David Weiner had attended his share of brises before, but this one was different. In early June, Weiner, who lives in Brooklyn, logged onto Zoom and virtually attended the bris — or brit milah, a Jewish circumcision ceremony — of a close friend’s infant son in Europe, 3,600 miles away. Strangely enough, he had never before had such an intimate glimpse of the main event.
“The funny thing about the digital bris is that, despite being 10 to 10,000 miles away, you’re actually given a much, much greater view of the action,” says Weiner, who jokes that he was literally born to comment on this subject given his name. “When I’ve been to brises in the past, usually I’m in the back eating bagels and lox or something. But when it comes to a socially distant Zoom bris, the camera and the action’s all centered on the very act of the bris.”
In fact, Weiner — the co-founder of Gossamer, a cannabis media lifestyle company — and his fiancée were both invited to separate Zoom brises in the same week. “I guess bris season is the new wedding season,” he laughs.
Yet however strange circumstances have been for bris attendees, the coronavirus has ushered in a surreal new reality for mohels (Jewish ritual circumcisers), whose trainings in the practice of brit milah never prepared them for a world where a hug from a grandparent could prove deadly.
A typical bris is a joyful gathering. Customarily, it occurs on the eighth day of the baby’s life, usually at the parents’ home or a synagogue. Friends and family attend, and the mohel — who may be a rabbi or doctor — leads the ceremony with blessings and a special prayer. But such mass gatherings, like weddings and funerals, have obviously been imperiled by the coronavirus restrictions.
“From mid-March to the middle of April, there were really very few brises being done anywhere,” says Jay Motola, a New York-based urologist who is also a mohel (and, full disclosure, a family friend). “People were fearful. People were afraid. So a lot of babies were either circumcised in certain hospitals on day two — which isn’t a bris — or they went home with their foreskins and they’ll perhaps do it at a later date.”
While some Orthodox communities continued having brises, there was “a real stoppage” among Conservative and Reform Jews, Motola says. “We have a blog among the mohels,” he adds. “And there was a lot of discussion all the time: Should we do it? Should we wait? There were different schools of thought. Some people said, ‘Wait. It’s a national health emergency.’ When a baby is born unhealthy, the bris can be deferred. So if you loosely interpret this and carry it one step further, the world is unhealthy.”
‘Was That Snip What I Thought It Was?’
Since the bris economy resumed in late April, virtual brises have been the norm — meaning only immediate family (and the baby, of course) are physically present. “I would say 90 percent of [my] brises have just been the parents and grandparents,” says Cantor Mark Kushner, a full-time mohel who works in both New York and Philadelphia and calls himself a “bi-urban mohel.” “Everyone else is on Zoom.”
Like most mohels, Kushner takes added precautions. As soon as he walks in the home, he covers his shoes and immediately washes his hands. He requires everyone in the house to wear a mask. “I have a plastic barrier over my clothing,” he adds. “I Purell dozens of times.” Altogether, it takes an extra 15 minutes for him to set up.
Motola used to take public transportation to brises. Now he drives, scrupulously wiping down his car. Before the pandemic, he did brises with up to 150 people. Lately, his biggest crowd was 10. His biggest pre-bris conversation with the family now revolves around who’s coming. As he advises families, “If you don’t trust someone — if you don’t think someone’s really been social-distancing — this person shouldn’t be at a bris.”
But the biggest shift is the now-routine presence of Zoom, a surreal digital spin on a sacred Jewish ritual that dates back thousands of years. The secret, Kushner says, is to mute all participants while the bris is occurring. “If you don’t mute everybody, then all their side conversations become part of the ceremony,” Kushner says. “Because Aunt Muriel, who’s 80 years old, doesn’t understand that when she’s talking to her cat, everybody can hear it. Once you mute everyone, the energy changes.”
When Soo Youn, a freelance journalist in New York, attended her first Zoom bris recently, she noticed the mohel was a pro at knowing when to mute and unmute. “Sometimes we would say ‘Amen’ or ‘Mazel Tov.’ He’d take us off mute for that,” Youn says. But the digital silence made it much easier to hear the, uh… natural sounds of the procedure:
“The snip just seemed so loud,” Youn says. “It was like an onomatopoeia. I felt like I was reading a comic book. Literally, it sounded like SNIP! and then you heard the baby cry. I wasn’t quite sure what happened. I said to my friend, ‘Was that snip what I thought it was?’ And she was like, ‘Yes.’”
Sometimes Zoom attendees use the group chat function to banter among themselves, or to praise the mohel. When Matt Broad, a lobbyist in Sacramento, attended a longtime friend’s son’s bris over Zoom, he was impressed by how well the mohel was swaddling the baby. “He was, like, a total pro,” Broad says. “Everybody watched him and had the same reaction at once. They were literally writing, like, ‘Swaddle goals.’”
There does, though, seem to be some disagreement among mohels about how much of the actual circumcision to show onscreen. Kushner prefers to point the computer toward the parents. This way, “the family and friends in Zoomland don’t have to witness the circumcision,” he says. “Not because I think there’s something bad happening. But I don’t allow picture-taking of the child when the diaper’s off. It’s just bad taste.”
Weiner, though, did witness the procedure — up close — over Zoom. “There wasn’t, like, a zoom [in] on the penis,” he clarifies. “It was kind of more of an open tableau of what was going on.”
Shedding Light — and Foreskin — in the Darkness
Despite the complications of the digital bris, some mohels have had surprisingly moving experiences carrying on tradition amid the pandemic. Rav Hayim Leiter, a rabbi and mohel in Israel, recently performed a bris in Jerusalem, where he lives. “Normally, you could have over 300 people at an event like that,” Leiter says. “Because of coronavirus, they had only six people. I felt so bad for the family.”
As he was setting up, he was confused to hear singing from outside. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, what are the odds that there’s another simcha in the same apartment complex?’” Leiter says. “And the father turned to me and said, ‘That’s for us. Our neighbors are on their porches, singing to us. Because they’re so excited that we’re having this bris right now.’” When the naming portion of the ceremony arrived, the father ran onto the porch and yelled the baby’s name to his neighbors. “Everyone was just singing mazel tov,” Leiter says. “It was really wonderful.”
As for Kushner, he’s been practicing brit milah for over 40 years. But this challenge is new. He says he takes comfort in the Vehi Sheamda, a brief passage that appears in the Passover Haggadah. “It says that in every generation, there is a tyrant to stop the Jews from practicing their faith,” Kushner says. “This is one of the first times in history where the tyrant is invisible. But Jews have continued to keep the covenant. They’ve continued to have faith. And they’ve continued to have a bris.”
“That, for me, is inspirational,” Kushner continues. “That we’re living through such dark moments in the history of the world, yet Jews continue to shed light in the darkness. And I’m privileged to be part of it.”