Whether you’re a new mom or just a party guest, here’s everything you need to know about this Jewish right of passage.
Imagine hosting a religious ceremony where you present your postpartum self and tiny bundle of joy to new family members just a week after you’ve given birth. While the thought would make most new mothers cringe in self-consciousness, many Jewish mamas rise to the occasion to celebrate the ‘brit milah’ or ‘Bris’ circumcision ceremony just a mere eight days after bringing their sons into the world.
What exactly is this spiritual rite of passage for baby boys and how can Jewish and interfaith couples, their families and guests make the most of this meaningful life cycle event? We spoke with Cantor Philip Sherman, a traditionally trained mohel based in NYC, to find out.
The Bris. The custom of the Bris originated in biblical times, and since the dawn of Judaism, it has served as a physical symbol of the Jewish faith. This Jewish lifecycle event for baby boys is held on the eighth day of life, assuming baby is healthy enough. Many parents create a celebration around the circumcision ceremony, and invite friends and family to meet the newest member of their family.
The Mohel. While some families turn to doctors to circumcise their sons while still in the hospital, a traditional Bris involves a traditional mohel, who is trained in the ritual of circumcision. Mohels like Cantor Sherman perform circumcisions exclusively and on a full-time basis, and will ensure the ceremony is in accordance with Jewish law. Many mohels have done tens of thousands of circumcisions (Cantor Sherman has done over 21,000 circumcisions throughout his career!) and receive referrals from the medical community. A mohel usually circumcizes the baby in less than 15 seconds with no advanced preparations. If you don’t know a mohel, you can ask your doctor for a recommendation, or call you local Jewish community center. There’s also a helpful list here.
Pain Relief. Sherman does not use anesthetic, which can harm the baby. After the brief circumcision procedure, he gives the baby a gauze pad with sweet wine to suck on, then hands him back to his mom to be soothed.
The Ceremony. The Bris ceremony bestows honors on the special people in the baby’s life who will have the opportunity to hold the child and welcome him. Sherman honors any great-grandparents in attendance and the baby’s namesake whose soul, according to Jewish tradition, is now forever intertwined with a new one. Cantor Sherman admits he is one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet, but he leaves his shtick at home while on call.
Guest Protocol. If you’re heading to a Bris, be on time -- the ceremony is usually short and sweet. Guests, Sherman says, should observe the sanctity of the ceremony; no penis jokes please! A festive meal follows, so there will be plenty of time to shmooze over bagels and lox after the Bris is complete. While not required, many guests choose to save their baby gift for this occasion and bring it along.
Interfaith Families. While the Bris is a profoundly Jewish tradition, it’s by no means exclusionary of interfaith families and couples. Mohels can create a more universal ceremony that works for all.
The Location. For many new mamas, the most convenient place to hold a Bris is either in the family home or a party room at your building. You may also want to try your local synagogue, or even a favorite bar or restaurant, especially if they have a private event space. But there are certainly more creative options. Cantor Sherman has traveled to Japan, where Bris guests sat on the floor, as well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, and Aspen. He has even performed his mohel duties suspended on a platform over a swimming pool at one family home!
The Mama Dress Code. As for the eternal question of what to wear, your first week postpartum won’t be the best time to shop. Enlist a close female friend or relative to help, or check out the stylish and nursing options on one of our favorite mom-friendly shopping sites, shopburu.com.
Advice for the new mama. Experienced moms say major nerves and emotions the night before are not uncommon, but rest assured that it will all go smoothly, as it has for centuries. The circumcision site, which is cared for with antibiotic ointment during diaper changes, heals quickly and the Mohel and baby’s pediatrician are on hand to answer any questions that may arise.
Photography by Noam Galai.