught because I did it without telling her. It also made my father sad: When the rabbi visited while I was recovering, he was very angry and told him in Yiddish, ‘You should have asked the father.’”
The real difficulties began after recuperation, Zisser relates. “When the skin beneath the foreskin was exposed and started to rub against my clothes, it hurt really badly. I started to use certain aids, like putting a piece of cotton in my underpants. During masturbation, there was quite a rapid deterioration in sexual sensation, but at the time I didn’t attach any importance to that. Before being circumcised, I was sexually active, and I thought that when I resumed being active, the feeling would be different.”
A few years later, Zisser abandoned religion. “At the age of 23, I started having relations again and discovered that the sexual pleasure had changed very much for the worse. The experience was weaker, it was unpleasant in that particular place – and I would say it was even painful. Over the years, my erection grew weaker. I think the last time I had sexual relations with penetration was in 2000. Whenever I am about to have intercourse I think about how to overcome the difficulty. The problem isn’t only in the sexual organ. The mind adds an interpretation to the physical trauma.”
And recently you decided to talk openly about the subject.
Zisser: “Until not long ago, I never talked about it. I was ashamed to say that I was impotent. Now, at my ripe old age, I have decided to be open about my experience and take a stand for the sake of others.”
Zisser channeled his distress into becoming a campaigner against circumcision, but similar experiences led some men to withdraw socially. Dima (not his real name) is a student of 35 who was circumcised at 16. “It was a few years after we immigrated from Ukraine,” he recalls. “I went to a clinic in Ramat Gan with my father and my grandmother. There were a few other Russian children and men there, and we all had to lie on tables. A kind of assembly line. No one thought to explain what was about to happen, how the cut would be made, like they do before an operation. I remember the painful injection above the groin, and waiting for the anesthetic to take effect.”
And you woke up after it was all over?
Dima: “No. I remember saying that it hurt me despite the anesthetic. I felt as though the skin was being pulled too much. There were four people operating on me, and as far as they were concerned, it all went fine. No one said anything had gone wrong. But then came a tough recuperation. Initially, erections were the biggest nightmare – the organ was injured, and suddenly, without any control, it grew, but the dressing didn’t stretch. There were hellish pains.”
What did you feel after you’d recovered?
“In the first few years. I didn’t experience too many problems, besides the scar that remained. The main problem showed up later. I know what I felt before the operation – even though I wasn’t yet involved in sexual relations – and what I feel now. It’s not even close. That understanding didn’t come immediately, because the loss of feeling doesn’t happen immediately. It’s not just what they remove, it’s also what’s left. The exposed area suddenly rubs up against your clothing, and as time goes by it gets harder and shrinks.”
When did you realize that permanent damage had been done?
“It took me about 10 years before I really understood. People talk about impotence, but with me the damage is a lot deeper – in the body, in my autonomy, independence, masculinity. It’s something that’s always with me, a kind of realization that the life I could have lived was taken from me. It’s really a type of mourning.”
It’s important to emphasize that despite the many interviews I conducted, and even though the interviewees were found in a random way – this is not a scientific study. The conversations took place freely, and there was no pretension to attribute statistical validity to the findings. Even so, Israel provides a unique laboratory for examining the consequences of circumcision. The fact that, in the 1990s, tens of thousands of men were circumcised at a relatively advanced age is definitely cause for comprehensive, controlled study of the subject.
Of the 50 interviewees, the vast majority are immigrants who underwent the operation in Israel. Some are non-Jews who live outside Israel and were circumcised for medical or cosmetic reasons. The interviewees were aged between 13 and 53 when they were circumcised. Most had had sexual relations before undergoing the procedure. The source of comparison for the others is masturbation, before and after. They, too, were able to describe the difference clearly.
Lev, who preferred to give only his first name, was 14 when he had the operation. “The recovery went relatively well, and it took about two weeks before I could masturbate again,” he relates. “But then it turned out to be something else entirely. It’s not just that the feeling changed – everything changed. When you have a foreskin it rises and falls, and the skin slides along the organ. You don’t rub the organ itself. At first it actually hurts, because you’re not good at the new technique and your skin is too sensitive. After all, it was never exposed like that before. It’s as if you put in a contact lens and touch yourself in the eye. The more the skin is exposed, the more the sensitivity is reduced. In the end, there’s a huge difference in enjoyment.”
