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"He is the best rabbi when it comes to giving alcohol to minors," quips Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, who has just inserted a wine-soaked gauze pad into the mouth of baby Jonah Francis Boyer, who is about to be circumcised. The room erupts in laughter. Miller is the Boyers' congregational rabbi, Rovinsky the mohel summoned to perform the bris, a naming ceremony and ritual circumcision carried out in accordance with Jewish law.
The two have been trading good-natured barbs for the last 15 minutes as Rovinsky, a teacher by profession, has expounded, in his inimitable fashion, on the task at hand. Uncharacteristically, right in the middle of an allegory about a boy and a sea captain, he hits a snag: "... and waaay out there was a humongous boat -- what do you call it, a frigate?"
"Watch your language!" quips Miller dryly.
But the two rabbis aren't merely trading shtick in the University City home of Dr. Marty Boyer and his wife, Marci Boyer, this Thursday morning; they are double-teaming to bring an ancient, sacred ceremony to life. The result -- delivered in a comfy living room filled with wedding pictures and personal mementos -- is something of a homily and something of a primer on bris milah, as the Jewish commandment is formally called. More and more, as in this instance, there are non-Jews in attendance at a bris, and Rovinsky takes nothing for granted: "Has anyone here never been to a bris before?" Fifteen sets of eyes look around. Three hands go up. "Let me tell you what happens," he says, almost conspiratorially.
"Jewish tradition believes that the prophet Elijah comes to every bris, and the circumcision is done next to a chair, the Chair of Elijah, set aside in honor of the prophet. The baby is brought in; words of welcome will be sung. The baby is placed on this special half of the sofa known as the 'the half of the sofa of Elijah the prophet.'" A round of laughter. "A short prayer is said in Hebrew and English. The baby is placed on the lap of the sandek, the holder of the baby during this procedure. Traditionally it is the father or, if the father chickens out, another relative. Uncle Dory will be our sandek today. By asking me to be here, Marty is making me his agent to do the bris for him, because it is really Dad's responsibility to perform the bris on his own son. Today, however, evenif the father is a doctor" -- more laughter -- "he will still call upon a mohel, who is specially trained, not only medically but religiously, in this delicate task to act on his behalf."
He turns to Boyer, an orthopedic surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital: "Marty, in all seriousness, I do have to give you the chance to change your mind and do this yourself."
Dr. Boyer gives a faux-horrified look and utters a definite no, provoking guffaws all around. Rovinsky has the crowd eating out of his hand. Without further ado, the rabbi begins. Singing prayers, he bends over Jonah, grasps his little member with latex-gloved hands and, in a flurry of practiced motion, adroitly separates foreskin from the glans penis, pulls the liberated foreskin over the glans, secures it with a medical instrument called a shield, angles the bris knife and slices the foreskin off.
The actual procedure, short and quick, concludes with a hearty "Mazel tov!"
Amazing that this age-old ceremony -- not unlike a Christian baptism in feeling -- carries such controversy. Whereas John Harvey Kellogg, a popular 19th-century health guru, advocated the circumcision of young boys as a cure for masturbation, some of his modern-day counterparts cry, "Save the foreskin!" A vocal contingent, mostly entrenched in universities and health centers, adamantly opposes the practice. They say it is cruel, medically unnecessary and psychologically scarring; they say its day has passed.
But none of these critics is here, among the believers.
Afterward, in a quiet moment, Marty Boyer reflects on the experience: "One of my scrub nurses asked me earlier in the week what it means to have a bris. I basically said it's part of a deal that Abraham made with God and that it connects the generations. Now, the rabbinical significance of this particular part -- I mean, why the foreskin instead of the left earlobe? Why this was chosen as the physical covenant between Jews and God, I couldn't explain that to her."
Then someone asks how he came to call the rabbi.
Boyer looks perplexed for a moment, then shrugs: "Everyone knows he's the mohel."
The mohel, as the story goes, was getting ready to retire after 30 years. During that time, he had saved every foreskin from every bris he had performed. One day, he brings the foreskins to his tailor and says: "Listen, these foreskins are my life's work. I want you to take them and make me something nice." The tailor tells the mohel to come back in a week and he'll have something. When the mohel returns a week later, the tailor shows him a wallet. The mohelis stunned: "What is this? Thirty years of brises and this is all I get, a wallet?" The tailor looks at him and says, "Yeah, but you rub it, it turns into a suitcase."