NEW YORK (JTA) — Who knew? It turns out that mohels not only have one of the most peculiar professions in the Jewish world, but they’re funny, eccentric and self-promotional in odd ways, too.
Circumcision activists pro and con can debate the efficacy of circumcision for everything from health benefits to sexual pleasure to religious mores, but I decided to go a different route with a quest to find America’s Top Mohels.
How did I choose the eight featured here?
I did not inspect thousands of instances of their workmanship. I did not rate them according to precision, style or performance. I relied on some tips (!) from insiders, with an eye toward quantity and diversity.
The list is not meant as a definitive ranking; these simply are eight top American mohels, presented in random order.
Foreskin count: Probably close to 9,000 circumcisions. Nowadays I do more non-Jewish babies than Jews.
Market area: St. Louis and Dallas.
Trademark: License plate reads M-O-H-E-L.
First bris: I remember it like yesterday. It was in yuppie Baltimore, in 1988 or ’89. I had done each part of the bris hundreds of times, it was just putting it all together and doing it alone. I was nervous. It took about a year for this baby to walk after the bris.
Most memorable bris: I was in Dallas in 1992. I set up an adult circumcision program for the Russians. I’m in a doctor’s office, and a 28-year-old Russian immigrant who had been in America for only a week comes in. I scrub him up, give him an injection, put on the shield, ready to go. He says, in broken English, “Me do cut like Abraham.” He reaches for the knife. I say the blessing, he repeats it word for word, and he gives himself a bris. After he was done I did the stitches and went back to my car and cried. What self-sacrifice.
Most at once: I work for 150 doctors and midwives doing non-Jewish babies around the country. Those are easier because they don’t have to be on day eight. I’ll fly to Dallas and do 30 babies.
Unusual location: Once I did it in the back of an 18-wheeler cab at the Flying J truck stop in Illinois. It was for a Jewish family passing through from Iowa. It wasn’t on the eighth day, but it was a kosher bris.
Inspiration: I knew I was going to go into Jewish outreach, but I never wanted to be a pulpit rabbi. A bris is a natural entrée point into people’s lives. Once people get married and have a kid they begin to think about eternity and beyond themselves. I wanted to become a mohel to be a Jewish resource for these families. The truth is I hate crying kids, and I can’t stand the sight of blood.
Time: Less than 15 seconds.
Anesthesia: Generally no. If a family wants it, I do it. An injection hurts more than the bris. For the bris itself, the closest parallel is ripping off a Band-Aid.
Price: I don’t charge; people give an honorarium. It’s suggested. Depending on the city, it runs from $275 to $1,500-$2,000. Where I live in St. Louis it’s around $500.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: I’m always working. Aside from circumcising, I raise about $150,000 a year for the Jewish Student Union, an outreach program for unengaged and under-engaged Jewish high school students.
Foreskin count: 20,000+
Market niche: New York-New Jersey area, with a focus on high-end clients. I’ve been to Japan, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Aspen. I do everybody: religious, assimilated, interfaith families, non-Jewish circumcisions. Most of my referrals come from the medical community – their kids, their grandkids, their patients’ kids.
Trademark: I wear a bow tie, and because I’m a cantor I can sing. I don’t tell jokes. I do not hand out refrigerator magnets or business cards. I try to make each bris warm, meaningful, inclusive and spiritual.
First bris: In Brooklyn during the blizzard of February 1978. We knew it was coming, so I stayed over in Brooklyn the night before. The snowstorm brought the city to a standstill, and only about six people made it, including the parents and the baby.
Most memorable bris: My record is 11 in one day – a pair of twins and nine others. I once did a bris in Long Island where the family built a 4-foot platform across the swimming pool. One wrong turn either way and you’re in the pool.
Inspiration: My grandfather was a rabbi, a dayan (religious judge), a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a mohel – he did it all. I’m just a cantor and a mohel.
Time: 15-20 seconds, no prep.
