Behind the bris: an interview with the mohel
As a 48-year-old father of seven, Rabbi Shalom Denbo isn’t your typical Orthodox rabbi. He zips through Southern California on a motorcycle with a medical bag in tow, performing brises on Jewish babies and making jokes about having six daughters.
“Now you know why I pray for mothers to have more boys.”
Jokes? Denbo has heard them all. Years ago, as part of a marketing campaign, he ran an ad in the Jewish Journal that read, “Tell me a mohel joke I haven’t heard, and you’ll get a bris for free.” There were no winners. Not even: “Do you work for tips?”
Born in New Jersey, trained in Israel and now living in Pico-Robertson, Denbo is the author of “7 Traits: How to Change Your World” and has traveled as far as Tahiti, performing more than 1,000 brises, the ceremonial circumcision covenant that connects Jewish boys to their heritage on the eighth day of life.
Jewish Journal: So, why do we do brises?
Rabbi Shalom Denbo: There are all kinds of nice esoteric explanations, but the main reason is that the Torah tells us to, just like Abraham gave his son Isaac on the eighth day of his life. That’s why we do it and, really, the father is supposed to do it, like Abraham did it to his son.
JJ: My husband does a lot of things for us, but …
SD: And I’m not sure he would accept the challenge, either. But really it’s supposed to be their mitzvah. I’m there as a proxy because most parents either don’t know how or would not want to do it, anyway.
JJ: Why the eighth day?
SD: The eighth day is considered above the physical. This world we live in is considered the physical. Everything in this world is seven — seven continents, seven seas, seven days of the week, seven days of creation. Eight is that one step beyond — the step into the spiritual realm. There are exceptions. Most common is if the baby is sick. The other is not so commonly known but if the baby was born via C-section; that does not get done on Shabbos or Yom Tov.
JJ: Did you grow up wanting to be a mohel?
SD: I grew up with the stereotypical Jewish parents telling me, “You’re either going to be a doctor, a lawyer or, at worst, an accountant.” I had no desire to be a doctor or a lawyer; I had a desire to be famous. I wanted to be an actor; I wanted to go into show business. The irony is I’m in Hollywood as a rabbi. When my father found out I was deciding to become a rabbi, he said, “Well, so you won’t be a doctor but maybe you’ll become a mohel.” I used to laugh at him but an opportunity, pun intended, fell in my lap. My father-in-law found out that I had this indirect connection to Reb Yossel, a famous Jerusalem mohel who is estimated to have done over 100,000 brises. My father-in-law insisted that I learn from him. I said to my father-in-law, “I’ll learn under one condition: that you understand that I have no intention of being a mohel.”
JJ: What was it like to learn from Reb Yossel?
SD: Learning from Reb Yossel was like learning guitar from Prince or Jimi Hendrix. He was an artist. He imbued his personality into the showmanship of it, into the actual technique.
JJ: Can you tell us about the first bris you performed?
SD: Reb Yossel did a lot of brises for recent immigrants for free. They didn’t know the famous Reb Yossel; they only knew that their doctor or their rabbi had arranged for him to do the bris and they wouldn’t have to pay. One time, we were going to perform a bris in a suburb outside of Jerusalem and there was clearly not going to be anyone there. As we were walking in, he turned to me and said, “You’re Reb Yossel.” I said, “What do you mean?” “You’re going to do the bris.” We walked in the apartment and there were only three people there besides the baby. I really thought he was kidding but when we walked in, he didn’t say a word. He just stood there. It was obvious that I needed to start speaking because it was an awkward silence. And so I did the bris. It was a fascinating experience, the most life-changing experience except maybe the birth of my daughter. I realized at that moment, “I want to be a mohel.”
JJ: What was so life-changing about it?
SD: Every mitzvah is supposed to be a powerful, life-changing experience. There is only one mitzvah that we do today that you actually see on a physical level: a bris, where the child is different physically than he was one second earlier. As a rabbi, I know that the mitzvah changes the baby forever and I was the instrument. And that was a moving experience for me.
JJ: What is it like to deal with the families?
SD: Everyone is nervous. Everyone is anxious. I always tell parents who are nervous and apprehensive that it would be more concerning if they weren’t because this is your baby and it doesn’t matter that this is a good thing for them; it’s still something scary. Interestingly enough, though, the more emotional of the two [parents] is usually the father. I have had more fathers cry at a bris, far more, than mothers.
JJ: How do people respond at a dinner party when you say you’re a mohel?
SD: I don’t know if it’s us or lawyers that get the brunt of more jokes. Immediately they start with the jokes.
JJ: Why do all mohels make jokes at brises?
SD: There does need to be an element of comedy. Not that it should be a roast. This is a tremendously holy mitzvah. You’re talking about a very delicate procedure, which is very primal to a man. There is definitely tension in the room. You don’t want it to be a tense experience; you want it to be a holy, meaningful experience.
JJ: What is the advantage of hiring a mohel?
SD: A lot of people want a doctor, or they want it done in a hospital because they think that’s safer or better. They think they are getting someone that is an expert in circumcision, but the truth is that they’re not. [In a teaching hospital], most likely the person that is doing the circumcision is a resident or an intern and it might very well be their first circumcision. In a non-teaching hospital, people think that they are getting a urologist, but that’s not true, either. Most circumcisions in hospitals are done by O.B.s. — that’s not to say they are not proficient, but it is not their specialty. A mohel, this is our specialty. This is all we know.
JJ: How many times have you been peed on?
SD: Too many. Ask the other question.
JJ: How many times have you been pooped on?
SD: Also too many. Pee is actually more controllable — you can point it away.