On Becoming a Mohel
One of my most oft asked questions is - why did you become a mohel? To most people, the thought of becoming a mohel is, in polite terms, meshugah. And in fact, I was one of those people, that is, until I met Chanan Feld (OBM)...
It all started back when I was a Ph.D. student in physiology at the University of California - Davis (UCD) campus. To understand my story you need to understand that most students, especially graduate students, have a narrow way of looking at things as being right or wrong, black or white, with only a microscopic sliver of gray dividing the two. This temporary character trait, despite its obvious weaknesses, has a unique strength. That is, during this period of nouveau riche intellect many students naively attempt to solve inapproachable problems with unrealistic enthusiasm leading, despite themselves, to new and unexpected advances. As strange as it may seem, in my case, it led to my becoming a mohel.
Hereís how it happened - as I see it through the fog of twenty plus years. I was at the height of my assimilation. My Judaism was on par with my Americanism - I gave it little thought, little attention, and little appreciation - until that is, a close friend invited me to the bris of her son. When I arrived, I asked whereís the moyl (Yiddish for mohel). She said, to tell you the truth my son was circumcised in the hospital soon after birth and our rabbi is coming today to conduct a "bris ceremony." OK...
Not OK! Something deep inside, very deep inside, troubled me about this "bris ceremony" without a moyl and a circumcision. It was a strenuous tug-of-war between who I was, a secular Jew steeped in advanced academic studies, and what I was, a proud Jew with a sense of responsibility to my people and to my heritage. So later that day I asked my friend, "You had the circumcision; you had the ceremony; why didnít you have a traditional bris with a mohel?" She said that she and her husband were not religious and felt awkward about inviting the mohel, an Orthodox Jew, into their home.
For a moment I was taken aback by this response. My upbringing dictated just the opposite. You live your Jewish life as you wish but lifecycles were always celebrated publically according to Hoyle; that is, according to Jewish custom. Yet being the academic I was, having that need to solve problems despite any naivetť, I quickly responded with a promise - a promise!; "I will find you an acceptable moyl should you have another boy." Well there were no more boys - but this promise set the wheels of destiny in motion.
I set out the following day to find an acceptable mohel. Was I naÔve! I called the area synagogues to find that there was only one mohel in the area - the one my friend had rejected. Not a problem - I reasoned - we could just bring in a mohel from a nearby town. So I called the different seminaries to get a list of mohelim (plural) that they have trained. The conversations with each seminary went something like this (sprinkled with polite talk of course).
Dave: Could you send me a list of the mohelim you have trained at your seminary?
Seminary: We donít have a list of mohelim because we donít train them here.
Dave: What do you mean you donít train mohelim?
Are you telling me that you donít have courses in something as central to Judaism as bris milah?
Seminary: Thatís correct. Rabbiís who want to learn bris milah must find a mentor - often in Israel or England. There are no lists of mohelim other than those kept by local synagogues.
I couldnít believe what I was hearing. We didít formally train mohelim in this country. As a graduate student, as I alluded above, this was black & white - this was wholly unacceptable. Bris milah is one of the key elements of Jewish identity - the training of mohelim should be treated with the same rigors as we train our rabbis. I was truly confused - maybe even disillusioned.
Now I was on a mission. Not only did I have to find a mohel for my friend (to keep my promise should she have another boy), I needed to find out all I could about bris milah to better understand why we didnít train mohelim in the US. So for the next year or so I spent untold hours in the library doing extracurricular research on the history and practice of bris milah. I was fascinated - I was reconnecting with over three thousand years of my heritage. Needless to say, I learned a lot and ultimately discovered just how naÔve I was.
Simply put - In the US, doctors can easily learn to circumcise because their training is done in an office or nursery without an audience (other than a nurse and possibly an attending physician to assist). They can fumble their way to a successful circumcision and in time hone their skill-set. On the other hand, what parent in their right-mind would hand their eight day old son to a mohel-in-training? For a mohel must hone his craft in front of family, friends, and community - sometimes hundreds of them at a time. I can tell you from experience that people are still commenting weeks after the occasional difficult circumcision that may take me a little longer than others. No fumbling allowed at a bris! No training mohelim in my backyard (read that synagogue). Well, at least I now understood why there were no training programs for mohelim in the US.
Even though my research on the history and practice of bris milah did not give me the quixotic answers I sought, it gave me something even more precious, a key to unlock my Jewishness. Over the next few years, while I didnít think much about bris milah, my Jewish observance strengthened, I met and married my wife, and eventually we had our first child - a boy. Time to plan the bris!
In 1987 we lived in San Francisco so we invited Chanan Feld (OBM) to be our mohel. The bris was beautiful. Afterward, Chanan and I talked for a long time. We talked about being Jewish in the 20th century, we talked about my promise to find a mohel for my friend, and we talked about my studying the history and customs of bris milah. We talked about Lech Lecha, the Torah portion that coincided with my birth where God first gives the command of circumcision. Then we stopped talking, I remember a pause, and he said, every community should have its mohel. If you like, I will teach you what I know and you can follow me around and observe what I do. But, I cannot certify you - If itís meant to be you will find someone to certify you.
Wow. My mind was now racing a million miles per hour. Become a mohel? It was a question for which I had no answer but I needed one in the next few seconds. What did this Chabad-Lubavitch mohel see in me that I didnít see in myself? Was he actually suggesting that I become a real mohel? I must have misunderstood him - I was sure of that. I chalked it up to sleep deprivation - this fatherhood stuff was fogging my thoughts. So I hedged my bet, I said something like - may I follow you for a while before I commit. Iím not sure he said yes, but I am sure he gave me one of his trademark smiles of affirmation. A trademark smile I have seen in many members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community when a Jew takes one step, no matter how modest, towards Torah observance.
So over the next year I shadowed Chanan at nearly every bris he had. We discussed the laws and customs of bris milah, I helped setup, I helped cleanup, I cleaned instruments, I did everything except the milah itself. I learned that 90% of a successful bris was being able to connect with family and community on their level. I learned about customs that Chanan followed, about customs that his mohel colleagues followed, and most importantly, I learned to be tolerant of the observances of others - to love all Jews (even Jews who served Shrimp Louis at a bris). Chanan was a mentor both directly and by his very actions.
At this same time I was a post-doctoral scholar involved in eye research at the University of California - San Francisco (UCSF). There, I was introduced to a pediatric urologist, Dr. Barry Kogen, who was happy to supplement my knowledge on circumcision. Dr. Kogen did something very unique. He spent very little time on the techniques and management of circumcision - I assume he felt my other resources would address that. What he did do is discuss with me what can go wrong with a circumcision, how to deal with it, and more importantly how to prevent it; i.e., when to postpone or delay a bris. As a learning tool, understanding failure is far more enlightening than watching someone successfully execute a procedure. I learned a lot from Dr. Kogen.
But who would certify me? Chanan always said that if it was meant to be, it would be - and so it was. About six or so months after I started learning with Chanan, a new rabbi moved into town - a rabbi who happened to also be a certified mohel, Rabbi Yitzhak Nadler (OBM)1. After I explained to Rabbi Nadler my journey to becoming a mohel, he agreed to certify me if I studied the customs and laws of bris milah with him. About six months later, Rabbi Feld said to me, you are ready. Rabbi Nadler said to me, you are ready. And, by the way I have your first bris arranged for you. Oy! I guess I was ready.
And now you know the rest of the story.
1 I could not find a picture of Rabbi Nadler.