Device of choice: A modified Mogen clamp. I altered it so it doesn’t close completely and stop the blood flow if it’s on too long – that was Rabbi Moshe Tendler’s suggestion.
Anesthesia: No. Many parents want to use products that are not approved, formulated or tested for use on infants of this age.
Entourage: I’m a solo act, but sometimes my son drives me around so I don’t have to find parking.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: I’m in the Screen Actors Guild, and I have a motorcycle. I’ve been in commercials, movies, TV. I did a film with Paul Rudd and Rashida Jones, “Our Idiot Brother.” I played a mohel, but the scene was cut. How ironic.
Foreskin count: My website says 15,000, but I’m probably pushing 20,000 by now. I still have a hard copy of everybody that I keep in a little black book.
Market area: L.A. I’ve done a lot of Hollywood stars, some Academy-Award winners. I can’t name names.
Most memorable bris: It was in L.A., and they had a big ceremony with lots of speeches and too much else going on. I guess I didn’t give them back the foreskin. Later, the mother calls me indignant, angry: “Where’s the foreskin!” I’m thinking, “What do you want to do with it already?” This lady went off. Maybe she was hormonal — I don’t know what. I thought maybe there was going to be a lawsuit. This woman was really meshuggah. You want a live baby, not the dead skin. I go home, open my bag of used instruments, and there in the envelope with the disposable instruments is the foreskin. They had so many speeches I must have just shoved it there. The father arranged to meet me. When I gave it to him, I said, “You can run a DNA test, this is it.”
Time: 20 seconds.
Claim to fame: I’ve done many, many fathers who have come back for their kids. When mothers are nervous and I’ve done their husbands, I tell them: “Well, you see everything came out OK.”
Device of choice: Mogen Shield. There’s a little bit of blood to make it kosher, but not enough to cause a problem. I don’t do metzitzah b’peh. Period. The health risks are pretty clear.
First bris: I practiced for a month at a hospital in Hartford, Conn., with a doctor who allowed me to help him. In those days you could get away with that. My first solo ceremony was at a private home in Hartford in the summer of ‘74. As we say in the business, everything came off OK. Thank God.
Anesthesia: Plain sugar water. A good dose and 99 percent of the time they sleep after the bris.
Price: Depends how far I have to travel. Anywhere from $685 to whatever.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: I don’t take vacations. Being a mohel is a big responsibility. For a lot of my clients, if I don’t do it, they may not do a kosher bris. Even when I go to Honolulu for a bris, I come right back.
Foreskin count: I’ve been working exclusively as a mohel since about 2007. I do a couple hundred per year. When I was a practicing OB-GYN and fertility doctor I did thousands in the hospital.
Trademark: I am not a cut-and-run. I’m touchy feely. I do a lot of talking to the family. I customize the service. I have a lot of alternative readings I offer that run the gamut from traditional Jewish all the way through Buddhist poems or Native American poems. I want the family to tell me what’s authentic to who they are.
Market area: NY metro.
Career Inspiration: I started doing circumcisions as a physician. During my years of residency I was doing thousands, not in a ritual sense but in a surgical sense. Nobody goes to medical school to learn how to do neonatal circumcisions, and nobody’s particularly interested in doing it. But it IS a big deal. I decided that I wanted to do circumcisions with some kind of kavanah [meaning]. Now that I’m doing this as clergy, with the sacredness of the covenant, I do a couple hundred per year. I left my clinical practice as a fertility doctor in 2000 to do research. I’ve been working exclusively as a mohel since about 2007.
Most at once: I choose not to run from one to the next. I have not done more than three in a day, because I spend a significant amount of time with the family.
On being a mohelet: There’s not only no prohibition against women doing this kind of work, but it goes back to the Book of Exodus, when Tziporah, Moses’ wife, circumcised their son. It never struck me as something different or odd or strange. I was not somebody who thought: I’m not allowed to do that because I’m a woman.
Device of choice: Gomco clamp mostly. It’s safer. When there is a complication, it only happens with the Mogen. But I feel very facile at both.
