Eric, a 36-year-old lawyer in L.A., had always been fond of his foreskin. Unlike 80 percent of American boys born in the 1980s, he was uncircumcised. When he was 5, his white, hippie Southern California parents — proponents of Eastern philosophy and pranayama breathing — explained how they wanted to let him make his own decisions about his penis when he grew up. They figured that they’d summoned a soul into the world and gave it a body that included foreskin, and so, they saw no reason to lop it off.
He recalls being slightly embarrassed in middle school while changing into gym clothes in front of other kids, all of whom were circumcised, fearful they would mock his “different dick,” and he cringed whenever sexual partners stumbled upon his intactness in high school, since “it was going to be different for them.” But by his 20s, Eric proudly wore his foreskin like a sheet of phallic armor. It became a significant component of his identity, intensifying in 2009 with the passing of his father. “In this weird way, my dick was evidence of a choice my dad made for me and something he left behind,” Eric says.
His father also turned him on to the alternative comedy scene in L.A., which is where he met Aliza, a television writer eight years his senior. (The names of the couple have been changed to protect their identity.) They began dating and fell in love, despite Aliza being the daughter of one of the most prominent Orthodox Jewish families in the world. “My duty in life was to get married to an Orthodox Jewish man and bring forth babies,” she explains. “Eric was a non-Jew. Now what?”
Eric had Jewish friends throughout his life and had participated in Jewish holidays, but experiencing Judaism through Aliza and her family is what really attracted him to the religion. “There’s a cyclical nature in the Jewish calendar where you always have something on the horizon — holidays, meals, gatherings, parties — and you’re constantly celebrating or mourning with others,” he says. “I always felt very solitary in the world of Eastern philosophy. There wasn’t a lot of community, at least in the circles I ran in, and it was very transient. What I liked about Judaism is that you were part of a tradition that dates back thousands of years, and part of a group of people that are there for you. It seemed to add a dimension to life that I didn’t have.”
The problem was, the only way Aliza’s family would accept Eric — and the only way her father wouldn’t lose his livelihood and standing in the community — was if Eric converted to Orthodox Judaism, a strict, two-year process requiring hundreds of hours of synagogue classes, which Eric likens to “trying to catch up on 3,000 seasons of Game of Thrones.” (In contrast, many Christian churches have baptismal fonts in the lobby, so people can be converted the same day if the spirit moves them.) After meeting with a panel of three rabbis for an intake interview — the beit din, a rabbinic tribunal — Eric was required to keep kosher, live within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue and celebrate brit milah, the covenant of circumcision. After healing, he would be immersed in a mikveh, a ritual Jewish bath, to emerge in a new state of spiritual being as a Jew.
“It felt like I was on the precipice of being swallowed into this whole other world,” Eric recalls. “Don’t get me wrong, I was very excited to become a part of that world, but circumcision felt like I was giving up my old identity.”
The significance of circumcision in the Jewish faith stems from the Book of Genesis, in which God commands Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, to circumcise himself, his household and his slaves as an everlasting covenant in flesh — using a jagged piece of flint to do so. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, brit milah is number two, after “be fruitful and multiply,” explains Cantor Philip L. Sherman, a mohel in New York who has performed more than 22,000 ritual Jewish circumcisions since 1978. (Mohels are rabbis, cantors or otherwise observant Jews trained in circumcision and the rituals surrounding the procedure.) “God said to Abraham, ‘If you keep my commandments, I will give you the rain in its season, your harvest will be bountiful and your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.’”
Circumcision, or the surgical removal of the penis foreskin or prepuce, peaked in popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s, with about 85 percent of males (religious or not) undergoing the procedure. The practice became so widespread that one study of 90 active American medical textbooks and models found that less than a third featured a penis with its foreskin intact. The most common surgery in America, circumcision is typically performed on infants within the first few days of life. No industrialized country other than the U.S. routinely practices non-religious infant circumcision. (The medical benefits are negligible at best.)
