With wit and banter as sharp as his izmal, Rabbi Mike Rovinsky is a circumcising machine
By Wm. Stage
Published: April 17, 2002
St. Louis News
“He is the best rabbi when it comes to giving alcohol to minors,” quips Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, who has just inserted a wine-soaked gauze pad into the mouth of baby Jonah Francis Boyer, who is about to be circumcised. The room erupts in laughter. Miller is the Boyers’ congregational rabbi, Rovinsky the mohel summoned to perform the bris, a naming ceremony and ritual circumcision carried out in accordance with Jewish law.
The two have been trading good-natured barbs for the last 15 minutes as Rovinsky, a teacher by profession, has expounded, in his inimitable fashion, on the task at hand. Uncharacteristically, right in the middle of an allegory about a boy and a sea captain, he hits a snag: “… and waaay out there was a humongous boat — what do you call it, a frigate?”
“Watch your language!” quips Miller dryly.
But the two rabbis aren’t merely trading shtick in the University City home of Dr. Marty Boyer and his wife, Marci Boyer, this Thursday morning; they are double-teaming to bring an ancient, sacred ceremony to life. The result — delivered in a comfy living room filled with wedding pictures and personal mementos — is something of a homily and something of a primer on bris milah, as the Jewish commandment is formally called. More and more, as in this instance, there are non-Jews in attendance at a bris, and Rovinsky takes nothing for granted: “Has anyone here never been to a bris before?” Fifteen sets of eyes look around. Three hands go up. “Let me tell you what happens,” he says, almost conspiratorially.
“Jewish tradition believes that the prophet Elijah comes to every bris, and the circumcision is done next to a chair, the Chair of Elijah, set aside in honor of the prophet. The baby is brought in; words of welcome will be sung. The baby is placed on this special half of the sofa known as the ‘the half of the sofa of Elijah the prophet.'” A round of laughter. “A short prayer is said in Hebrew and English. The baby is placed on the lap of the sandek, the holder of the baby during this procedure. Traditionally it is the father or, if the father chickens out, another relative. Uncle Dory will be our sandektoday. By asking me to be here, Marty is making me his agent to do the bris for him, because it is really Dad’s responsibility to perform the bris on his own son. Today, however, even if the father is a doctor” — more laughter — “he will still call upon a mohel, who is specially trained, not only medically but religiously, in this delicate task to act on his behalf.”
He turns to Boyer, an orthopedic surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital: “Marty, in all seriousness, I do have to give you the chance to change your mind and do this yourself.”
Dr. Boyer gives a faux-horrified look and utters a definite no, provoking guffaws all around. Rovinsky has the crowd eating out of his hand. Without further ado, the rabbi begins. Singing prayers, he bends over Jonah, grasps his little member with latex-gloved hands and, in a flurry of practiced motion, adroitly separates foreskin from the glans penis, pulls the liberated foreskin over the glans, secures it with a medical instrument called a shield, angles the bris knife and slices the foreskin off.
The actual procedure, short and quick, concludes with a hearty “Mazel tov!”
Amazing that this age-old ceremony — not unlike a Christian baptism in feeling — carries such controversy. Whereas John Harvey Kellogg, a popular 19th-century health guru, advocated the circumcision of young boys as a cure for masturbation, some of his modern-day counterparts cry, “Save the foreskin!” A vocal contingent, mostly entrenched in universities and health centers, adamantly opposes the practice. They say it is cruel, medically unnecessary and psychologically scarring; they say its day has passed.
But none of these critics is here, among the believers.
Afterward, in a quiet moment, Marty Boyer reflects on the experience: “One of my scrub nurses asked me earlier in the week what it means to have a bris. I basically said it’s part of a deal that Abraham made with God and that it connects the generations. Now, the rabbinical significance of this particular part — I mean, why the foreskin instead of the left earlobe? Why this was chosen as the physical covenant between Jews and God, I couldn’t explain that to her.”
