Is circumcision a requirement for conversion?

I called Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn at his home in Kansas City, Kan., where he’s rabbi at that city’s New Reform Temple. Was it true that he had told the group in Mexicali that it wasn’t necessary for adult converts to Judaism to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision)?

“That is correct,” Cukierkorn said. “I did tell them that. Brit milah is appropriate for babies, but not for adult men, for whom it’s a gruesome and painful ritual. If an adult doesn’t want to undergo it, he should not be required to do so.”

“I get criticized for my attitude,” said Cukierkorn, who’s originally from South America. “I’ve had arguments with my own colleagues over this. I say that if we Reform rabbis emphasize ritual too much, we take the focus away from our main mandate, which is to make the world a better place in which we all behave in a more ethical manner.”

On the contrary, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who heads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism and has sponsored many conversions, the brit milah is a fundamental ritual, and adult men are required to undergo it in order to convert.

“In the past, there have been varying standards,” Weinberg said. “Some rabbis said one thing; some said another. But now, accepted standards for conversion have been established through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, to which many non-Orthodox rabbis of Southern California are signatories. According to the Caplan Bet Din, brit milah is a requirement for men who were never circumcised as babies.”

Weinberg said that if a non-Jewish male had been circumcised at birth, conversion requires a symbolic ritual, according to Jewish law: hatafat dam brit.

Weinberg smiled mischievously. “Just a small prick,” he said, “enough to draw a single drop of blood.”

Rabbi Suzanne Singer, director of the Union of Reform Judaism’s regional Introduction to Judaism Program, said that a sponsoring Reform rabbi has flexibility when it comes to this issue, depending on what the convert wants to do. She pointed out that whether or not there is a brit milah, there’s always a ceremony in which the convert is conferred a Hebrew name, which — when there is no brit milah — becomes the method by which he’s welcomed to the covenant.

Marlon Franklin, 37, recently underwent a brit milah. Born into a Catholic family in Venezuela, he directs commercials and promotions for Spanish-language television. This past year, he converted after participating in the University of Judaism’s introductory course given by Weinberg.

“The [brit milah] wasn’t bad at all,” Franklin said. “Dr. Sam Kunin explained everything, both before and during the procedure. I had local anesthesia, so I could see what was going on. It was excellent, no complications, no problems.”

Franklin said he was very conscious of the ancient, spiritual nature of the ritual, which made it “an awesome experience.”

Kunin is a “retired urologist and full-time mohel” who said he has performed more than 10,000 circumcisions in his life — about 1,000 on adult men. What did Kunin think about Cukierkorn’s comment that it’s a “gruesome and painful experience”?

“Doing a brit milah on an adult has gotten a bum rap,” Kunin said.

“I’ve had men drive home afterward. In most cases, a day or two later they’re back at work. If you do it right, there should be no problem.”

“I don’t understand the fuss people make,” he said. “In Africa now they’re circumcising thousands of adult men for AIDS prevention. If it were such a big deal, don’t you think word would get around and the men would stop doing it?”

Discovering Keys to Lasting Matrimony

“Everlasting Matrimony: Pearls of Wisdom From Couples Married 50 Years or More,” by Sheryl P. Kurland (American Literary Press, $39.95).

In the late 1940s, Ron Farrar’s and Joan Pachtman’s passion to help those in need charted the course for personal passion and lifelong matrimony. The West Hills residents met in college, when Ron was a member of a veteran’s organization and Joan belonged to a service club.

The two groups shared office space, and their frequent sittings led to another common interest — each other. Today, 53 wedding anniversaries later, their love is deeper and richer than ever before.

In the United States, according to the National Marriage Project, the odds of a marriage lasting, much less lasting over 50 years, are dim. Statistics released by the organization show:

• The U.S. divorce rate is close to 50 percent;

• Today’s divorce rate is more than double that of 1960;

• The number of people getting married has declined 40 percent from 1970 to 2002;

• The more partners people live with, and the longer the time they live together, the more likely they will eventually divorce.

Even with shelves full of self-help marriage books available today, the statistics aren’t improving. Celebrity divorces are splashed across news headlines: Celebrities terminate marriages as if they’re spilling out a bad cup of coffee.

We rarely hear of success stories of real marriage experts, like that of the Farrars.

The Farrars are one of 75 couples I interviewed — husbands and wives separately — across the United States and Canada who’ve celebrated no less than their golden anniversaries. Two other couples from the Los Angeles area are also featured in my book, “Everlasting Matrimony”: Russell and Ruth Blinick of Chatsworth, married 52 years, and Arthur and Anna Cohen of West Hills, married 54 years.

What makes a marriage loving and lasting until death do us part? The lessons in “Everlasting Matrimony” are innumerable. The Farrars, Blinicks and Cohens share theirs:

Accept nothing less than permanence.

“There are many wonderful ups and difficult downs in the course of a long marriage and certainly moments of wanting to flee,” Russell Blinick said. “There slowly evolves, however, a realization that something strong and reassuring is being established.”

Blinick echoed a stalwart philosophy expressed by others in the book that divorce was never an option.

Today’s naysayers challenging this core commitment believe that this generation of couples stayed married, no matter how miserable the relationship became. On the contrary, no matter how difficult the circumstances, their attitude and determination to keep the marriage afloat never wavered.

Through compromise and communication, and patience and understanding, harmony eventually was restored. Ultimately, the marital bond became more meaningful, sacred and rewarding.

Sprinkle anger with humor.

“It took us many years to learn how to ‘fight,’ but now we are aware that we have periods of stress, can argue, get it out on the table and negotiate it, and then let go of it,” Ruth Blinick said. “A sense of humor is always important.”

Disagreements can only be solved with each spouse giving a little here and there, with one person sometimes abdicating more than the other. Laughter is often the best anecdote for problems.

So what if she mistakenly threw out the green bean casserole that he was going to eat for lunch? Is it a major offense that he erroneously read the friend’s party invitation, and they showed up on the wrong date? Chastise or chuckle? The choice is yours.

Be willing to make changes. Children, money, health — different factors, planned and unplanned, impact a marriage over the years.

“Ideally, both [partners] should be able to change; to initiate change and anticipate change, and sometimes switch roles,” Anna Cohen said.

There’s no pat formula for a solid, loving marriage. Additionally, the formula that works today will require alterations over and over and over again throughout the years.

Capitalize on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Pooling talents, skills, likes and dislikes creates a dynamic duo.

“We found that we worked very well together as a team,” Joan Farrar said. “When we teamed up, we found that we could do anything together.”

Feeling good about the relationship requires first feeling good about yourself.

“A long-lasting marriage demands loving, liking and respecting. If I love, like and respect me healthily, I will love, like and respect thee healthily,” Arthur Cohen said.

Being self-content as an individual is essential to the health of couplehood. Complacency of either partner produces stress and anxiety in the relationship.

When talking with each couple, it was easily evident that their hearts still go pitter-patter. Each spouse was quick to praise the other for the success of the marriage.

Ron Farrar’s closing words well represented the depth of their love: “I love her [my wife] dearly — far more than at the beginning of our marriage…. I find myself grateful to the point of tears that I ended up with the girl I did.”

Sheryl P. Kurland resides in Longwood, Fla. For more information, visit

U.S. at Center Stage in Syria Talks

They were called “Syrian-Israeli” talks, but this week’s second round of negotiations between the two countries was very much an American affair — in a storybook small town chosen by the White House, with President Clinton playing host and mediator.

So it was no surprise that when the talks were snagged over a disagreements over what to talk about, it was Clinton who held the negotiators’ hands, cajoled, nudged and pleaded.

Administration officials have concluded that only an unusually active American role can achieve closure in talks in which the two sides are close on the details of an agreement — but psychologically far apart.

That’s in keeping with the views of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who headed the big Israeli delegation that arrived at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in bucolic Shepherdstown, W.Va. on Sunday for talks held under an unusual shroud of secrecy.

The expanded U.S. role has risks, many observers say, especially because it could lead to expectations that Washington can’t back up with action.

And to critics, it merely reflects a peace process in which the Syrians have little interest in making peace with Israel, and all the interest in the world in cultivating ties with Washington.

“It suggests that even if an agreement is reached, it would be grudging,” said Daniel Pipes, a Mideast analyst who has criticized the current peace process. “The administration is giving Barak what he wants. And Barak is reflecting the Israeli body politic, which simply wants out, and is willing to give the Syrians anything they want.”

The setting for this week’s talks — a sequestered conference center ten miles from the nearest Interstate highway — was meant to force Israeli and Syrian negotiators into closer contact.

But the remote setting did not obviate the need for an overarching U.S. presence. That role quickly boiled to the surface on Tuesday, when the Syrians wanted to start with the question of borders — and the Israelis insisted on beginning with security.

That forced Clinton and his team of negotiators to center stage. After another round of presidential intervention, the “procedural hurdle” was overcome, according to a State Department spokesman.

But nobody expected that would be the last 911 call to the White House.

“We are still at least a dozen crises away from an agreement,” said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace process group. “One of America’s jobs is to strike a difficult balance between stepping aside when things are going well — and stepping in when there are logjams.”

Also, he said, Assad’s driving desire to improve relations with Washington requires a more active U.S. role.

“Assad won’t even let his negotiators into the room with the Israelis without the Americans present at every step,” he said.

Israeli officials concede that the reclusive Syrian president has his sights set on Washington, not Jerusalem, but say it doesn’t make any difference as long as he is willing to sign a detailed agreement that includes what Barak deems sufficient security guarantees.

Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer working in Washington and a veteran of earlier Israeli-Syrian negotiations, said President Bill Clinton’s heavy investment in this week’s talks — and Barak’s willingness to come back for Round Two, despite the fact that he was negotiating with Syria’s foreign minister, not President Assad — shows how close the two parties are to an agreement.

Both sides want close U.S. involvement, he said, because “at the end of the day, the two parties will also turn their faces and maybe their hands to the United States to contribute its own share to the success of the negotiations — beyond their good advice.”

Administration officials deny they have made any specific commitments, but most observers agree that at least the implication that U.S. money, equipment and possibly peace monitoring forces will follow an agreement could be critical in getting the two sides over the last few hurdles.