But for Jews, it’s a tradition as old as time. “Circumcision has been a physical representation of covenant for 3,500 years, making it our oldest continuously practiced ritual,” explains Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Director of the Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. (For those who have already been circumcised, a single drop of blood is drawn from the circumcision site in a ceremony called hatafat dam brit.) The concept of covenant, implying mutual responsibilities of God and Jews, is a fundamental metaphor running throughout the Torah, Greenwald explains, adding that the most powerful things in our lives — relationships with partners, employers and children — are likewise covenantal and built on mutual obligation.
As such, circumcision for converts is a requirement of all Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, and many Reform (more progressive) rabbis, too. Basically, then, Eric and Aliza had a decision to make. Or as Aliza puts it, if she hated her family or religion, she would have just disowned them. “But I love my religion, and I love my family, and unfortunately, in the world that I come from, my actions have consequences for the ones that I love.”
Maybe the most painful of those consequences — circumcision — first came up about a year into Eric’s conversion process, when his rabbi asked him point-blank, “Are you circumcised?” When Eric answered no, his rabbi immediately took out his phone to call a mohel. “It felt horribly invasive that this religion should give a shit about a piece of skin on a private part of my body that no one else but my wife would ever see anyway,” Eric tells me now. “The only reason this gets a pass is because it’s a 4,000-year-old religion. If I were asked the same thing in the Scientology Center, I’d call 9-1-1. It’s outlandish if you really think about it.”
Generally speaking, a contentious debate about circumcision has enveloped the U.S. over the last decade, with books, podcasts and no fewer than three feature-length documentaries devoted to the topic. Anti-circumcision crusaders, known as “intactivists,” are consistently the most passionate detractors, and the shouting match can’t help but bleed (pun unavoidable) into the brit milah conversation, whether it’s a baby or an adult convert being cut.
Along those lines, Norm Cohen, the 58-year-old founder of NOCIRC of Michigan, a nonprofit advocacy group that educates people about the benefits of intact genitals, is the son of a Reform rabbi, and so, he was circumcised among family and friends in his living room when he was eight days old, publicly continuing the Jewish identity into the next generation. But he now considers the required circumcision of Jewish converts to be a “dangerous compulsion” that doesn’t achieve its intended purpose. “Most Jews would say this is an act of faith and needs no other explanation. I would say it’s genital mutilation,” he argues. “What does it accomplish? Is this man any more of a believer in Judaism? Is it a test of his faith? There are plenty of circumcised men who don’t practice Judaism.”
Meanwhile, retired physician Mark D. Reiss, executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision and a practicing conservative Jew, has been promoting an alternative, non-invasive Jewish ceremony called brit shalom, a covenantal naming ceremony without circumcision. “Shalom” in Hebrew has three meanings — “hello,” “goodbye” and “peace” — and Reiss describes brit shalom as a covenantal ceremony ushering a Jewish boy or man into the covenant of Judaism, “without traumatizing him.”
In the end, though, Eric sided with tradition and eventually reached out to the mohel his rabbi put him in touch with. “Look, it’s really very simple,” the mohel told him. “We’re going to cut off all the skin past the head of your penis and stitch you up.” He explained that the procedure would take 45 minutes, there would be local anesthesia and the only other people in the room would be him and the urologist. After the first incision, the witnessing rabbis would step into the room just long enough to witness a drop of blood. “They won’t have a hard time spotting it, because there’s going to be a lot of blood,” the mohel warned.
As Eric hung up the phone, he took a moment to digest his reality: “I was converting to a religion whose initiation rite involved three three rabbis and a urologist.” But he also could see the finish line to a beautiful new life. Friends of Aliza’s had already begun inviting him to family dinners to help him learn about Judaism, again, a sense of community he’d never experienced before. “What seemed cool about it was the reliability,” he recalls brightly. “Even if we couldn’t spend time with family, Aliza and I would sit down, just the two of us, at the table on Friday night, light candles and have a Shabbat dinner. It was the one night a week when we weren’t shoveling food in our mouth in front of the television, but actually sitting down and having a meal together. There’s a lot of value in that.”
