Philip Sherman (center) is a mohel for modern times.
It was eight P.M., and two-and-a-half-year-old Reuven Sherman wasn't tired. Back and forth he ran from his bedroom to the living room - each time depositing a toy car on his father's lap, each time embarrassing his father a little more. "Reuven," said Philip Sherman finally, sweeping his son up under one arm, "don't you want to put on a diaper?"
"No, no, no, no, no," protested the son, happy in his nakedness, a tiny testimonial to his father's steady hand. Reuven is one of hundreds of baby boys that have been circumcised in the past thirteen years by his father, Cantor Philip Sherman, who is one of Manhattan's most prominent mohels (pronounced moyls).
Sherman is one of fewer than two hundred people in the country who practice this ancient religious ritual. Becoming a mohel is like becoming a carpenter or a plumber; step one is an apprenticeship. While a student at Columbia, Sherman took his junior year abroad in Israel and while there arranged to study with a mohel. The desire was in his blood. "This was my grandfather's," he says, fingering a pearl handled Miller's blade and a matching shield, which are tools of the trade. "I don't use it of course. It's an antique, and I can't sterilize it. But my tools are basically the same."
The ceremony hasn't changed much either. According to Jewish law, it is a father's duty to have his son circumcised on the eighth day of life. Along with circumcision comes the Brith Milah ceremony (generally called a Brit, or Bris). This is the first step of a Jewish boy's development, to be followed in later years by the bar mitzvah and marriage ceremonies. With intermarriage and assimilation on the rise, many sons are being circumcised in the hospital, but Sherman is firm in his belief that his way has both medical and religious merits.
"Doctors perform circumcisions," he says. "Mohels perform Brith Milahs. Doctors use a procedure that takes twenty-five minutes in which they strap the child down and use a clamp to separate the area. In a Bris the whole ceremony takes four to five minutes, the procedure takes fifteen to thirty seconds." And that's not the only difference, he says: "A Brith Milah is a happy occasion. When you have a Bris, you reaffirm the covenant of circumcision that God made with Abraham. You uphold a tradition that is thousands of years old."
For all his traditional words, Sherman is clearly a mohel for modern times. He lives on the trendy Upper West Side. He carries a beeper and has a computer and a fax. And he recently performed a Bris on twins born to a woman who had been artificially inseminated. But Sherman is not sure that other mohels have adapted successfully to the twentieth century.
He fears much of their dignity is gone. Adding insult, he says, is the portrayal of mohels on television. An episode of L.A. Law, for example, portrayed a mohel as a sort of borscht belt comedian. "A lot of mohels today are clowns," he says. "This is a religious ceremony. Their behavior detracts from the holiness. Promise me, no mohel jokes in the article." Enough said.
(This article appeared in March 1990 and is reprinted by permission of the author Jean Sherman Chatzky.)