Then someone asks how he came to call the rabbi.
Boyer looks perplexed for a moment, then shrugs: “Everyone knows he’s the mohel.”
The mohel, as the story goes, was getting ready to retire after 30 years. During that time, he had saved every foreskin from every bris he had performed. One day, he brings the foreskins to his tailor and says: “Listen, these foreskins are my life’s work. I want you to take them and make me something nice.” The tailor tells the mohel to come back in a week and he’ll have something. When the mohel returns a week later, the tailor shows him a wallet. The mohel is stunned: “What is this? Thirty years of brises and this is all I get, a wallet?” The tailor looks at him and says, “Yeah, but you rub it, it turns into a suitcase.”
“What do I do with the foreskins? That is probably the most commonly asked question I get,” says Rovinsky, driving to a post-bris lunch at the Empire Steak kosher diner in Olivette. “I bury them. There’s no ritual, as long as they come in contact with dirt. I could pull over the side of the road right now and bury them. Generally, what I do, when I go to synagogue in the evening, I’ll take the day’s trimmings, if you will, and bury them around the synagogue.” Until that happens, the foreskins such as the one formerly belonging to baby Jonah are kept in a little container in his suit pocket. He carries them around as casually as if they were car keys.
In 1993, Rovinsky, then 30, came to St. Louis from Dallas to take charge of the H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy in Creve Coeur. Suddenly there was a young, energetic rabbi in town, and he was highly skilled at brising. “St. Louis had one mohel who had been serving the area for about 40 years,” says Rovinsky. “Rabbi Abraham Magence, he was the one. And before him there was another mohel, Rabbi Makovsky, who had presided for 40 or 50 years. But Rabbi Magence, such a wonderful man, he came to me, introduced himself, gave me a hug and kiss and said, ‘Now I can retire.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not. You’ve got to show me the ropes of this town.'”
The newcomer went around introducing himself to the congregational rabbis — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. “I shared with them my background, my style,” says Rovinsky. The elders had to be impressed by his pedigree: a master’s degree in Talmudic law from Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and a master’s in administrative sciences from Johns Hopkins University. He had apprenticed under prominent mohel Rabbi Moshe Rappaport, and now he himself was recognized as a mohel by the state of Israel.
By the time he arrived in St. Louis, Rovinsky had as many as 4,000 brises to his credit, most performed in Dallas — where, he says, the proportion of Jews who called a mohel to do a bris went from 20 percent in 1990, when he began his practice there, to 80 percent by the time he left. He hoped for similar results in St. Louis. He kept his bris knives razor-sharp, waiting for business.
“It wasn’t that hard to become recognized as the mohel of the Orthodox community,” notes Rovinsky, pronouncing it “mo-ell,” although the commonly heard version sounds like “moyl.” “The Orthodox will always call a mohel.” But he really wanted to break into the broader community, and that took time and patience. “Many did not use services of a mohel,” he says. “They’d get the baby circumcised in the hospital and have their congregational rabbi do the naming at a later date.” At first, the requests trickled in. “If I had one bris a month,” he says, “that was a good month.” But as favorable reports spread — “Call Rovinsky,” he mimics a happy customer, “he was OK at the Cohens’ bris” — it wasn’t long before he was doing three or four brises a week and most of his clients were non-Orthodox. Nothing could have pleased him more.
“For me, really, being a mohel is a means to an end. The end is to encounter young families and be a resource for Judaism. Many families, when they start having children, begin to wonder, ‘Well, what’s life about? What am I going to pass on to my kids?’ So the kids will bring us back to some sense of spirituality, and the bris is often the first step. With many of the brises I do, the families do not have a relationship with a congregation. Maybe the last time they set foot in a synagogue was at their bar or bat mitzvah. They’ve lost contact. So I’m often their first major personal encounter with a rabbi since their Hebrew-school days.”