For many adult male converts, the brit milah is an undeniably joyous occasion. “I once did a circumcision for an adult who was conscious for the entire procedure and talking about Abraham and the covenant,” Cantor Sherman says. “The entire time the circumcision was taking place, he was talking about how excited he was to be part of the Jewish people and celebrate Shabbat. All while the operation was going on! It was an amazing spiritual moment.” Other rabbis, like Greenwald, attempt to put their convert’s minds at ease by setting the mood. “My role is to be present with the person, so I come with a Bluetooth speaker and position my chair at the top of the bed, for their privacy, and ask what kind of music they’d like to listen to. One of my strongest memories is a young engineer belting out ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ at the top of his lungs as the doctor circumcised him.”
Still, Eric didn’t sleep well the night before his procedure, a discomfort that followed him to the urologist’s office the next morning. But once there, one of the witnessing rabbis put it all in perspective for him. “God loves when a man makes this sacrifice,” he warmly explained to Eric. “You know, Abraham circumcised himself when he was 99 years old, and he didn’t have any of these fancy medical supplies. He used a rock!”
Eventually, Eric was escorted into a small room equipped with a semi-reclined examination chair that looked specifically designed for invasive procedures. The bottom half had two holsters for legs and a hollowed-out spot in the middle. Underneath was a little bucket that would collect the blood and fluid that was about to spill from him. The mohel broke the ice with a bit of circumcision humor: “Don’t worry. I’m sure this will go better than my bris. After I had mine, I couldn’t walk for a year… because I was a baby!!!”
As the final preparations were being made, the urologist asked Eric about his conversion, and how he met Aliza. When Eric mentioned her last name, the urologist turned to him with a wide-eyed look. “Wow,” he responded, holding up the needle and flicking it a couple of times, “she is very brave.”
“Why do you say that?” Eric asked.
“She comes from a very famous and important family and is risking a lot to be with you.”
In the months leading up to the procedure, Eric had been repeatedly told how incredibly brave he was for making such a huge sacrifice; so to be reminded by someone from Aliza’s world about the risk she was taking on him — and the sacrifice she was making to be with him — was comforting. (Outside the room, Aliza prayed and cried. “I will spend my whole life making sure I’m worthy of this man, so we can share in the love I never thought could exist,” she resolved.)
During the circumcision itself, Eric stared up at the ceiling and didn’t dare look down. He could feel the doctor pulling on things and heard the sound of snipping, which reminded him of getting a haircut. “Besides the five shots administered to the base of my penis, and the cringe-inducing sounds of snipping, it was relatively painless,” he tells me. After the incision, as promised, the witnessing rabbis stepped outside the room. “This is the most beautiful incision I’ve ever seen!” one declared while adding blessings in Hebrew.
Now that he’s officially “cut,” Eric better understands why circumcision became a rite of passage for Jews; for him at least, there is something undeniably identity-changing about it. “I felt like I was shedding the skin of some previous life and moving into a new one,” he says.
After the procedure, Aliza drove Eric home, where he burst into tears. It was a release of emotions he’d suppressed for years. He had come from a fractured family with divorced parents and didn’t have any relatives in L.A. “My life had done a complete 180, and I suddenly had so much,” he says. “There was relief in those tears — and tremendous gratitude.”
Six weeks later, once his penis was healed, Eric was immersed in the aforementioned mikveh, and given an oral exam in front of a rabbinical court. Although he nailed the first question, “Which blessing do you say before eating a strawberry?” (Borei Pri Ha’adamah), he botched the second, “Which blessing do you say after eating the strawberry?” (Borei Nefashot). But overall, he did really well. The rabbi had two passport photos taken of him, and they went to OfficeMax together to get the certificate of his conversion laminated.
Two years later, Aliza and Eric are happier than they’ve ever been, and he’s now a part of her extended family life: weddings, Shabbat dinners, holiday feasts, etc. “During this whole process, I’ve grappled with Judaism,” he says. It’s challenged him, frustrated him and required him to make sacrifices he never thought he’d be willing to make. But more importantly, he adds, “I’ve also been continually humbled by the undeniable fact that this frustrating, confusing and beautiful culture managed to create the frustrating, beautiful, amazing person that I’ve fallen in love with.”