Alon, circumcised at 15, also spoke of a “tremendous difference, and not for the better.” In his words, “The regret came above all from a place of principle. After that insight trickled in, I started to look at the physical-physiological side, too. In retrospect, I can say that there is a regression in the degree of pleasure, in feeling, in stimulation.”
'People talk about impotence, but the damage is a lot deeper – in the body, in my independence, masculinity. A realization that the life I could have lived was taken from me.'Dima
One of the interesting findings was that 10 of the interviewees (20 percent) said that, while they experienced a slight decrease in sensation, they perceived that in a positive way. Most explained that for them, that decrease translated into longer duration of the act of intercourse.
“The sensitivity decreased a little, but it means that you can delay coming,” says Oleg, 32, who was circumcised at the age of 17. Similarly, Shimon Brieman, who had the operation at 24, felt that he had become “stronger, because the sensitivity decreased a little and I can hold on for longer.”
Others in the group told me that the reduction in feeling improved things, because previously the sensitivity of the glans was excessive. Christopher, who was circumcised at 30, estimates that he experienced a 20-percent decline in sensitivity. “But it’s not that I miss what used to be,” he explains. “Less sensitive doesn’t mean less good, because before it was sometimes too much. Sort of vibrations in the whole body when you’re touched there. That’s a feeling I don’t miss.”
Another reason for satisfaction noted by some of the interviewees had to do with the appearance of the penis. “Not for a minute did I regret the decision to do it,” says Igor Markovich, who underwent the operation during his army service, at the age of 24. “To be circumcised is better both hygienically and aesthetically. Before that, it looked like some kind of animal to me.”
Vladi Adams, a 22-year-old immigrant from Belarus who was circumcised at 18 for medical reasons, also says that “the aesthetic satisfaction” compensated for a certain loss of sensitivity. “It adds to the sense of confidence, and naturally has implications for sex. You stop thinking about how it will look and what they’ll say.” Adams also believes that there’s no way to separate the medical procedure from the social context that brit milah has in Israel.
Some of those I spoke to were displeased with the aesthetic result. “For a few years you could see where the stitches were,” says Alexei, who had the operation at 17. “It bothered me to look at it. It still hasn’t completely disappeared, and I can totally see how it would make someone be ashamed – feel that there’s something defective about him.”
Alex Trigoub, who works in high-tech and conducts workshops in male sexuality, was circumcised at 14. “The erections during the recovery period were very painful,” he says. “It took the stitches a few weeks to dissolve, and I remember sitting on the toilet and thinking that it looked weird and frightening. Naturally, no one talked to me; there was no psychologist or anyone to explain to me what was happening. It’s a trauma the body endures, certainly when it’s done to a teenager. The trauma also creates a sort of love-hate relationship with the sexual organ. It burns a sort of consciousness of a defect into you.”
What effect did it have?
Trigoub: “My whole sexual development afterward was very problematic. Plenty of insecurity, loneliness and addiction to porn. Maybe it has to do with that. My getting into Tantra, the spiritual sides of sexuality, comes to heal myself.”
Similar feelings are described by Michael Litvak, who was 7 at the time of the operation and was therefore not factored statistically into the responses of the 50 other interviewees.
“In my opinion, the physical feeling is not the main story, because on the surface everything is functioning,” he says. “The loss is felt in a far more interior place. From my point of view, that part of my body is a center of pain, a disaster zone, my Ground Zero. To undergo such a cut at the age of 7 is to experience a feeling that the world is not safeguarding you, you’re not being protected. For me it’s also intertwined with the panic of the Gulf War, with my father who doesn’t understand a word of Hebrew and doesn’t know what a shelter is, or a sealed room. The feeling of not being protected haunts me in dreams.”
‘I saw blood’
Indeed, circumcision conducted later in life can have dramatic consequences, which can’t be described simply in terms of the number of nerve endings that are lost. For adolescents or men who undergo surgery in such an intimate place while fully conscious, this seemingly simple procedure is liable to have psychic repercussions.