Rovinsky, 39, maintains his practice in Dallas, returning about once a week to do brises, as well as circumcisions — “circs,” he calls them — on non-Jewish babies. A typical two-day trip to Dallas might involve two or three brises. Although brises are never done en masse (a scheduling problem, because the procedure must be done on baby’s eighth day), circs may be performed in assembly-line fashion with groups of new Gentile parents gathering at one or two homes and Rovinsky trimming throughout the day, 10 to 20 babies at a time. With these Gentile babies it’s not a bris, he points out, but a simple medical circumcision that may or not include prayers. Rovinsky believes that the demand for the services of a mohel is on the rise among Christian families.
“The religious Christians, the churchgoers, many of them call a mohel. Even though it’s a commandment for the Jews, if God said to do it, then it must be the right thing to do — so they do it. And every one of them calls me with trepidation: ‘We just had a baby and we’d like to get a circumcision. We’re not Jewish, but we hope you will still consider doing our baby.'”
A simple circumcision done by the obstetrician a day or two after birth is commonly covered by medical insurance. Yet, says the rabbi, as word spreads, concerned parents are willing to pay out-of-pocket for a more personal approach. “They know that we’re much faster,” Rovinsky says, “10 seconds versus 10 minutes, plus it ends up looking a lot nicer afterwards, it’s much less painful for the baby and the complications following procedures that we do are next to zero. In 14 years, I’ve never had a recall, thank God. With this technique, it’s pretty hard to have a mishap. If you look before you cut, you can’t mess up.”
As part of his apprenticeship to become a mohel, Rovinsky trained at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine alongside pediatric urologists and obstetricians. And yes, he’s seen the medical books depicting the mistakes: “They show these really gross pictures where the scrotum’s been perforated or the glans sliced off.” He shakes his head in amazement. “I don’t know how it’s humanly possible to have made those mistakes. I mean, a probe in the scrotum — you don’t even come near the scrotum! It’s as if you were to document mistakes in ear-piercing and then you make a book showing worst-case scenarios. Some hack ends up piercing the nose instead of the ear.”
It is unfortunate, he says, that people are swayed by the pictures and critical statements: “It’s like saying, ‘Don’t fly, because you’re going to get hijacked.’ Is it possible? Yes. The chances? Not likely. So when people ask me should I circumcise or not? My answer: If you’re Jewish, absolutely. If you’re not Jewish, it depends. If you believe, religiously or medically, it’s the right thing to do, then yes. If your issue is social — Daddy wants little Johnny to look like he does — only you can answer that. However, if you are going to circumcise, a mohel is the way to go.”
In a sense, Rovinsky is swimming against the stereotype of the mohel as a bumbling, archaic person. In a famous Seinfeld episode, a rabbi dubbed “Shaky the Mohel” accidentally slices Jerry’s finger during a bris. “I have to admit it was pretty funny,” he says, “but it doesn’t represent the calling.” He strives to make the experience “spiritually invigorating,” and as director of the Association for the Advancement of Bris Milah, which he founded, he does what’s necessary to make brises happen for all who want it. “If I hear of a family that wants a bris and can’t afford it, even if they live in Kalispell, Mont., I will make sure a mohel gets there to do the bris.”
Rovinsky himself has been known to go the extra mile. “I once had a scheduled bris in Warrenville, S.C., where the mother called me the day after the delivery to tell me the bris was canceled,” he says. “Why? Because after the birth her husband went to the bank, emptied out all the accounts and skipped town. She was penniless with this newborn. I said, ‘You’re crazy! I’m coming anyway. It’s my treat.’ I flew to Atlanta, rented a car, drove to Warrenville. I did the bris, I paid for everything, and that was the most bittersweet bris I’ve been privileged to do.”
Because he travels far and wide in his practice, Rovinsky has earned the nickname “the flying mohel,” as well as “the cowboy clipper,” a nod to his native Texas. For cash-strapped people such as the Warrenville mother, his presence must seem like a miracle. They soon learn that with this mohel, the income is secondary to the higher calling.