Time: The ceremony can be 20-30 minutes, but under a minute for the circumcision itself.
Anesthesia: Lidocaine numbing cream, Manischewitz and sugar.
What you do with the foreskin: I give the family three options. Either we can bury it together while I’m there, or if they have a place that has meaning – like at the grave of the grandfather for whom the baby is named — I’ll encourage them to bury it there. Or I tell them I can keep the tip.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: I’m an OB-GYN fertility doctor by training, but now I’m a full-time mohel. When I’m not doing a ceremony, I’m writing services, I’m returning phone calls. I also considered becoming a rabbi. That’s a lot of study, and it’s a year in Israel. That’s very disruptive to one’s life.
Foreskin count: About 8,000 brises in 29 years. Being a mohel is where I shine. I was trained in 1984-‘85 by Hebrew Union College. At the time I was the youngest physician-mohel and one of the first in the country. Since 1992, 90 percent of my work has been as a mohel.
Market area: LA area. I work in the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal world. Fifty percent of my families are interfaith. I work with single moms, single dads, alternative families, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, non-Jews and the rare messianic family. I get Christians who want a bris, and Jews who don’t – who just want the circumcision. If you’re Jewish, why not have a bris? Having a circumcision without a bris is like changing the oil in your car without changing the oil filter: It makes no sense.
First bris: For an Israeli in Culver City in 1985. I was absolutely terrified. By luck, the family didn’t ask if I had experience. I showed up at the ceremony, a young-looking 26-year-old. The Israelis were all outside, smoking. One guy laughed and said, “You look too young to be a mohel. Is this your first bris?” I laughed too and said, “As a matter of fact, it is.” They all thought I was joking. I was shaking when I did that circumcision.
Most memorable bris: One family insisted on doing it at night in a Moroccan restaurant. I always tell people you really need to provide good lighting, as my target’s not so big. I show up, it was like being in the tunnels of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. It was pitch black. This was insane. I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. For these circumstances, I always bring my own flashlight, a headlight, backups. I don’t trust anybody and need to be prepared for all contingencies. But this place was so dark that one of the guests had to run out to Home Depot and buy a set of industrial lights.
Claims to fame: I’ve done brises in tennis courts, hotel ballrooms, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, one-room studio apartments and Bel Air mansions. Some of my clients have been movie stars. I took care of the sons of Sharon Stone, Jason Alexander. I did a bris where Arnold Schwarzenegger was a guest. I’ve done a Jewish Hell’s Angels. I did a bris for Crypto-Jews from Mexico.
Inspiration: There’s something very powerful and fulfilling about the experience. You’re performing an operation on a baby in which the family has never met you and there’s no surgery. You walk in the door, they hand you this baby. You have to do a perfect job every time.
Time: Less than a minute.
Device of choice: I use a Mogen Clamp. I don’t do metzitzah. It’s unsafe. It should be illegal. If there’s a little blood on the gauze, it’s a kosher bris milah.
Price: Depends on the family. I don’t discuss that with the press.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: I’m a GP, so I do some consulting work, legal stuff, a little bit of Botox stuff, cosmetics.
Foreskin count: Plenty, baruch Hashem. Among the most in the world. I have been doing circumcision continuously for 44 years. Five of my sons are also mohels.
Market niche: In the mornings, I’m usually doing brises in my hometown — Lakewood, N.J. We have over 8,000 rabbinical families, and many are blessed with large families. We have 50 mohelim here, but I’m the most experienced and the busiest. I also cover the tristate area.
What you do with the foreskins: I bury them.
Specialty: Difficult cases. I do a lot of re-do’s and corrections on children that are referred to me from around the world. Most of the cases, they didn’t take enough off. Medically it’s good enough, but halachically it’s not.