Oleg, for example, was 27 when he underwent circumcision at the request of his future wife. “The whole situation was pretty stressful,” he says. “My hands were tied, above me were these six team members, and I didn’t exactly understand what their role was. At the cutting stage, everything went well, I only felt a small twinge. Then the stitches started. Until the third stitch I didn’t feel anything special, but on the fourth stitch I suddenly felt this horrible pain. I screamed and I saw blood and people grabbed my hands. What a scene. But there was no turning back, and so they gave me another injection.”
Lev, who was a teen when he was circumcised, was living with his mother in Ofakim, a town in the Negev. “We took the bus to Be’er Sheva,” he recalls. “It wasn’t the most pleasant situation for a teenager to be going with his mom to have such an intimate operation. But what was more embarrassing was the thing itself. You lie there without underpants with two female nurses talking above you in a language you don’t understand.”
Michael Litvak relates that during the recovery period at home, he shared a room with his sister and his grandmother. “I had absolutely no privacy. I was supposed to sleep on my back, without anything touching that area. I didn’t want to sleep nude, but there was no option to sleep anywhere else, so they gave me some loose clothing of my sister’s. Think what it means for a boy to wear his sister’s dress.”
In 1991 alone, the Religious Affairs Ministry invested 15 million shekels disseminating explanatory material in Russian to encourage new immigrants to undergo circumcision.
Another recurring motif in the accounts of the group is the suggestion by the mohel – the man who performs the ritual circumcision – that those entering the covenant of Abraham should take the opportunity to change their name, or at least to add a Hebrew name to their Slavic one. Most of them did so. Semyon became Shimon, Leonid was now Lavi, Genady morphed into Guy, Ilya emerged as Eli and Igor became Yigal. But some dared to rebel.
“I remember that in the recovery room a religious person came over to me, some rabbinic envoy, and said, ‘From this day forth, you are Avraham,’” relates Arthur, who was circumcised at 25. “I told him he could forget it, that I came here as Arthur and I was leaving as Arthur.”
Along with the critical voices about the aftermath of the procedure and the way it’s done, others felt nothing adverse. “I don’t feel any difference,” says David Wainshtein, who was 16 when he was circumcised, in 1991. “I did it because I wanted to inject meaning into being a Jew and an Israeli. The brit didn’t resolve my need for belonging, but it started some sort of process, and afterward I also became religiously observant.”
Alex Shilman, who was a 7-year-old boy when he was circumcised, also carries no baggage from the event. “I have no anger or regret about it, and there are many like me who were circumcised at a late age and feel the same way,” he says. “From my point of view, the [drive to encourage] brit milah was a large part of a genuine ideological movement, not something artificial. Does it matter whether I did it at eight days, at age 7 or at 30 years of age? On the contrary, I’m even slightly envious of those who had the operation out of a conscious choice.”
In 1990, Israeli newspapers received a color photograph headlined “World Record.” The caption stated that Dr. Cyril Fine, a physician and expert mohel, had carried out 52 circumcisions on immigrant children in half a day. The operation was organized by the Ramat Gan Municipality and the city’s religious council. Fine said later that the number had been inflated and that he had actually done 43 circumcisions that day. “I had two rounds, one from Kiryat Shmona, one from Bat Yam. From Kiryat Shmona, instead of 16, 32 showed up, so what could I do? Send them back to Kiryat Shmona? So I stepped up the pace.”
In 1996, the director of the circumcisions department in the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Amir Bergman, estimated that between 60,000 and 70,000 new immigrants had undergone circumcision since the start of the decade. He boasted that “there were months when we circumcised 3,000 people. We worked around the clock in assembly-line fashion. At first, people were referred to public institutions, but when they couldn’t keep up, they were sent to private institutions, too.”
In fact, it wasn’t only the religious precept that oiled the machinery of the feverish campaign. The Religious Affairs Ministry paid about $300 for every procedure, and once it became apparent that the target population numbered tens of thousands of men, a significant economic incentive was created. In 1992, the competition over circumcisions spawned a petition to the High Court of Justice by one private clinic, with the result that the rabbinate was ordered to set equal criteria for “distributing the circumcisions.”
