Ron Litke Contemplates the Cruelest of Jewish Traditions | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Ron Litke Contemplates the Cruelest of Jewish Traditions

We move now from talking about one of the newest medical procedures to contemplating one of the oldest. Writer Ron Litke has these thoughts on circumcision.

Among the greatest and most succinct lines I have ever heard has been told to me, more than once, by Bernie Sahlins. I have twice stood next to the co-founder of Second City at a bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision that for traditional or more observant Jews usually occurs on the eighth day of a boy's life. In both cases, the bris took place at a restaurant and I found myself standing next to Bernie.

That line came to me recently while contemplating the coming Jewish new year and glancing at the New York Times, and saw the small boldface headline “U.S. May Urge Circumcision.” Now, I know Barack Obama's election meant change, but I couldn't recall this policy as being in his platform. Moreover, one always hears that America is a Christian nation, so I was astonished for a moment to think that some one-hundred-fifty million men would be converting to Judaism, or how many males of all ages would soon be in excruciating pain…learning at whatever age they are cut that this is one problematic organ. Equally important, would the new health care plan, with or without the public option, cover what is, after all, cosmetic surgery?

The Jewish bris ritual is, to me, utterly barbaric. Forget that the act is supposedly a physical confirmation of the covenant that God makes with Abraham, the first Jew. There's no record of God giving him a spiel on the potential health benefits. Nonetheless, it's hard for me to imagine that Abraham didn't look up to the skies and ask, “I'm being chosen for this? Doesn't seem like an improvement over the pagan stuff. Can I get back to you?”

The news about government-endorsed circumcision made it to MSNBC's Dr. Nancy later that same day:

What? Intact America? Ms. Chapin has a job trying to make sure all American penises remain intact with foreskin? Is this an actual job? In this economy? And come to think about it, why are three women discussing this issue? It's as preposterous as men debating menopause.

Now, experts apparently are considering whether studies showing that men who are circumcised reduce their risk of infection by half means that the procedure might help men whose sexual practices put them at high risk of infection. Still, a circumcision drive in the United States might not protect those at greatest risk here, meaning men who have sex with men.

Not to worry. Intact America has it all figured out.


Honestly, now, how would Ms. Chapin know the benefits of foreskin?... I don't want to know that, either.

But, I digress. That great and succinct line Bernie Sahlins shared. Yes, Bernie deserves the last words. At the bris events we attended, after the horribleness ended, and someone probably fainted, Bernie clapped his hand on my shoulder, leaned in close, and said, “I don't know about you, but I'm having the calamari for lunch.” ...And calamari isn't kosher.

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