“When growing up,” he says, “I couldn’t stand clergy always having their hand out — to be married, buried, bar mitzvahed. Whatever was going on, all you heard was the adults complaining. The priest gets paid by the church; the rabbi gets paid by the synagogue: Why do we have to pay them for all these life-cycle events? So I told myself I was never going to charge. I would tell people: ‘Whatever you want to pay, pay. It’s fine with me.’ And people would get upset with that, because they didn’t know whether they were paying too much or too little.”
Rovinsky decided to establish a suggested honorarium: “Wherever I go, whatever the other mohels charge as their fee, that’s my suggested honorarium. In St. Louis, people generally give around $400. It tends to level out. I’ve done brises that have cost me $700-$800 out of my own pocket, and I’ve done brises for the elite of the American Jewish community where I’ve been paid in the thousands, been given private first-class accommodations, a penthouse overlooking Central Park.”
“It’s amazing, when you think about it,” he says, the trace of a smirk signaling the approach of a double-entendre, “considering I work for tips.”
It is an overcast Friday afternoon. Rovinsky drives from his home in University City to the Maryland Heights home of a Russian immigrant couple, parents of a newborn son. The rabbi, at the wheel of his Toyota Previa — vanity plate MOHEL on a “Stop Child Abuse” backdrop — wears glasses, short black hair and a neatly trimmed black beard. In profile, he looks a bit like a young Groucho Marx. The yarmulke is de rigueur, a constant accouterment for the Orthodox Jew. The van is filled with child seats, toys and children’s books; Rovinsky is the father of four, two of them preschoolers.
Arriving at the home of Alexander and Olga Vishnevetsky, Rovinsky gathers his instruments, held in a black leather bag that could have belonged to a 19th-century country doctor. The Vishnevetskys, a couple in their late thirties, greet the rabbi at the door and welcome him inside. In the living room, where the bris will be held, family pictures hang on the wall and plants and knickknacks line the shelves. The view looks out to a patio surrounded by an expanse of suburban backyards. This is a small, intimate bris, with only the parents, grandparents and the baby’s big sister present.
The baby was dubbed Mark at birth, but today he gets a Hebrew name — a name that could trump the English name and will follow him for life. Many Orthodox and Conservative Jews use their English or secular name when doing business and the Hebrew name for everything outside of business. Female Jewish infants have a naming ceremony similar to a bris, only — obviously — without the surgical procedure.
“The name is a very spiritual thing,” notes Rovinsky. “It defines the person and is not to be picked lightly. We tend to pick the names after our ancestors.” He turns to the parents and inquires whether the baby is being named after a family member. They all confer — Olga, Alexander, dadushkas Leonid and Yaakov, babushkas Luda and Laura. There seems to be some last-minute wavering, but after some animated chat in Russian it is announced that the chosen name is Yitzchak.
A massage therapist at Wild Oats Community Market in Ladue, Alexander Vishnevetsky says there was no question of whether to give his son a bris. “It is very important for my family,” he starts in halting English. “Even during time we live in Russia, when it was very hard to find rabbi to do the bris, we still find him. Here in America, it is much easier to find a mohel. This is good, because we want to raise our son in Jewish tradition so he will know what’s been done and why.”
The rabbi dons the tallis, or prayer shawl. He sets up near the fireplace, beneath a painting of a Spanish couple in a passionate embrace. A fine high-backed chair will serve as the Chair of Elijah. The surgical instruments come out of the bag — a stainless-steel hemostat, a device called a shield and a specially designed bris knife — a 3-and-a-half-inch surgical-steel tool with a double cutting edge and a silver handle. “It’s called an izmal,” offers Rovinsky, proudly holding up and rotating that which in a hospital would be called a scalpel. “It’s the top of the line, in keeping with the precept that you purchase the best materials available to beautify the performance of the commandments. I collect them.”
