Battle of the Bris: A Move to Outlaw Circumcision in San Francisco

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To paraphrase Tony Bennett, I left my shmuck in San Francisco. Or, at least the tip of it.

Actually, it was taken from me in the maternity ward of the UC Teaching Hospital in 1975. My father lost the same part of his shmuck in a similar fashion in Chicago decades earlier. In 2008, my wife and I asked a doctor remove the same from my son at Roosevelt Hospital in midtown Manhattan.

Shmuck is, of course, Yiddish for penis, and I bring all this up because if a retired hotel credit manager named Lloyd Schofield and his fellow “intactivists” have their way, this long tradition in my family (and many non-Jewish families as well) will come to an end, in San Francisco at least. The petition may have little chance of succeeding, but it has kicked up plenty of controversy around the Internet, including over at DadWagon, a parenting blog that I help run, where the editors have been squabbling about just how important circumcision really is.

Given my own rather intimate relationship with “male genital mutilation” (as opponents call it) and San Francisco, I decided to call Schofield. The first thing you should know about him is that he will not talk about his own penis. It is irrelevant, he says, whether he is circumcised or not. “If I had a quarter for everybody who wants to know that, I would retire now. It seems to be on everyone’s mind,” he told me. “I’m not ashamed of my status, but I don’t even go there. It sidetracks everything.” (More on 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked))

Schofield wants to talk instead about the petition itself: he and “a lot of very eager people” are going to look for the nearly 7,200 signatures required by next April, which would qualify his bill for the November 2011 ballot. If passed, the bill would make it “unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis.”

Importantly, there are no religious exemptions. Hospital circumcisions like the ones my family had and religious bris milah ceremonies alike would be outlawed for everyone (Muslim circumcision would also be banned). The only exemptions would be for medical emergencies.

This lack of exemption has created controversy even among the intactivists. Tina Kimmel, a retired epidemiologist for the State of California and a self-described former hippie (“I mean, I was the cook at Woodstock”), Kimmel helped start the main anti-circumcision group in the Bay Area almost 20 years ago. She is also Jewish (from a secular family). “I was originally in favor of an exemption,” she says, “as were a lot of us. But eventually I began to think, why shouldn’t Jewish boys and Muslim boys be protected?” (More on Has a U.S. Pediatrics Group Condoned Genital Cutting?)

For Kimmel, this law would be no different than any other child-welfare law. “We protect children from their parents all the time, in the case of child abuse, kidnapping and torture,” she says. “A lot of that applies when you’re talking about holding a boy down, cutting off the most sensitive part of his body, and throwing it away.”

These analogies do not impress the rabbinical community of San Francisco. Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of the modern Orthodox shul Adath Israel says that this is just one of many efforts throughout history — as recently as Soviet times — to prevent Jews from practicing brit milah, or the covenant of the foreskin. As for the ‘intact’ argument, he points to the Talmud, which says that, just as God made wheat so that humans could perfect it into bread, circumcision is a way of completing God’s work. “We are partners with God in creation,” he says.

Rabbi Micah Hyman of Beth Sholom, the city’s largest conservative congregation, says that he doesn’t even wade into the medical arguments in favor of circumcision (supporters claim improved hygiene and decreased transmission of STDs; opponents cite surgical risks of the procedure itself). He doesn’t want to convince non-Jews to get circumcised, he just wants to practice his religion. “Don’t tread on me,” he says.

Both men put some blame on the political environment of San Francisco. “When you live out here,” says Strulowitz, who grew up in Miami, “you get used to people with agendas. I like the passion, but everything is ‘the worst thing in human history.’” Hyman says it’s just another example of “the use of San Francisco politics to legislate morality” (San Francisco did, after all, ban Happy Meals earlier this month). (More on Joel Stein Contemplates Circumcision (For His Son))

Although Massachusetts saw a similar attempt at a ban earlier this year (it failed), San Francisco has historically been a center for anti-circumcision movement. The National Organization for Restoring Men (which used to have the blunter name RECAP, an acronym for Recover A Penis) started in San Francisco over 20 years ago, primarily supported by the gay community. According to their website, the founders “felt that gay men, in general, tended to be more open than their heterosexual counterparts about matters concerning sexuality in general and their genitals in particular… the response was overwhelming.”

Foreskin “restoration” is not a casual undertaking. A common method involves hanging weights from the existing skin for up to four hours a day. This seems a desperate remedy until you read Schofield’s contention, in papers filed with the petition, that circumcision leads to “sexual dysfunction, decreased sexual sensitivity, increased friction and pain during sexual intercourse, and lifelong psychological trauma.”

They are obviously sincere in their beliefs. And I would hope the CDC does a more definitive job in tracking just how medically risky the procedure is. But how can the activists regret the loss of something they can’t remember having? How can they say sex is less enjoyable? As a father, I chose to have my son circumcised because I never once felt any loss or trauma. When my wife and I were making the decision, she reminded me that she she had worked on maternity wards and had seen babies sleep through the procedure. As Rabbi Hyman points out, even if babies do feel pain or cry, they are in an inchoate beginning life that included being expelled from the womb. Circumcision may not even be the worst thing that happened to them that week.

I am only half-Jewish; my son’s background is equal parts Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Buddhist. For me, circumcision is a marker of my family’s increasingly tenuous grip on Jewish identity, a marker that is infinitely more convenient than keeping kosher or hiring someone to turn on the lights on for us each Sabbath. And yet, like most things involving tradition, my main reaction is: meh. I could have decided either way for my son.

That’s why I’m attracted to the philosophy of a rabbi who is a sort of an anti-mohel in the Bay Area. The former director of Stanford University’s Hillel Foundation, Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant performs a Jewish naming ceremony for newborns without the circumcision. He calls it brit hayim, the covenant of life, and he has a distinctly non-judgment take on the whole controversy. “I think it’s a choice that parents should be able to make,” he told me. He’s “absolutely” against banning circumcisions, but he respects the beliefs of what he calls a “growing minority” of Jews and interfaith couples who decide they don’t want to circumcise their sons.

Ironically, a blanket ban like the one Schofield is proposing could have the effect of boosting circumcision rates. As the New York Times reported in August, circumcision rates appeared to be plummeting in the U.S., from 65% in 2006 to 32.5% in 2009, according to one study at least. That may well be healthy. Let people make their own decisions. But especially for Jews, circumcision has been, as Rabbi Familant put it, “an act of defiance” at many moments throughout history. Trying to tell them they can’t do it will only make them, and me, a little more defiant about it in the future. —By Nathan Thornburgh

A previous version of this post said that shmuck is Yiddish for foreskin, but as a few helpful tipsters (pun intended) have pointed out to me, shmuck actually refers the entire penis. I regret the error, though it does sort of reinforce my point that I have a very tenuous connection to my Jewish culture.

Nathan Thornburgh is a contributing writer at TIME. He co-founded the parenting blog in 2009 to help explore the many ways he may be damaging his kids — Dalia, 4, and Nico, 2.

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