Sunday, June 19, 2022

the hardest cut

Last week, a man — who some might label a local legend — passed away. As far as legends go, this man's status was pretty slim. By trade, he was a mohel, a person trained in performing circumcisions in the manner dictated by Jewish tradition,. One does not have to be a rabbi or have any sort of religious training whatsoever. All you need is to apprentice with an experienced mohel, and like any other trainee — watch and learn. This man was an eighth generation mohel, learning from his father, who learned from his father, who.... well, you get it. In the Philadelphia area, this man was the "go-to" mohel for decades. Thirty five years ago, he performed my son's circumcision. He performed countless circumcisions before that... and since. So, if you consider the top choice of mohel in a city of 206,000 Jews a legend, well I suppose he is a legend. But, you have to admit, it's pretty slim criteria. 

My son was born in August 1987. As per tradition, arrangements were made to have his brit milah eight days after his birth, where he would be welcomed in to the Covenant of yada yada yada. This man — the mohel — would be at our house bright and early to perform his little ritual before a houseful of my family and friends. Our kitchen counter was laden with bagel and cream cheese and whitefish salad and other components of a typical Jewish brunch — all lying in wait until after the ritual was over. At 9:30, a silver Jaguar pulled into our driveway behind my wife's car, A dapper-looking man with a gray goatee, dark Ray Bans and a leather jacket excised himself from the low driver's seat. He clutched a weathered leather case closed to his hip as he traversed my front porch and entered my house. He doffed his coat and stuffed his glasses in his breast pocket. He called my wife and I over to a corner of our dining room and briefly outlined the pending procedure. As he spoke, he unzipped his case and removed some fearsome-looking implements. My unsuspecting son was brought in and laid upon a thick, vinyl upholstered pad on our dining room table. (For those of you who may be wondering or have been recent dinner guests at our home, no... we no longer have that table.) My friend Scott, a recent medical school graduate and now in the throes of an internship at Temple Hospital, jockeyed for a front-and-center position. Most everyone else took a step backwards, some observing the procedure through fingers laced across their eyes. It was over before you knew it, its conclusion announced by a loud shriek from the "child of the hour." Soon, everyone was noshing and kibbitzing and schmoozing, including the mohel, who grabbed a bagel. He stuffed the circular bread into his jacket pocket and put an arm around my shoulder, whispering, "Mazel tov! That'll be $250." I wasn't sure I heard correctly. He repeated himself, just in case I didn't. Honestly, I had no idea how much this would cost. (In 1987, $250 was a lot of money! A lot! I can't imagine how much it costs today.) Bewildered, I dashed off a check and handed it over. The mohel thanked me, took a bite of bagel and told me he was off to another circumcision, the second of four that day. As he revved up his Jag, my friend Scott asked if the mohel did anything else for a living, implying that moheling was just a side hustle. I answered: "He pulled up in a Jaguar, took 250 bucks from me for twenty minutes work, got a free bagel and went off to do three more of these... and his day is over before noon. Why would he do anything else?

Years later, when my son entered high school, he became friendly with a classmate named Alex. Alex, as it turned out, was the mohel's son. Around this time, my wife's cousin gave birth to her first son. Of course, as every good Philadelphia Jew knows, the mohel had to be contacted. The morning of the bris, we gathered at my wife's cousin's house. I believe this was the first bris my son attended since his own. In came the mohel, with his Ray Bans and leather jacket, although his goatee had gotten considerably grayer. After a few preliminary words of explanation for the benefit of the uninitiated, the procedure commenced. My son watched... and winced. The next day at school, he spotted Alex and said: "You won't believe what I saw your dad do to a baby yesterday!" My son received an eyeroll as a reply.

Needless to say, the ninth generation of moheling will have to continue elsewhere. 

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