Film / To Cut or Not to Cut

Israeli-born filmmaker Danae Elon shares with the audience her ambivalence about one of the most quintessential of Jewish rituals.

Partly Private:

The Long Journey to a Short Cut, by Danae Elon Canada, 2009

There's a scene toward the end of "Partly Private," Danae Elon's documentary film about circumcision that manages to be both light and deep at the same time, when the filmmaker, visiting her native Israel in an attempt to get closer to the origin of what is - let's face it - a fairly bizarre custom, gathers together a half-dozen or so of the men she was friends with during high school. Close to 20 years have passed, and they're all well into the parenthood years, these Jewish men, but none seems to have given much thought to circumcision or its rationale. None, that is, but the one member of the group who has become Orthodox in the interim. He is shocked by his old friends - not so much because none of them can point to the source of the commandment about circumcision in the biblical text without the help of Google, but rather that they seem so unquestioning about it. For him, as an observant Jew, brit milah is a divine obligation, but, "if you don't believe that it's a mitzvah, and that God requested it, it's just not logical. If you're doing it because it's aesthetic, or to get along with your friends, then you're cruel."

The Orthodox friend - whose use of his thumb in figure-eight motions that accompany his words, in combination with his sidelocks, wispy beard and black and white uniform, would make you think he was Haredi from birth - says it seems natural to him for Danae to question the practice: "It's never clear where she's from ... Italy, Israel, America." She has always been "on the fence," so that "when an event like this comes into her life, it's much clearer why these questions come to the surface." Nonetheless, it is "bizarre" to him that his secular friends with presumably more conventional Israeli upbringings don't seem remotely troubled or curious about this essential, but violent, Jewish experience.

Elon, 38, uses her hybrid upbringing to advantage in her films. The daughter of the late Vienna-born journalist and historian Amos Elon (author of "The Pity of It All" and the classic "The Israelis: Founders and Sons"), and Beth Elon, a New York-born longtime editor, literary agent and food writer, Danae (she pronounces it "Dah-NYE") was raised in Jerusalem. But the family had frequent sojourns to a second home in Italy, and she has lived in New York since attending film school at New York University in the early 1990s.

In an earlier film, "Another Way Home," Elon explored her relationship with Mousa Obeidallah, the Palestinian man her parents hired when she was a baby to take care of her while they worked, and who remained with the family for some 20 years. She regarded him as family, but was he really just an employee? Conversely, is it possible he was in fact more dedicated to her than to his own children? Can Israelis and Palestinians even be equal on the individual level when their political and legal statuses remain so out of balance?

These and similar questions preoccupied Elon, who started work on "Another Way Home" at the height of the second intifada, and a short time after 9/11. She began by tracking down Obeidallah's children, most of whom were then living across the river, in Paterson, New Jersey (a city, she tells us, with the largest Palestinian population in the United States). Eventually she organized an emotional reunion of the two families. And while she raises, both with Mousa and with her parents, all of the difficult issues that are on her mind, she doesn't come up with definitive answers, beyond confirming the obvious love that she and the now-elderly Obeidallah continue to share for one another.

Foreskin 'rehabilitation'

"Partly Private" is not exactly a film about the history of circumcision, nor is it an exploration by the filmmaker of her Jewish roots or identity. And while it presents a number of anti-circumcision activists and proponents of foreskin "rehabilitation," it's not really interested in offering a scientific brief, either pro or con, on the practice. What it is is an entertaining journey ? to labs where "cosmeceuticals" are prepared from foreskins; to the church in Tuscany where the purported foreskin of Jesus was held until its recent theft (according to rumor, by agents of the Vatican, which feared the relic was subject to excessive veneration); to a Disneyland-like circumcision hall in Istanbul where boys ages 5 to 9, who are dressed up in regal satin outfits, are driven around on a little train ride before having their penises clipped in the presence of hundreds of guests; and then to Hebron, in search of the spot where the patriarch Abraham circumcised his boys.

