Making the cut

When Nancy Green pulls out her tools, the men sometimes will sit down and drift off to Neverland. Sometimes they’ll full-on swoon, Scarlett O’Hara-style, a swan dive into the carpet.

In any event, no buffet is safe from free-falling men.

“It is hard to watch men faint. A lot. But sometimes, they do sit down on a chair,” says Green, a Marin resident and congregant at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom.

You could say men have a gut reaction when they watch Green do her job, except “gut” is not exactly the right word, anatomically. That’s because Green is a mohel, one of several female mohels in the Bay Area and about three dozen nationwide. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed female mohel with a rollicking Georgia accent that fills in the spaces between nouns and verbs like maple syrup oozing over a stack of hotcakes.

When asked to associate an image with the word “mohel” — a Jewish circumcision specialist — most people probably envision an elderly man resembling the Lubavitcher rebbe who deftly places a wine-soaked gauze pad in the baby’s mouth, whips out a scalpel and displays a nimble touch that belies his old age.

And, make no mistake, there is no shortage of kindly old black-hatted mohels. But there also are plenty of mohels like Green, who know how hard it is for a mother to watch her baby boy being circumcised, because they’ve done it.

In fact, Jewish women have been circumcising babies since back when the Torah was a work in progress, and there is no halachic proscription against it. While it was Abraham who was directly commanded by God to circumcise himself and his sons, Moses’ wife, Zipporah, is described as performing the task — with a flint, no less — in Exodus 4:24-26.

The modern-day mohel — or, as some females in the field prefer to be called, mohelet — does not undertake the delicate task with a piece of rock (even a very sharp one). In fact, the female mohels contacted by j. for this story broke down their preferences for either the Mogen, Gomco or Plastibel clamps like old green berets debating which rifle they preferred in the jungle, the M-16 semiautomatic or the M-4 carbine.

Their clamp of choice is as varied as the reasons why they opted to get into the mohel business. But every female mohel has the same underlying, confident rationale as Ilene Gelbaum, a certified nurse midwife working in Anaheim. When asked why she decided to become a mohel, she immediately replied that it’s because she’s really good at doing circumcisions.

“It’s just something I’m very good at. As soon as I was trained to do it, I knew I really should be doing this to provide a service to my Jewish community,” says Gelbaum, who has circumcised both of her grandsons.

For a long while “I thought the only way to [become a mohel] was for an Orthodox male to apprentice in Israel.”

But 20 years ago she was perusing the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and saw a blurb that Hebrew Union College had graduated its first class of mohels and half of them were women (which shouldn’t be so surprising, as half of all liberal rabbis and cantors are now women). She was in the rabbi’s office the very next day.

Back then, Gelbaum needed to take monthly courses for more than a year to earn her certification; the course has now been saturated into an intense 35-hour process.

It was because of misconceptions like Gelbaum’s that the Reform and Conservative movement began training mohels in New York and Los Angeles about 20 years ago. The programs have since graduated about 375 trained mohels, all of whom came into the program with medical backgrounds.

A small but not insignificant percentage of the Reform and Conservative movements’ classes are always made up of women (Dr. Julie Kohl, a Los Altos ob-gyn, was one of three women in HUC’s 18-person class of 2005). The classes aren’t meant for neophytes but experienced nurses, midwives and medical doctors, who aren’t just taught how to perform the physical operation but the ritual and the meanings behind it.

Kohl, in fact, is still looking forward to performing her first bris, but told j. she had circumcised seven boys in one recent weekend alone during her day job at Kaiser Hospital in Mountain View.

But despite a certification from the Reform or Conservative movement — and, in many cases, a top-flight medical school — some people just can’t hide how shocked and, sometimes, displeased they are that the mohel is wearing a dress.

At Dr. Debra Weiss-Ishai’s second bris, the baby’s grandfather was very religious and stunned by even the notion of a female mohel. The family calmed him down some before the ceremony, but he was still visibly displeased. So Weiss-Ishai threw the old man a bone and made sure he was heavily involved in the ritual.

“I made sure he was the sandak” — the person who holds the baby during the bris, a distinctive honor — “and I gave him special prayers to do. He gave me a big handshake at the end and seemed happy,” recalled the Walnut Creek pediatrician.

On the other hand, Weiss-Ishai has gotten business specifically because she’s a woman, too. And, notes Dr. Elizabeth Lyster, an ob-gyn and mohel in Orange County, the most common facial expression among guests at a bris is “pleasant surprise.”

Observing the exploits of women ranging from Golda Meir to Sally Ride to Danica Patrick, any honest man would be forced to admit that there’s no reason a woman can’t perform equally to a man at most any profession. But in the case of a female mohel, that might be an understatement.

Yes, it is a stereotype to claim that women tend to be more kindly, empathetic and patient than men. For the sake of argument, however, let’s just assume it to be true (because it usually is).

When Kohl was taking her mohel certification course in Los Angeles, one of her fellow female attendees explained how she made certain to get to know a baby’s parents and explain the significance of every ritual and conduct the ceremony in a way with which the parents were comfortable.

The doctor sitting next to her — a male urologist — was in disbelief. Why take so much trouble for a 30-second operation? Who needs a personal touch? You go in, shake hands, snip, snip, l’chaim and you’re out in time to catch the third quarter of the Lakers game. What’s the big deal?

“I hate to be competitive, but women are generally more sensitive to the family dynamic of it. We’re a little more into the whole idea of beautifying the mitzvah,” she says.

“Women are into the little touches. One [female mohel] I know crochets a little yarmulke and gives one to each member of the family. I can’t imagine a man doing that.”

Another factor to keep in mind is that any woman certified to be a mohel by the Reform or Conservative movements will be a specialist in the field of natal and neonatal health care.

“Not to say men can’t be empathetic, but we are women and mothers and we give birth and we’re just more naturally empathetic to some degree,” says Green, a Jew-by-choice who has helped deliver 1,100 babies by her count.

Adds Gelbaum, “I’m used to handling babies all day long. Being part of such an intimate process in a woman’s life, a family’s life, this is just an extension of that. I think it’s a perfect match.”

A bris will run prospective parents anywhere from a few hundred dollars to close to $1,000 or more. The notion of price-shopping for a mohel seems somewhat ill-advised, however, and with that in mind, Lyster said she’s consciously placed her asking rate right in the middle.

“You don’t want to undercut the competition,” she says, pun almost certainly unintended.

Incidentally, unlike doctors, mohels are not regulated by the state, and anybody the parents choose to hand a cutting implement is entitled to circumcise a baby boy on his eighth day of life. While, again, there is no halachic prescription against female mohels, none exist in the Orthodox world, where the preference is that the task be undertaken by a Jewish man.

Orthodox and many Conservative mohels study at the side of an experienced mohel, often in Israel, before plying their trade in the United States. Most Conservative mohels are still unlikely to agree to circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother unless the parents intend to convert the boy.

As doctors and nurses in addition to being mohels, the women j. contacted for this story say circumcision isn’t just a requirement from God — it’s also a good idea.

Kohl’s knowledge of the health benefits of circumcision is encyclopedic, and she lists them with dizzying rapidity:

• Urinary tract infections are 10 times more common in uncircumcised babies than circumcised ones.

• Penile cancer is unheard of in circumcised men.

• Cervical cancer is two to three times more common in the partners of uncircumcised men.

• Recent studies in Africa reveal that the rate of AIDS transmission is far higher in uncircumcised men.

Other female mohels, however, downplay much of this data, stating that in a highly developed country like the United States, the health risks of forgoing circumcision are negligible.

Lyster agrees that, yes, 10 times as many uncircumcised baby boys will develop a urinary tract infection than circumcised ones. But it’s the difference between 1 percent and .1 percent — meaning that, even in the worst case, 99 percent of children will be fine.

She’s concerned more with the psychological impact of circumcision than the medical one. Especially among non-Jews, she believes a child with uncircumcised brothers and an uncut dad should not be circumcised (and she’s talked her friends out of getting one for their sons in such a situation).

One of the major concerns, believe it or not, is aesthetics. American women, especially Jewish American women, not surprisingly, think their sons look better when they’re circumcised. It is likely his future sexual partners will agree with his mother on at least that one subject.

And for anti-circumcision crusaders who claim the act curtails male sexual pleasure (which, in fact, Maimonides himself claimed), Lyster disagrees. And she ought to know.

Her husband, a Jew-by-choice, decided to undergo circumcision at age 39. And he says he’s enjoying himself more now.

That sound you just heard, incidentally, was the collective sigh of relief from Jewish men everywhere. To paraphrase Bill Murray’s line from “Caddyshack,” “So we’ve got that going for us — which is nice.”

As for the anti-circumcision activists, by the way, some of the mohels have had run-ins, hate mail and even threatening phone calls from them. But, then again, it could always be worse. Rabbi Yosef Levin, spiritual leader of Chabad of Greater South Bay, says his grandfather was ordered by the Soviet government to cease performing brises. When he refused, they executed him.

Meanwhile, in the South Bay, where it’s far less likely to be gunned down by Bolsheviks, Kohl is still hoping to perform her first bris.

At the invitation of Rabbi Ari Cartun, she recently gave an evening lecture at her synagogue, Palo Alto’s Etz Chayim, about her experiences becoming a trained mohel. It was mostly an older crowd, but, you never know — some of them may be expecting grandkids.

And there was one pregnant woman in the crowd. Was she expecting a boy or a girl?

“She didn’t call me,” says Kohl with a laugh. “So I don’t know.”

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.