Most memorable bris: A bris was supposed to be on a Tuesday in Cincinnati, but the local mohalim said, “You can’t do it yet. It’s too small. You will have to wait till it grows out.” They called in a pediatric urologist, who also agreed that they should wait. Their rabbi then said they should contact me. They emailed pictures. I don’t have Internet, so I had them sent to a friend. I spoke to the pediatric urologist and told him it looks doable. I flew out to Cincinnati on the eighth day and did the bris with the doctors observing. After I cut the foreskin, I pulled it out and stitched it up, and it stayed out. People who aren’t mohalim would find it difficult to understand what makes a certain case a hard case. I specialize in brises. I do one thing, and I do it well.
On adult brises: The adults are easier. They behave. I give a local anesthetic so that during the bris he doesn’t feel a thing.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: Bris milah keeps me busy for at least 40 hours a week. I also study Torah.
Website: I don’t have Internet, I don’t have text. If you want me, call me on my cellphone: (732) 367-3544.
First bris: I’m a fifth-generation mohel. My father passed away when he was 47, in October of ‘66. I started in June of ‘66 full time. I had to support my six younger brothers and sisters. I was 21. Now I have a son (Eliezer Krohn) and a son-in-law (Ephraim Perlstein) who are mohels.
Most Memorable Bris: I went to Bridgeport, Conn., and the parents warned me I must come on time. I came early, and I saw they had people on the roof with guns — Secret Service. It turns out Joe Lieberman, who was running for vice president at the time, was the sandek [godfather]. Afterward, someone told me, “You know, there was a gun on you the whole bris. This fellow was running for vice president and you had a knife three inches from his heart.” Since then, I’ve davened with Joe many times. I did his grandson’s bris.
On doctors: Lately, many of the Conservative and Reform rabbis are pushing doctors to perform bris milah, but a bris is not a medical procedure. It has medicinal value, but that’s not what the focus of a bris should be about. A top mohel is not only a practitioner. A mohel is somebody who performs a ceremony so that when people walk away they say: This is what Hashem meant by a bris milah.
Inspiration: Abraham – the patriarch. When I went to the Cave of the Patriarchs and davened by the grave of Avraham Avinu, there was a certain feeling that came over me. Avraham was the first kiruv outreach professional. He was the first mohel. A mohel is supposed to use the bris as an opportunity to sanctify the name of Heaven. I was so overwhelmed, I just started crying. And, of course, my father was Avraham, and he was the one who taught me bris milah.
Number of brises: The Gemara [Talmud] says a person should not count because it’s an ayin hara [evil eye]. I’ve been a mohel over 40 years. I’ve been in just about every shul in New York.
Anesthesia: When parents request it.
What you do when you’re not circumcising: I’ve written 12 books. I do a lot of public speaking.
Price: Anyplace between $500 and $800.
Foreskin count: About 10,000.
Market niche: Houston.
First bris: My wife’s cousin’s son in Beaumont, Texas. All three mohels in Houston were unavailable. As a pediatrician, I had done plenty of surgical circumcisions. If you know how to do something surgically, just changing to another instrument is not so difficult. And the ritual method is so much simpler, so it’s much less complicated. You get a much better result in a much shorter period of time.
Most memorable bris: At the Tulsa airport. I had to check my instruments as baggage, and the luggage got lost. The airline eventually found it and put it on the next flight in, but there wasn’t enough time to get to the shul and then back for me to make my flight out. So we brought food, wine and challah to the airport, and I did it in the chapel there.
Time: About a minute, plus prep.
Inspiration: It’s the perfect job. It’s always a very happy occasion. I don’t have to do funerals like a rabbi. Everyone wants to meet you, to feed you. You’re bringing another child into the covenant between God and the Jewish people – it’s very gratifying.
Retirement? I’m 73, but I’ll keep doing it till I get shaky. As long as people want me to, and as long as I’m no danger to the child.
Device of choice: Mogen clamp. Its big disadvantage is, if you’re not trained well you can cause an amputation.
Anesthesia: I do use a local anesthetic, so you don’t hear a baby screaming in pain.