The instruments, along with ointment, powder and a couple of gauze pads, are carefully laid out on a small table next to the chair. The rabbi prepares by saturating a gauze strip with some liquid from a plastic squirt bottle. “This is a secret numbing agent,” he whispers, adding somewhat confidentially, “it’s homemade. The formula came from the chief mohel of Israel, Rabbi Yossele Weisberg, who passed away last year. And this is bris powder, which promotes healing” — indicating another plastic container sans label — “also from the chief mohel.” The cost of this little container of bris powder: $500.
It is decided that Dadushka Yaakov will be the sandek. Rabbi Rovinsky positions him in a chair next to the Chair of Elijah, knees together, a pillow on his lap. Baby Mark, soon to be Yitzchak, is placed on the pillow, his diaper undone. Standing before the chair and beside his wife, Alexander reads a prayer. The rabbi pulls on latex gloves. He shows Dadushka how to spread the baby’s legs and restrain him. “Shtark[be brave], ya, OK? Don’t let go, or we’ll have a granddaughter.”
At birth, the foreskin adheres to the glans, the head of the penis. The first step is to break the adhesions. Rovinsky grasps the tiny member and with a hemostat — although he may use a probe or his fingers — circumscribes the glans, separating the foreskin. The baby starts crying, partly from being restrained, and the rabbi begins chanting prayers in Hebrew. Alexander still reads from the prayer. Then, in one fluid motion, the rabbi takes a hemostat, pulls up the foreskin and pushes the glans back. He slides the shield over the glans; the foreskin protrudes over the top. The shield, which looks something like a pair of vise grips, protects the glans and serves as a guide for the angle of the cut. It is, after all, a custom cut. In a split second, using the izmal rather like a guillotine, Rovinsky excises the foreskin. Next he removes the shield and anoints the area with his secret tonics and powders.
“Mazel tov! We’re done! We’re done!” booms a triumphant Rovinsky. Thirty seconds have passed from the start of the procedure to its finish. The foreskin, lying on a gauze pad, looks like a spent wad of chewing gum.
The baby bawls mightily, but not for long. A chalice filled with blackberry Manischewitz sits on the table. Olga dips a gauze pad in the vessel and puts it, soaked with wine, in the baby’s mouth. He sucks on it while being cradled and rocked face-down, and the furies soon abate. And now for the naming. Rovinsky gives a singsong prayer, first in Hebrew, then in English. It goes, in part: “Our God, the God of our ancestors, let this child’s name be known in Israel as Yitzchak. May the entire family derive joy and pleasure from him, and may God endow his parents with understanding and love that they may raise their son with an appreciation for Torah. In turn, may his heart forever express kindness to all of mankind and all of creation. Let us say amen.”
The parents take little Yitzchak upstairs to a bedroom, where Rovinsky shows them the aftercare, essentially a gauze pad with Neosporin ointment applied to the wound. There is just the smallest trace of blood. Yet blood there must be: Jewish law demands it for a kosher bris.
Goodbyes at the front door. The Vishnevetskys fairly gush all over him. Rovinsky reminds Mom and dad that he’ll be back in two days to check on the baby’s healing. “After that,” he says, “I’ll be back in 13 years for the bar mitzvah.”
Circumcision is the most common surgery performed in America — some 3,500 are done each day. The procedure, as done by an obstetrician in a hospital setting, usually without anesthesia, can take between seven and 12 minutes. America is the only country in the Western world in which newborn boys are routinely circumcised. Eighty-five percent of the world’s men are intact — that is, uncircumcised.
The foreskin, or prepuce, is a complex two-layer organ similar to the eyelid; like the eyelid, it protects a sensitive part of the anatomy, sheathing the glans penis from abrasion. The average adult male foreskin comprises about an inch-and-a-half of outer skin and the same amount of lining, a soft mucosa that secretes antibacterial lubricants. With 1,000 nerve endings, the foreskin is the most densely nerve-laden part of the penis and is widely considered an erogenous zone. The average circumcision removes what would grow into about 12 square inches of sexually sensitive skin.