In 1991 alone, the Religious Affairs Ministry invested 15 million shekels disseminating explanatory material in Russian to encourage new immigrants to undergo circumcision. As part of a “project for spiritual integration” that year, about 15,000 new immigrants from the collapsing Soviet Union were brought on visits to religious institutions, yeshivas, Orthodox schools and so on. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry also participated. At times, circumcision of the newcomers seemed to become a national obsession. In 1993, Haaretz reported that the hevra kadisha (ultra-Orthodox burial society) was performing circumcisions on bodies of deceased immigrants from the Soviet Union. The report sparked public shock and demands for an official investigation.
Guy Frankovich, a journalist and translator who was about 20 when he immigrated to Israel from the FSU, was living in the northern town of Ma’alot with his mother at the time.
“When we were still in the ulpan [Hebrew course], people showed up, I don’t remember on behalf of who, and suggested that we do a brit milah,” he relates. “I agreed without giving it much thought. I saw it as an adventure. You have to remember that in the huge wave of aliyah at the beginning of the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of the immigrants were Jews according to halakha [that is, they had Jewish mothers], and circumcision seemed to be a natural act of entering the fold of Judaism. It was also an obvious thing for the other side, for the religious public. Thirty years ago, there was an atmosphere of coming together, long before it was poisoned by all the stereotypes about the immigrants, the side effects of emigration and identity politics. The Iron Curtain had opened, the ‘Jews of silence’ had arrived. It was almost transcendental.”
Frankovich says that today the principal components of his identity are that he’s a Tel Aviv resident, gay, and active in the LGBT movement. “In that period I was above all a young migrant from the Soviet Union. We had only been in Israel for a few months, still in shock, so that to decline to have an operation like that, which was done under the auspices of the ulpan, was not really an option.”
Among the more rebellious young people, some remember demanding something in return for agreeing to be circumcised. Some were able to extort from their parents a Tetris or Megason video game, while the less persuasive types made do with a gift of a pocket fan, which was often given out on the occasion of the surgery. “It was part of the life experience of our generation,” says Yevgeny Weinstock, who was circumcised when he was 17, and is today 46. “Everyone is doing it, so you do it, too. No one gave any thought to consequences.”
'We had only been in Israel for a few months, still in shock. To decline to have an operation like that was not really an option.'Guy Frankovich
For some of the surgeons, too, performing the operations was a venture into uncharted territory. Uri Sabah, who is today chief mohel in the conversion unit of the Prime Minister’s Office, admits that the circumcision campaign of the 1990s was improvised as it went along. “We didn’t quite know how to cope with it,” he says. “We are the only country in the world that does adult circumcisions – at least we were then. At first all the circumcisions were done under general anesthesia, so recovery was harder. The materials have also changed. At one time they used stitches that had to be taken out, not ones that dissolve. Naturally, the materials have improved and the process has become more friendly.”
What about in terms of personal attention?
Sabah: “Look, it’s impossible to hire an operating room for one or two procedures. It costs the state and the hospital money. It’s like asking your child to go to a preschool where the teacher and her assistant are there for him alone.”
The claimant to the crown of circumcision record holder is Dr. Pinhas Gonen, of Bnei Brak. “I did 63 circumcisions in one day,” Gonen recalled proudly this week in a phone conversation. “It was well organized, in two operating rooms with medical teams, and went on for eight and a half hours straight.”
Do you have any conclusions about the way the immigrants were treated?
Gonen: “Look, when a whole herd comes in, the individual doesn’t tend to be pampered. When you do it one-on-one, you have to talk, explain, behave gently and humanely. At the time that just wasn’t an option, because otherwise you wouldn’t manage the quantities. It was a truly ‘industrial’ process.”
A study published in 1994 in the journal Harefuah (Medicine) is apparently the only one carried out in the country devoted to adults undergoing circumcision. The researchers examined 2,857 operations carried out in the early 1990s in and around Be’er Sheva. They found that 50 of those (1.75 percent) who underwent the procedure suffered from complications, noting that the proportion of complications reported in the professional literature was 0.2 percent to 2.2 percent, making it clear that they had not exceeded the norm. Still, they postulated that, “the proportion of complications could be reduced if it were not for the difficulties of communicating with those undergoing the operations.”
Prof. Gabriel Gurman, one of the authors of that study, this week reiterated the explanation about the difficulties of communication. “There were problems with the flow of information,” he says. “We couldn’t know for sure that the instructions about fasting, not doing anything strenuous or what to do in case of bleeding had been understood accurately.”