The film could have been mocking - just about everyone that Elon interviews could have been subjected to the Sacha Baron Cohen treatment, to great effect - but that's not what her films are about. What interests Danae Elon is "human vulnerability." Speaking by phone from a bus on her way from New York to Washington, D.C., where "Partly Private" was scheduled to compete at the prestigious Silverdocs Film Festival in late June, Elon explained that her goal in making documentaries is not to "explain truths," but to "touch on the vulnerability of what you're about." Even when dealing with a topic that evokes such strong opinions as circumcision, she turns up the ambivalence, particularly her own, that it evokes in people. (In one surreal scene, Elon is depicted on the couch of Manhattan psychoanalyst Dr. Martin Bergmann, who comes complete with a Mitteleuropa accent, as she tries to understand her and her husband's respective reactions to the subject. Bergmann tells her that for Philip, circumcision has the unconscious significance of symbolic castration, which is intended to keep his son from displacing him in his wife?s affections.) And all the while, the filmmaker is trying to figure out where she fits into the picture.

So, while Elon is the central character and narrator of both "Partly Private" and "Another Road Home," she says that casting herself has nothing to do with vanity, but simply is the best, and most "ethical" vehicle for asking the type of questions that she does. "I started feeling more comfortable looking at myself and my family, and the contradictions [we embodied], but which I thought were universal."

Although her films have an improvised feel to them, Elon says she scripts them in detail, planning in advance where she will go and whom she will interview. At the same time, once the camera starts to roll, anything is bound to happen. "Part of the journey," she says, "is going through a story you have written for yourself. If you're surprising yourself, then the camera is surprised too." The camera work in "Partly Private" is so smart and so unobtrusive that it often feels as if Elon's subjects have forgotten its presence. She credits her cinematographer, Andrew T. Dunn, who, she says, "is always telling his own story as he's choosing camera angles." Once they begin work, the camera "becomes part of us" and she and Dunn "go into a zone."

One thing Elon didn't script in advance, however, was what she intended to do about circumcising child No. 2, if he were to be a boy. The question lends the film a quality of suspense, which hovers over the filmmaker as she travels from place to place trying to understand the custom better. In one scene, she sits with her father, whose forbidding intellect and vehement secularism leave him with little patience for ritual or superstition; he was a reluctant bystander at the circumcision of Tristan, and now he he tells Danae that if she decides to subject a second son to the ritual, she won't be able to blame it on a desire to maintain family harmony. "Tristan you had circumcised out of love for Philip, but if you circumcise your second son, it will be out of conformity."

Amos Elon died on May 25, and his only child is still raw from the loss. She says her upbringing was so "anti-religious" that "the idea of circumcision was almost embarrassing to me." It's interesting, then, that, for all of his rationalism and intellectual assuredness, when his daughter asked him what he would have done about circumcision had she been a boy, "he said he would have left the decision up to my mother. Needless to say, that was not a helpful answer." Her own visceral opposition to going through with the ritual had to do, she explains, with her realization that "inevitably I would be performing a tribal act that would associate me with all Jews, including those whom I did not want to be associated with." In one scene in the film, shot in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, she depicts a religious Zionist family conducting a circumcision on the Jewish side of the shrine. From a small window in the inner wall of the synagogue, one can peek into the tomb itself, and then through a bulletproof window to the mosque on the far side, where the Muslims pray. Separate entrances prevent Jews and Muslims from coming into physical contact.

In the end, Elon's film is more about the journey than the destination (although her children might not agree with that). One key element of that journey was her decision to share her questions and misgivings about this most private part of her life with the audience, exposing her relationship with her husband and her parents, revealing her ambivalence about her Jewish and Israeli identities, and simply portraying herself as someone who doesn't always act in accordance with pure reason or common sense. Waddling with good humor through two pregnancies on camera, Danae Elon comes across as very human, and her film is a joy to watch.