Circumcision in America was virtually unheard of until 1870, when Dr. Lewis Sayre claimed to have cured a young boy of paralysis by pruning his foreskin. Sayre and associates became circumcision crusaders, suggesting that the procedure could cure a wide variety of ailments. About the time these claims were debunked, along came John Harvey Kellogg, he of breakfast-cereal fame, a popular health advocate who touted circumcision as a cure for masturbation, which, he believed, caused shyness, insomnia and more. “A remedy for masturbation … successful in small boys is circumcision,” he wrote in 1888. “The operation should be performed … without anesthetic as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind.”
The social/cultural factors responsible for the rise of circumcision in the U.S. are long and involved, but a century ago it became a widely accepted practice for infants because of a new emphasis on cleanliness. By the late ’60s, the practice of circumcision had reached its zenith, performed on up to 85 percent of male newborns. Then the pendulum began to swing back. In 1971, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that the procedure was medically unnecessary. The newest AAP position paper qualifies that although routine newborn circumcision is still not recommended, it has potential medical benefits — among them, fewer urinary-tract infections and a lower chance of penile cancer, a rare problem anyway. (Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that seems to confirm what some have been saying for the past two decades: Women with circumcised sex partners are less likely to be infected with human papillomavirus, which has been shown to cause to cervical cancer.)
Nationally, the percentage of circumcisions performed in the clinical setting stands at 60 percent. Curiously, the Midwest has the highest percentage, 80 percent; the Western states have the lowest, 40. Some researchers surmise the that inequity is related to socially conservative tendencies in the Midwest and the West’s activist midwifery movement, touting a naturalism that includes unshorn foreskins.
The pendulum has swung so far back that some circumcised men undergo foreskin restoration, a process in which gentle, persistent tension is applied to the skin of the penile shaft — one method involves taping weights there — resulting in the growth of more skin, which eventually covers the glans.
Many organizations (11 at last count, including some seeking to halt circumcision of the clitoral hood in females) have formed to voice opposition to the practice. Some are merely cautionary, whereas others are outright militant. Law professors, medical ethicists and physicians have taken turns bashing the practice, calling it “genital mutilation,” “criminal assault” and a “violation of basic human rights.” Some say that if introduced today circumcision would not be accepted because it could not be shown to be a safe and effective surgical procedure. Others insist it is cosmetic surgery and that the practice would virtually disappear if it weren’t covered by medical insurance.
“The doctors performing this procedure do not know the pain they are causing, nor do they appreciate the functions of that unique bit of tissue,” writes Paul M. Fleiss, M.D. — also known as the father of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss — in his introduction to Billy Ray Boyd’s Circumcision Exposed.
All the denunciations, admonitions and shrill outcry over circumcision are lost on the rabbi. Rovinsky’s motivation is pure, grounded in religious faith, and his technique is humane. Righteousness is on his side.
“I am quite aware of these anti-circumcision groups, absolutely. I have a death warrant out on me,” he says matter-of-factly. “I speak at a lot of conferences, and I was scheduled to speak at one when I got called not to come, otherwise I’d be killed.” Of course, he went anyway.
Rovinsky is in a small barber shop on Olive Boulevard, being attended to by a jolly Russian lady with red hair. The rabbi’s wife, Selina, has suggested a trim of the locks and beard. He sits there, eyes shut to keep the hairs out, listening to the critics’ charges that the practice deletes a potential erogenous zone that, left intact, might provide a more pleasurable sexual experience for the man.
He ponders this for a moment: “Well, you can say that and you can believe it, and that’s great. But I guarantee you will not find a circumcised man who has any problem experiencing pleasure when they’re engaged in the ultimate act of love.”
The barberette’s ears prick up.
And the notion that the foreskin is there to protect the glans? “That’s their approach, whoever said that,” he corrects. “We don’t know why it’s there. It’s an imperfection, if you will. We as Jews believe God created us that way so we could physically perfect ourselves the same way we’re commanded to spiritually perfect ourselves as we go through life. So, really, we become partners with God in creation — and it’s the parents’ responsibility to complete the creation, to perfect the baby by removing that foreskin.”
