Sisterhood Blog

Finding Meaning in Declining Circumcision Rates

By Deborah Kolben

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I was living in Berlin when I found out that I was pregnant. My doctor there, a very exuberant Chilean woman, was doing an ultrasound around 14-weeks when she suddenly paused near the baby’s abdomen. “Oh! I see a tiny, tiny, oh so small little penis!” she exclaimed. This, of course, did not thrill my husband. About six weeks later when we were back in the office, the penis had disappeared and it was announced that we were having a girl.

But those few weeks were enough time to get us thinking about (un)pleasantries like circumcision. We had several discussions with friends and my husband’s cousin who had decided not to circumcise his two sons. He said he felt that Jewish tradition had lost its meaning with so many other people circumcising their children.

After deciding to have the baby back in New York, we recently moved back from Berlin. Last week, I attended an informational session at a hip pediatrician’s office in Tribeca. The assembled crowd consisted mainly of very pregnant trendy women and their very anxious partners. After a litany of predictable questions (What’s your policy on vaccinations? Your view on breastfeeding? How late can I call?), one dad wanted to know the practice’s philosophy on circumcision.

“It’s a very personal decision,” the perky nurse practitioner explained. “But only 10% of our patients are circumcised.”

Ten percent!?

My husband and I were shocked. I had imagined that figure would be closer to about 75%, especially given New York’s large Jewish population.

Suddenly, I realized there was a strange feeling welling up inside of me. It was something like pride. If I was ever on the fence about whether to circumcise my son (should I one day have one), this pushed me over the edge. The practice might be somewhat barbaric, but it’s our barbaric practice. It marks our men as a member of a tribe, and I like the idea that it could once again mean something.

While I was busy filling with Jewish pride, I did some research and realized that — sigh — the high-number of foreskins at this particular practice might just be a fluke or represent a trend among a certain subset of New Yorkers. The national circumcision rate is in fact dropping, due in part to changes in insurance policies, a rising number of Hispanics, who are less likely to circumcise, and a general shift in attitude — but more than half of boys born in the United States are still being circumcised.

For now, though, I’m mostly happy that I’m having a girl and don’t have to think about foreskins at all. A baby-naming ceremony washed down with some bagels and lox is a lot easier to handle.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Pregnancy, Circumcision, Birth

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Ira Treuhaft Wed. Aug 19, 2009

I don't understand why you would think 75% of baby boys would be circumcised in New York. Even if you assume there are 2 million Jews in the New York Area out of 20 million people, thats still a tiny 10%!, exactly the amount that your doctor said were circumcised.

In the The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2002 Highlights surveyed in 2002, it is estimated that there are 155,000 households in Manhattan. This is far less than the 75% of the population!! In fact in New York City alone, the survey estimated there were a little more than 970,000, out of more than 8 million residents of New York City.

Andy Wed. Aug 19, 2009

"a hip pediatrician’s office in Tribeca"? Can someone please explain the difference, if any, between a "hip" pediatrician and any other pediatrician? And good luck and good health to Ms. Kolben's children.

David Thu. Aug 20, 2009

Just because non-Jews adopted our practice does not mean that circumcision has lost its meaning as a Jewish tradition. Non-Jews eat lox and bagels but would your friends stop eating them because it has lost its Jewish connotation? The entire ceremony is a reminder of who and what we are as a people, and for the more religious of us, an affirmation of faith and a connection to our ancestors. Also your use of the word "barbaric" overstates the case. Are doctors who perform circumcisions on non-Jewish infants "barbarians"? By your definition they are. This is a minor procedure that has never seriously impacted our people's ability to procreate or function, and it is far less of an infliction than the self mutilations through piercings or extensive tattooing that many of the "hip" in Tribeca tolerate daily without negative comment

Dan Thu. Aug 20, 2009

When our oldest son was born in the mid 80s, we were a little nervous when he had his brit milah. The mohel was excellent, and he put us at ease. Our son was a little uncomfortable for several hours, but he recovered very quickly.

In contrast, I'll never forget when he got his first set of shots (it's been so long since we've had babies in the house that I don't remember what they were). He was really miserable for at least 24 hours. It wasn't even a contest--the shots were much worse for him than his brit milah.

DK Fri. Aug 21, 2009

Dan, actually, there appears to be a connection to circumcised boys and a more intense adverse reaction to shots.

Imad Fri. Aug 21, 2009

DOnt circumcize your kids now. When we convert you to Islam you will circumcize your kids whatever their ages are (and we dont discriminate against girls). Go ahead, enjoy hipness for a little while longer

Ann Sun. Aug 23, 2009

What a silly and vapid article. Is it possible for Ms. Kolben to discover anything of less importance to push her "over the edge"? My husband and our two sons were all circumcised, as well as our two male grandchildren. As non Jews, religion was not an issue. These minor surgeries are performed on male infants for simple sanitary reasons and in line with modern medical practice.

