Morris Sifman: The Foreskin Snipper

News  The Independent Magazine (London), Page 42. Saturday, 20 August 1994.

Christopher Middleton

Christopher Middleton talks to the ‘mohel' of Golders Green

Two or three times a week, Morris Sifman hurries out his front door, on urgent business.

Grey-haired, short, busy-footed, he carries in his hand a heavy maroon travelling case, almost half his size and weight. Inside are the tools of his calling: bandages, scissors, a selection of small silver shields, a long metal probe - and a double-bladed knife, made of Sheffield steel.

For a living, Sifman is a GP, attending to the coughs and sneezes of Golders Green. But he also has another, unpaid, altogether less well know role - as mohel, or circumciser, to north London's Jewish community.

Like as not, his destination will be a suburban home, somewhere in NW10 or 11. Here a crowd of friends and relatives will have gathered to celebrate the birth of a new baby boy, to hear him being named, and to watch him having his foreskin removed.

Even when demonstrating with just a rubber glove and his finger, Dr Sifman's explanation causes the hearer to wince. The first step involves a nicely judged amount of foreskin being fed into a little clamp-cum-shield, shaped like an old fashioned carving-knife sharpener, after which a thin membrane is pulled back with the probe to just below the rim of the penis. Then he has to stimulate the flow of blood by sucking the wound, either directly with the mouth, or indirectly via a glass tube.

Rules governing bris milah, the circumcision ceremony, are strict. The boy must be exactly eight days old; he must be carried into the room by his godparents, preferably a couple who are trying for children themselves and then handed over into the arms of the guest of honour, the sandak, who will hold him while the mohel does hiswork.

Initially, I resisted the suggestion of becoming a circumciser, Sifman recalls. It still makes me uneasy that what I do is being assessed by standards other than merely medical. Which, put bluntly, means he doesn't like guests coming up to him over the post-circumcision Twiglets and commenting on how much - or how little - noise the baby made during the operation. For whereas a dab-handed Anglican priest can christen some children without making them cry, no mohel can expect to practice his art without at least few deafening screams from the person at the sharp end.

The potentially distressing nature of the ceremony is the reason why pregnant women aren't allow to be godmothers, in case the shock makes them miscarry. During the actual cutting, women and men tend to stand in separate groups, and, as the blade does its work, the baby's are by no means the only eyes in the room that are watering.

Dr Sifman defends the lack of pain-relief on both medical and religious grounds. Although the operation undoubtly hurts, he says it presents less risk to an eight-day-old child than local or general anaesthetic. Just as valid in some his eyes, too, are the religious laws, which make no prevision for any administering of painkillers. People who say live circumcision is cruel do no, he says, appreciate the full spiritual significance of the event. For the removal of the foreskin symbolizes the removal of a barrier between man and God. This stems from the belief that Adam was born without his foreskin, which grew only after his fall fromgrace.

Circumcision is the one tradition that nearly all Jews maintain, however many others they may throw out of the window, says Dr Sifman.

Certainly, he sees his circumcising activities as a social and spiritual duty, rather than some kind of medical service (he gives any payments he receives to charity). The majority of Britain's 46 mohalim are laymen; many Orthodox Jews refuse to use a medically qualified mohel, in case people might think that their motives were anything other than purely religious.

The oldest person Dr Sifman has ever done was 72 years old; the man was a convert to Judaism, and an anaesthetic was used, as it is with everyone more than three months old. The largest number of people he circumcised in one short period of time was several hundred Russians. Now that Communism is no longer peeking into homes and trousers, the practice is in great demand.

Tradition has it that when a mohel dies, he is buried along the dried-up foreskins he has removed. Would Dr Sifman, who keeps all of his foreskins, like to go the same way? Let's just say I'm considering it, he smiles, noncommittally – but in a voice that makes you sure he'd like nothing better.

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