In addition, he admits, “Things could have been organized differently. At the time, we did three circumcisions an hour, and there weren’t enough beds. So we had to send people home the moment we saw that they were stabilized. If you ask me today, it would have been preferable to keep them under supervision.”
Silence and taboos
The scene: Last December, at the Levontin 7 Club, Tel Aviv. “An Evening of Late-circumcision Stories” has been organized by the Culture Brigade, a group of young people whose origins are in the former Soviet Union – who refer to themselves as the “1.5 generation,” and which is promoting a Russian culture-identity renaissance.
The stage is dark, the monologues are comedic. One person described a clinic in Bnei Brak, another related that while he was waiting on the operating table he was recruited for a campaign to encourage others to undergo the process too, a third likened the procedure to a road accident (“They remove the bandages and you discover that in place of the Lexus that stood up for you in the parking lot, you have a total-loss Hyundai”).
Daniel Freidlin, who underwent the procedure when he was 6, fluctuated between heartwarming stories and tales of horror (“For three-four hours I couldn’t take a leak, and the next thing I remember is passing out from pain in the bathroom”). But the most interesting thing about his monologue wasn’t the story of the act, but the questions that arose thereafter: “Why is it that my partner, who is sitting in the audience, is only hearing my story now? Why didn’t any of my friends hear me talking about it? Why am I telling it here for the first time?” Freidlein asked.
Freidlin wasn’t the only one present who had repressed the experience, or at least had avoided giving it verbal expression. In fact, the Culture Brigade evening was intended exactly for that: to allow people to stop being silent and start to share. Ilya Greenfeld, one of the organizers, related that the initiative was born in the wake of a chance conversation with the Israeli-born partner of one of his good friends. “A few friends were sitting around, and she said, in the most offhand way, that a friend of hers had a crazy story about circumcision. When I heard that, it reminded me very much of the experience I had as a child of 4. That story is silenced, it doesn’t exist in the dialogue, not even by a wink or in jokes.”
“It’s a collective experience that masses have undergone, but it’s not talked about,” Michael Litvak adds. “I have a quite a few immigrant friends, and there is no dialogue around the subject. That’s probably because of taboos of masculinity, and even more, taboos of Soviet masculinity, which are addressed to displays of vulnerability and weakness. There is a whole group here that, because of that experience, is still grappling with issues of belonging, home, self-value, self-image.”
Dima, who was circumcised when he was very young, believes that terminology is critical: “I don’t call what I underwent a ‘brit milah,’ because I don’t believe in what that term stands for. I have no connection to religion or to faith, and as far as I’m concerned, there was no brit [covenant] with anyone. That term purports to give the process some sort of meaning that distances it from the actual operation itself. I certainly don’t feel more whole. Exactly the opposite. I had a body, which was perfectly fine, and after the operation it became not perfectly fine.”
Arthur, for his part, recalls needing time to process the damage. “Six or seven years after the operation I happened to see in the Modi’in local paper, an interview with a urologist, who explained the functions of the foreskin: to protect the head of the penis, to enhance male’s sexual stimulation, and to absorb the moisture of the vagina so the act can last longer and thus encourage reproduction. That article brought home to me what I had lost. There’s less pleasure during penetration. That bit of tissue, when it slides up and down, has a certain sensitivity that is different when it comes into contact with a woman. At first it was very much lacking, but over the years I got used to it.”
Pavel Ok, too, needed the perspective of time to grasp the consequences of his brit. “When I was trying to decide whether to do it or not, the pleasure consideration wasn’t in my consciousness at all,” he says. “I didn’t take into account that I would be losing feeling or that sex would be less good. Even after I noticed the damage, it took me time to make the connection. It came up in conversations with the woman who is today my wife and who by training is a psychologist and a sexologist – and not a Jew, by the way. When we first started dating, she asked me why I had done it, and I told her. Since then she laughs at me occasionally and says that if I hadn’t undergone that nonsense, I would have greater enjoyment.”
How much do you regret it?
Ok: “Look, I was stupid and I’m paying a price for it, but I try not to torment myself over it. I look at it as a life lesson. The brit milah is the tattoo, the scar, the most powerful, daily reminder that you don’t have to be a conformist and act according to what’s happening around you. That’s my lesson.”