Joel L. Friedlander Sun. Aug 23, 2009

Circumcision is the primary ritual that makes a newly born male a Jew. It is the major requirement of the Covenant with G-d. The fact that you have even considered whether or not to circumcise your children indicates that you are not really Jewish at all. Why are you writing in this publication? If a male born to a Jewish Mother is not circumcised he is not Jewish! There are no ifs ands or buts. This is not an issue for discussion among Jews, only among non Jews. Why don't you just find some other nice religion and join it. As it is you're certainly not a member of the tribe of Abraham.

Richard Kefalos Sun. Aug 23, 2009

"The practice might be somewhat barbaric, but it’s our barbaric practice." Nice sentiment, that. I suppose the Christians should be thankful their popes and sages didn't insist that all newborn boys should get a little silver nail driven through one of their palms in order to, ahem, nail down their connection to Jesus.

Religions demand bizarre things from their adherents. In Asia, the fanatics thrust spikes through their bodies and beat themselves bloody for religious reasons, but we Jews are far more civilized and efficient than that. Instead of the annual atavistic bloodletting in the name of "g-d," we have stylized the whole thing by mutilating only one body part, only once in life, and to someone whose complaints can be ignored. (After all, what eight-day old boy knows what he's talking about?) And this guarantees membership in the Tribe. Civilized, no? Like a fresh breath straight from the Middle East desert ...

Flores Mon. Aug 24, 2009

It seems morally wrong to me to perform a surgical procedure on the genitals of a person without that person's consent. There are many different traditions of circumcision in many different cultures, but there really is no medical, sanitary or sexual, benefit to be gained from cutting off a natural part of the penis. On the contrary, there are risks involved. It all boils down to superstition and tradition, and every new generation is involved in perpetuating the myths and failing to put an end to the nonsense. Men want their sons to look like them, and no one wishes to cast blame on the previous generation. As a result, parents continue to inflict unnecessary pain on their infants.

DK Wed. Aug 26, 2009

Joel L. Friedlander wrote,

"It is the major requirement of the Covenant with G-d. The fact that you have even considered whether or not to circumcise your children indicates that you are not really Jewish at all. Why are you writing in this publication?...As it is you're certainly not a member of the tribe of Abraham."

Hey Friedlander, the fact that you wrote the English name of God with a hyphen, which is not even halacha, suggests you are a fundamentalist. Why are you writing in this normative Jewish publication? As it is, you're certainly not supposed to be on the internet.

RD Sun. Nov 29, 2009

The notion that a Jewish male absolutely must be circumcised is peculiar to the English speaking countries. Quite a few secular European Jews no longer circumcise. Even Israeli kindy teachers report seeing some intact boys in recent years.

Keep in mind that the "perky nurse practitioner" was only counting only circumcisions performed by a doctor, not brises done by a mohel. I can believe that there are chic and trendy neighborhoods in Manhattan where only 10% of baby boys are snipped by a doc. Circumcision is not the in thing any more among intellectuals and creative types, in part because many gay love foreskin. If you don't believe me, browse the gay personal in Craigslist.

But a comfortable majority of white middle class goy baby boys born east of the Rockies are still getting snipped before leaving the maternity ward. Hospitals no longer do it without asking; doctors snip only because Mom has ticked a box on her maternity paperwork. I submit that the gentiles do this out of bourgeois conformity. The Anteater is an Alien.

I would feel a lot more comfortable with bris if it were done after the 21st birthday, at the behest of the owner of the foreskin. That would carry a great deal of religious meaning, and of loyalty to Jewish heritage and tradition. Something done to an uncomprehending 8 day old simply cannot convey this.

"These minor surgeries are performed on male infants for simple sanitary reasons and in line with modern medical practice." This is doubly mistaken. In a world where everyone takes a daily shower, these alleged sanitary reasons are nonsense. The only country where large numbers of baby boys are routinely circumcised is the USA.

"Are doctors who perform circumcisions on non-Jewish infants 'barbarians'?" Most infant circumcisions in the USA are still performed without a prior injection of lidocaine. This is baldly barbaric.

"This is a minor procedure that has never seriously impacted our people's ability to procreate or function..." On occasion, something goes wrong with bris or medical circ. In the USA, about 1-2 babies die each year. There are circumcised men whose ability to enjoy sex is impaired.

"...less of an infliction than the self mutilations through piercings or extensive tattooing that many of the "hip" in Tribeca tolerate daily without negative comment" I agree that these are weird mutilations. But if they take place after the 118th birthday, with the full consent of the mind inside the body, no ethical issues are raised. To permanently alter an infant's body has to meet a much higher standard.

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