NEW YORK — When Nina, a young Israeli mother living in New York, was planning her newborn son’s brit milah (circumcision), she knew she didn’t want it to resemble one she had been to in which the women, including the mother, were huddled in the back, detached from the ceremony.
“The few men in the circle said the prayer, the mohel quickly did it, and then he just left,” Nina recalled recently. “In all honesty, I was looking for something different. I carried my son for nine months, and I wanted to be involved.”
Rather than use one of the “celebrity” male mohels in the tri-state area, like the one at the bris she had attended, Nina turned to a mohelet because she felt that a woman would be more attentive to her concerns.
“She was a woman, so I felt like I could relate to her already,” Nina said, adding that her baby didn’t cry at all. “She was much gentler, I think, because she’s a woman.”
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Nina is among the increasing number of Israeli and Jewish women in New York City who are choosing female brit milah providers, called mohalot, for a variety of reasons: They are looking for ceremonies that are inclusive of women, ceremonies that cater to LGBTQ or interfaith families, providers that use anesthesia, or they simply prefer a woman’s touch during the sensitive rite of passage.
Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum, who is perhaps the most famous mohelet in New York, was a pioneer when she entered the male-dominated field in the 1980s. She, too, had an off-putting experience — at her own son’s circumcision.
Greenbaum, a practicing pediatrician, will never forget that day, which she said, “almost pushed us away from our faith.”
A young mother in medical school at the time, Greenbaum recalled how the business-like mohel spoke only Hebrew and “threw all the women out of the room, including my mother, who was known as the five-star general in our family.” Greenbaum was only called back into the room by her father, because he wanted a doctor present.
“That is how I got back to my son’s bris,” she said. “The baby was fine, never had any complications, but I swore that if we had another son I wouldn’t have him circumcised.”
Instead of pushing her away from Judaism, however, that experience ultimately prompted Greenbaum to become a mohelet and improve the experience for others.
Her goal is for the brit milah to be “as pain-free and gentle for the baby as modern medicine can safely provide and yet maintain the meaning and feeling for all of us adults,” according to her website.
Greenbaum set out to do everything differently, by using anesthesia, including the mother in the ceremony, and welcoming all types of families. Dr. Greenbuam’s approach certainly makes the ritual more tolerable for women like Limor, another Israeli in New York, who said that when she and her partner, Violeta, were looking for someone to circumcise their son a few months ago, they felt at ease with Greenbaum.
“She was very accepting of us being two women, unlike another male mohel we spoke to,” Limor said. “We liked that she is a woman and also a mother. There is something powerful about our connection as mothers—her work comes from a very powerful place.”
Greenbaum also helped the couple decide whether they even wanted to circumcise their son.
“We both come from a non-religious background, and my partner is Christian and didn’t even want to have a brit milah,” she said. “I did, but because of the cultural aspect of it, not the religious one. I’m so happy I chose her. She included my partner in the ceremony, asked who wanted to say the blessings, why we chose the name, and included the other guests. There is a lot of humor to the way she performs the ceremony. It was less about cutting and that’s it.”
‘Today, women have role models’
Dr. Greenbaum has also worked to mentor a new generation of mohalot offering guidance to young women with a medical background-doctors or nurse practisioners who choose to undergo religious training to perform the brit milah according to Jewish tradition.
Female mohalot in the United States participate in special programs for mohelim offered by the Reform and the Conservative movements. “There were women in the very first class in 1984,” said Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, director of the Brit Milah Program of Reform Judaism, and NOAM, the National Organization of American Mohelim. A quick look at the list of practicing mohelim on the NOAM website shows that 25 percent are women.
“Across the Jewish community, we see that as things become open to women, there are more of them in leadership positions,” Rabbi Adler said. “In the past, women thought, Oh, I don’t want to be the first, or I don’t know what it would be like, to be a mohelet. Today, women have role models: women who practice as mohalot.”
Rabbi Gary Atkins, a Conservative rabbi who co-founded Korayt Habrit, a training program for mohelim, with Dr. Neil Pollock, says that there is no religious impediment for women to perform circumcisions. (Atkins is in charge of the religious instruction in the program, while Dr. Pollock handles the medicals aspects.)
“Some of the leading scholars of the Conservative movement, like Rabbi David Golinkin, wrote halakhic opinions listing all the reasons a woman can be a mohelet, going back to the story of Zipporah [Moses’ wife]. In Shulhan Arukh, its says everyone can do a brit, including a woman.”
Dr. Judy Fried Siegel, another experienced mohelet and a pediatric urologist in New York, also said that women have been mohalot going back generations.
“Sephardic Jews, especially, I believe Persians, have always had women mohalot,” Fried Siegel said. “And even among Ashkenazim, the women can be mohalot if there are no men available. Moshe Rabbeinu’s wife was a mohelet, and you can’t have a better precedent than that.”
Fried Siegel has made a name for herself among worked Israeli mothers in New York, one of whom said she helped fixed a medical problem during her son’s circumcision.
Another one, named Chen, whose baby is now 9 months old, was unsure about circumcising him. After discussing the technical aspects of the procedure with Fried Siegel, she felt more comfortable.
“She works with local anesthesia,first a numbing cream, then a shot of local anesthesia, and you can choose the style of the incision,” Chen said. “We chose the surgical style she recommended. She has a lot of patience — for the baby and for the mother.”
The use of anesthesia puts mohalot like Fried Siegel at odds with some of their male colleagues who believe that makes the brit milah not kosher. For the mohalot, it’s a matter of principle, as is their rejection of the controversial practice of metzitzah ba-peh, or oral suction, in which the mohel uses his mouth to suck the blood away from the wound. That practice has resulted in several newborns contracting herpes.
Fried Siegel said that using the anesthetic transforms the experience of the brit milah.
“Some of my Orthodox colleagues believe the cry of the baby during brit milah opens sha’arei shama’im [the gates of heaven] but my god is much more about rachamim [mercy], and does not want the baby to experience pain,” she said. “I use local anesthesia, and I try to let the baby sleep peacefully through the brit milah. It changes the whole experience not to have a piercing cry of the baby. It makes it more holy, more tender, more palatable.”
For the largely secular Israelis that spoke with Haaretz, simply having a woman perform the circumcision made the entire process and even the religious aspect of ritual more palatable as well.
Chen, for example, said that, while having a medical circumcision was important for her family, who come from a kibbutz, none of them insisted on a religious ceremony.
Then Chen met Fried Siegel and reconsidered. “Her being a woman was a bonus — that is why we felt more comfortable adding the religious elements.”
“The Israelis need an alternative,” said Greenbaum in between brit milah engagements. “If we could get the Israelis who don’t feel affiliated with the tradition together with the young Americans who struggle with this tradition, we could start a new movement.
“It’s not for the ultra-Orthodox here on Eastern Parkway; they don’t want me, they have plenty of mohels to choose from,” she said. “It is needed among the inter-married, among the unaffiliated, among the same sex couples. We are needed for the alienated.”