A Life’s Work: A Cut Below

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Jewish law dictates that within eight days of my son’s birth, my father and I must take him to a mohel to have him circumcised in a ritual — and some say savage — ceremony biblical in origin, called a bris. With time running out, I need to begin my search for the gentlest kosher butcher I can find. When Lonnie Morris, our nurse-midwife, tells us she’s also a licensed mohelet, I can’t believe I’ve found a woman who performs the unkindest of cuts. Would a mohelet be gentler on my son than a mohel? More sympathetic? I decide to add Lonnie to my shortlist for the job. But first, she’ll have to answer some hard questions so I can see how sharp she really is.

Ross Martin

I’m just a nice Jewish boy trying to find a good mohel. Can you give me some tips?

Ha! You have to feel comfortable with the person who’s going to be operating on your child’s penis.

Are your hands steady? Do you drink a lot of caffeine?

My hands are pretty steady. You know, people think it’s this really big thing.


Not when you’re done with it!

Do you know why Jews have a lower level of alcoholism? You cut their penis, make a Kiddish, and you give the baby a drink of wine — you wouldn’t drink alcohol if the first time you ever did was after I did this to your penis.

Shouldn’t babies get to take a sip before you start cutting?

No, you make the Kiddish after the covenant.

What’s the difference between regular circumcision and a Jewish bris ceremony?

At a bris, we follow the commandments. And God said to Abraham  . . . It’s a religious act marking the child as a child of God. It’s really a celebration of life, of a gift. I like brises.

How many children have you circumcised?

Oh, God, lots! Probably a couple thousand.

Tell me exactly what you’re going to do to my son’s penis.

I’m planning to remove a small part of his foreskin so that the head of the penis is completely visible when he has an erection.

Has that procedure changed over the years?

Little old men used to come into your home and suck the blood out of the penis with their mouths. Then they started using a glass tube. They thought if they took the blood out it would bleed less and feel better. Because of AIDS, they stopped doing things like that.

How has your style changed over the years?

I used to use a “gomco,” a medical tool for circumcision. Now I use the traditional clamp used by the mohel, called a “mogen,” which is Hebrew for shield. You separate the foreskin, peel it back, put it in this guillotine and remove it.

I have to ask: ever made a mistake?

That’s a very serious thing. Actually, last week I didn’t take off enough. I looked at the father right away and said, “I have to fix this.” It was aesthetically unpleasing to me. I went ahead and took a little more skin off.

What if the baby moves?

Someone’s holding the baby.

I have to hold my own son down?

No, usually it’s your father or father-in-law.

Do you sharpen your knife before each use?

I use a disposable blade. But you want to know why for twenty-five years my husband has never fooled around on me? Because I have all these tools! He’s deathly afraid!

What do your kids think of your being a mohelet?

They just laugh at me. I told my son he had a designer circumcision.

You did the job yourself?

Yeah, and I left a little extra foreskin; I didn’t take it all off. He said he doesn’t look like the pencil dicks, but he doesn’t look like a mushroom either. As long as the head of the penis is completely visible, it’s considered circumcised. As much as I didn’t want to hurt my baby, I couldn’t bring myself not to circumcise my own child. Being a mohelet is so ingrained in my soul.

The first time you did this, you must have been terrified. What did you practice on?


Is there a special bris school?

Yes, but the teachings are only on Halacha [Jewish law], not the circumcision itself. I learned that from a doctor in midwifery school.

How long does the procedure take?

Two or three minutes. The prayers take the time.

Is there a prayer that what you’re about to do will come off without a hitch?


Where do you put the foreskin when it becomes “afterskin”?

You can bury it, dispose of it medically, do whatever you want with it.

My nightmares feature Sam the butcher from the Brady Bunch. Does every father dread this so much?

Most of them are fine. Once I had a guy have a cardiac arrest. I wound up doing CPR.

You really believe my son won’t feel a thing?

I can’t say that! How do I know? I know he won’t be harmed.

But there are reports of diminished sensation after circumcision.

I think circumcised men don’t ejaculate as quickly, because it’s not quite as sensitive. But I never heard of anybody who got an award for ejaculating quickly. A man who can slow down a little bit is not, shall we say, at a disadvantage.

My friend Mike has been urging me to leave my son’s penis alone. I think he feels he’s sticking up for the defenseless. Is Mike a bad Jew?

He’s an uninformed Jew. It says in Jewish law that a man who is uncircumcised subjects himself to early death. It’s the responsibility of the child’s father, then the Jewish community. Now we hear in Africa they’re recommending widespread circumcision to curb the spread of AIDS.

Seriously, what’s the difference between this and clitorectemies we hear about in Africa?

You’re not taking off someone’s penis so they can’t have any sensation! You’re taking off a piece of foreskin!

Do you know of any bad mohels?

Yeah, I’ve seen some bad jobs. I saw an orthodox mohel who scalloped it. It was disgusting.

Are you the only mohelet you know?

I was the third in the country to be ordained as a Reform Jewish mohelet, about five or six years ago.

You know, I tried to track down the mohel who circumcised me, but my mom said he died and took a little piece of me with him. Would you recognize your work decades later?

I’m sure not.

But you’d remember my son’s penis, right?



Ross Martin’s recent work appears in magazines such as Agni, Bomb, Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Witness and others. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, The New School University and Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. His first book, ‘The Cop Who Rides Alone,’ is published by Zoo Press (

© 2002 Ross Martin and, Inc.