The Jewish Nomad: Podcasting about the other side of getting your son circumcised

Bonjour Chai recording in Montreal with Avi Finegold and Ilana Zackon—with David Sklar in Calgary.

This week on Bonjour Chai, the current affairs podcast from The CJN—where I’m one of the three hosts—we discussed a very contentious issue: community members who decide to opt out of circumcision.

Having been brought up in a modern Orthodox household, I never once questioned that I would give my hypothetical future boy a brit milah. (Otherwise known to Ashkenazim, like myself, as a bris.)

At first, it was fascinating (and also a little frightening) to learn about the organization Bruchim, which “advocates for the open inclusion of those who feel differently about the circumcision tradition.”

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, one of the founding members of this “intactivist” group (they prefer to refer to a non-circumcised phallus as “intact”), was coming on the show to chat with me, Avi Finegold and David Sklar.

In preparation, I was rolling my eyes (to the back of my head) at the prospect of discussing the decline and fall of another of the core pillars of Jewish identity. The kind that appears to be crumbling at a steady rate due to assimilation.

There are a few baseline items that even the most secular Jews I know follow: a brit milah for boys and a baby naming for girls, bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs to one degree or another, and attending shul on High Holidays—or at least feeling like you should. 

If you’re one step up on the ladder of traditional Judaism, maybe you can throw in some level of kashrut. Like, say, a no-pork policy? Perhaps you’ll add a dash of Shabbat dinners or Friday night candle lighting into the mix.

During my 10-year existential crisis, during which time I wasn’t keeping Shabbat and had little community affiliation, keeping kosher for meat and seafood was one of the few tenets that still connected me to my Judaism. If I didn’t have that, I felt I would have nothing at all.

In my research, I discovered that in 2007, Eli (as he goes by) made a documentary film called Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision.

The title alone made me both queasy, and skeptical.

I remember being a kid and attending many a bris and closing my eyes as soon as the mohel took out his infamous scissors.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a la-di-da happy-go-lucky rite of passage. But, I do think it’s an important one which acts as a through line of connection to our ancestors.

We’ve lost so much in the Diaspora and if we continue to the point where we can’t recognize our Judaism, what are we left with?

All to say, I expected to be met with an aggressively close-minded person… and Eli was super-nice.

He comes from an Orthodox background, and was originally from Montreal. Now, he’s based in Los Angeles as a filmmaker.

I found myself not wanting to push hard and was genuinely curious to hear how one could justify overlooking this mitzvah.

Something that came to me, while we spoke, is that it really boils down to how we can make room for opposing perspectives.

If a family decides to forego circumcision, regardless of their reasoning, where does that leave them?

It also raised a larger question about how we define Jewish identity.

I really resent when I meet Jews who claim that they “aren’t that Jewish”. What does that even mean?

I firmly believe the saying, “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.”

If I define my Judaism as observing Shabbat, eating kosher meat, attending shul and taking part in community events, but someone else defines it as lighting Chanukah candles and going to McDonald’s with their family on Friday nights… we may have varying levels of religious observance, but we’re still equally Jewish at our core, in my eyes.

One can argue that based on halakhah, a Jew is one who is born to a Jewish mother. However, in Reform Judaism, patrilineal descent also applies.

Regardless of where you stand, in order to keep our Jewishness alive for future generations, I believe it requires some form of active participation–whatever that looks like to you.

We can also choose which mitzvahs become the ones we decide to focus on, explained Eli, the active intactivist. And if it isn’t circumcision, maybe Shabbat is the thing that keeps you connected.

I still plan on following through with my own plans to keep both of those mitzvahs. One I can do myself this week. The other will only come up on the eighth day of life for my son, if I have one. 

But I feel that I’ve learned an important lesson about inclusion.

Moral of this story: 

Let’s try our best to stick together as a Jewish community, regardless of where we stand on whether to cut or not to cut. 

(…Too graphic?)

The art worth watching this week

Winnipeg’s Tarbut Festival returns after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic. 

It features an eclectic array of events including film screenings, Q&As with local Jewish artists, music and theatre performances and more.

My curiosity was piqued by this description for a musical exploration, The Wandering Jew:

“Orit Shimoni takes you on a journey of song as she explores the ways her Jewish and Israeli identity have shaped her music and her experiences as an internationally wandering troubadour for the past decade.  With stories, lyrics and melodies that will make you laugh and cry, nod your head in thought and maybe even sing along, Orit’s creative reflections will engage you in the very crux of where the uniqueness of Judaism and universal Humanity meet.”

Drop me a line, Manitoba readers, if you checked it out. (Or any of the other events!)

Tarbut Festival runs until Nov. 20 and tickets can be purchased here.

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai