Opinion: The realities of the circumcision debate

There is nothing esthetically appealing about a Brit Milah, the circumcision procedure performed on an 8 day old Jewish baby boy.  To witness a barely one week old child strapped down with Velcro to a “Circ Board” in sight of everyone gathered is visually unappealing, if not spiritually uninspiring.  If that were not enough, some officiants still engage in Metzitzah—the oral suction of blood from the circumcision. If not done by mouth directly, a pipette is used.

To make matters worse, some ceremonies are complete with crude, unholy behavior and locker room jokes. I can’t repeat what one officiant said as he un-swaddled his grandson in preparation of the baby’s Brit Milah.

Is there any wonder why Jewish parents are slowly opting out of the ancient ritual of circumcision performed on their newborn sons independent of the ongoing medical debate as to whether or not the procedure’s even warranted?  Is there any wonder why circumcision is currently under attack with the possibility of it being outlawed in the destination city of Santa Monica, should it be put to a vote this September?

But leaving aside all the issues that may or may not compel one to circumcise their son, the decision is for the family to ultimately decide, not the government—or even one’s religion for that matter.

As a congregational rabbi, I can only make the case to my congregants for having their son’s circumcised in accordance with Jewish law and tradition.  I can actively recommend to them officiants who conduct ceremonies with the utmost professionalism, skill and compassion.

I can tell them the ceremonies to which these hand-selected officiants preside are warm, offering meaningful words and explanations.  They welcome the child into the covenant of God and the Jewish people making clear that our hopes for this young life—once grown—consist of “Torah, marriage and acts of goodness.”

I can teach them the overarching purpose of a Brit Milah is not biological, but rather theological. It is a physical reminder intentionally made on the male organ of progeny.  It states before God and community the male drive, be it sexual or otherwise, is a good and healthy force. But left unchecked and without limits can become destructive and all consuming.

I can inform them that the current debate among doctors and researchers regarding circumcision is mixed.  I can tell them that while science is an indispensable discipline to the enrichment of life—it is far from exact and constantly changing.

It seems that over a 7 to 10 year period, conventional “state-of-the-art” medical wisdom is turned on its head and re-evaluated.  I recently took a CPR course that contradicted and rewrote what was taught to me just 4 years earlier.  Today circumcision is under scrutiny.  Even though all over Africa where AIDS kills scores of people, billboards exhort men to get circumcised, since circumcision prevents AIDS in many cases. Years ago it was recommended without hesitation. I suspect 7 to 10 years hence doctors and researchers will again offer a different and new perspective on the subject.

In the meantime the wisdom of a 3,500-year-old Jewish tradition continues to advocate circumcision on religious grounds.  Parents who choose to have their 8-day-old son circumcised are not mutilating his genitalia, anymore than piercing a little girl’s ears is mutilation.  Furthermore, it is un-provable that a child who is circumcised, as a baby will grow up having less sexual satisfaction as an adult.

True, no religion is above the law. No one who is found guilty of a legal or moral trespass should be able to hide under the protection of his or her faith.  The Biblical days when someone guilty of a crime could find safe haven within the confines—“the horns”—of the priestly altar are thankfully long past.  According to age-old rabbinic law, the law of the land is the law.

But those who advocate outlawing circumcision to anyone 18 years or younger equating it with a clitoridectomy are deeply misguided.  One is genital mutilation, denying a woman sexual pleasure, the other—male circumcision—is not.  I can’t help but think underlying the anti-circumcision movement is a disdain for religious expression cloaked in a concern for a child’s well being.

The American Jewish Committee calls the movement to prohibit circumcision as “making a direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the U.S.”  That may be true.  What is truer still, we have far more substantive issues to fill our ballots with come this September and November, banning circumcision performed on children at the request of their parents and caretakers is not one of them.

Ex-Movie Exec Isn’t Silent About Films

Roger Mayer lounges in the living room of his house on Benedict Canyon Road, a comfortable two-story clapboard structure in Beverly Hills. His dress is conservative, yet casual — dark pants, dark shoes, light-gray shirt and what appear to be horn-rimmed glasses — but he sports no tie, as per industry custom. He relaxes with his arms behind his neck, occasionally pressing his foot against the coffee table.

The newly minted octogenarian, who looks at least 10 years younger, effortlessly recalls dates, numbers and deals from decades ago. For instance, when it is suggested that Turner acquired the MGM library and pre-1950 Warner Bros. library in 1986, he points out that the deal also included the entire RKO library.

In 2005, Mayer won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar, which honored his years of public service, particularly in the realm of film preservation. After a distinguished 53-year career in the film business, Mayer has reason to rest easily.

Even though he retired last year after 19 years as president of Turner Entertainment, Mayer remains active, heading the National Film Preservation Foundation and co-chairing the 17th annual Silent Film Gala to be held June 3 at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will perform accompaniment to two classic Harold Lloyd films from the silent era, “Ask Father,” a one-reel comedy, and “Safety Last,” a film known to cinephiles for the famous image of Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock on a building.

Mayer, whose New York accent comes through primarily when pronouncing his native town, “New Yawk,” was born in the Big Apple in 1926, the year before the first talkie. He does not remember going to see silent pictures in his childhood.

What he did see were Broadway musicals. He had a “maiden” aunt who sought his company for such outings. He loved the Broadway shows so much that he considered working in legitimate theater after he graduated from Yale in 1948. He spent that summer in Abington, Va., at the Barter Theater, so named because of its origin during the Depression, when theatergoers would exchange things “like a ham,” he said, for a ticket. He was not an actor but rather an assistant stage manager, “painting scenes, handing animals to the actors through the holes in the scenery,” he said.

After the summer, he decided to become a lawyer. Although there was a Jewish quota at Yale, he did not experience any real prejudice there; in fact, Yale’s provost gave him a scholarship for 50 percent of his tuition, after his father died in his freshman year.

After graduating from law school in 1951, Mayer moved to Los Angeles. The only real prejudice he encountered was when he tried to get a job at an L.A. law firm. All of the downtown firms turned him down; a partner at one actually said to him, “We’d love to hire you, but we just don’t hire Jews.”

Mayer sold pajamas at the May Co. and studied for the bar. Then, a lawyer at one firm suggested that he try getting a job at Columbia Pictures, a client. He worked there for nine years, primarily doing contract and copyright law before joining MGM.

Despite the seeming pedigree of his name, Mayer is not related to Louis B. Mayer, who had headed MGM. At the time Roger Mayer became assistant general manager of MGM in 1961, Louis B. Mayer, who had been fired a few years earlier, was engaged in a proxy fight against the company.

“I had to convince people I wasn’t related to him,” said Mayer, who has a modesty about him, despite his recent Oscar. He also has an Emmy as executive producer of “Judy Garland: By Myself.” Both awards rest discreetly out of sight on the mantel in the den.

Mayer has no entourage, no servants in his home. He doesn’t put on airs.

He doesn’t even particularly want to talk about himself as much as he wants to promote the Silent Film Gala and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which he called, “one of the cultural icons of Los Angeles that kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”

Maybe, Mayer is a little like the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, an underrated talent, overshadowed by more glamorous types. He has always felt more comfortable around the set designers, musicians and composers than the actors, many of whom he calls “self-absorbed.” Perhaps, this down-to-earth quality is a function of his many years as a behind-the-scenes executive, whose bailiwick was not creative matters but rather physical production at MGM and Turner Entertainment.

Describing a typical workday, Mayer said, “On an average day at MGM, there would be 4,000 people on the lot, and all of them would report to me, except the actors, the directors, the producers and the writers. But that’s 3,500 people.”

At MGM, Mayer met Ray Klune, a legendary executive who had been the production manager on “Gone With the Wind” and headed up physical production for David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer and Howard Hughes. Klune showed him the concrete vaults that contained the film negatives on MGM’s 200 acre-lot, then based in Culver City; he said to the young executive, “One of your jobs is to make sure we have proper security for the vaults and that these things aren’t deteriorating.”

“I found out that the security was great, but that in the summer, in the 100-degree heat, the film was deteriorating,” said Mayer, who then instituted a film preservation program at MGM that included the first air-conditioned, refrigerated vaults.

He found his calling and, after more than 40 years of leading efforts to restore film, Mayer received his Oscar, following an introduction from director Martin Scorsese, well-known for his own dedication to film preservation.

“I was never out of work in 53 years in the motion picture industry. Either they didn’t know what I was doing, or I was doing something right,” Mayer said with a smile.

The 17th annual Silent Film Gala, featuring two Harold Lloyd films and accompaniment from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, will be held at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday, June 3, at 8 p.m. (213) 622-7001, Ext. 275.