The barberette spins him around in the chair to face the large mirror on the wall. He strokes his beard, nods approval and continues: “Adam — as in Adam and Eve — was created without a foreskin, and it was only after he sinned that the foreskin grew on him. It wasn’t until the time of Abraham that God felt Abraham was worthy to remove this sign of impurity.”
This mitzvah, or commandment, is referred to in the Torah as the Covenant of Abraham and is also found in Genesis 17:12: “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations.” Among observant Jews, Rovinsky notes, this has been the dictum for 3,700 years, ever since Abraham, at age 99, circumcised himself on orders from God. Talk about obedience.
Psychologist Ron Goldman knows he’s up against a mitzvah from the Almighty, but as a speaker and author of two books quite critical on the subject, he tirelessly tries to foment dissension among the faithful. Like Rovinsky, the director of Boston’s Circumcision Resource Center sees himself as a resource person, even serving the same contingent as the rabbi — but with an entirely different message. “Many Jews,” he says, “call our office here looking for information, for help.
“They’re conflicted, maybe in disagreement with their partner over whether to have a bris. By and large, couples make this decision without much information, and too often they’re influenced by the same tired persuasions heard over the years — ‘The foreskin is useless, just a piece of tissue.’ ‘Circumcision doesn’t really hurt the baby.’ ‘All Jewish men are circumcised.’ Until the last five to 10 years, many Jews felt they didn’t have a choice. And since only 10 percent of Jews are Orthodox, that leaves a lot of room for choices about how one wants to express one’s Jewishness. Some couples choose to have a ritual to welcome the child into the Jewish community without any cutting, and some find this alternative extremely moving. They’re sharing the joy without the emotional conflict that goes with consenting to cut off part of their child’s penis.”
Another day, another bris. This one, at the Clayton home of Donald and Wende Meissner, might be a world away from the Vishnevetskys’. The Meissners, owners of the West End Nursery, have a houseful of friends and family, perhaps a third of them Gentile. The gathering has the feel of a wedding reception, with women bustling in the kitchen and preparing wonderful dishes, kids scurrying around, guests arriving by the carful. In a sunroom facing the street, the presents for baby Gideon, the Meissners’ first child, are piled high. Drinks are flowing, and the dining table, set with an array of deli-style items, would make even the most devout ascetic drool.
Although Rovinsky may be tempted by this feast, he will not, cannot, touch a morsel; it is not kosher. Indeed, kosher food, prepared in accordance with Jewish ritual dietary law, is not exactly ubiquitous in St. Louis, and most bris hostesses end up setting either a dairy/fish table or a meat-themed table (to mix dairy and meat would be really unkosher) — kosher-style but not strictly kosher.
As an Orthodox Jew and rabbi, Rovinsky keeps kosher in many ways. One is by attending synagogue, or schule, thrice daily for prayer services. His choice is Young Israel, one of several in the neighborhood around the intersection of Delmar Boulevard and Old Bonhomme Road, an Orthodox Jewish enclave. The schules are nearby for a reason: For periods during Shabbos (or Shabbat), the Jewish sabbath, which extends from Friday sundown until Saturday after sundown, Orthodox Jews do not drive. Yet they are out in force, walking to or from schule, the men in dark suits and wide-brimmed black felt fedoras from Levine’s. Recently, during Passover, when the proscription against driving was in effect, Rovinsky walked seven miles round-trip to do a bris. “It allowed me to practice dedication,” he says, “not only me but also the family I visited. It’s not easy to give your son over to a stranger.”
This degree of self-sacrifice and devotion appeals to the Meissners, who are exploring their own spiritual commitment. “We were both raised Reform at the same synagogue, Shaare Emeth,” she notes, “but we have quite a few Orthodox friends, so we’re not so removed from it. And there are definitely aspects of the Orthodox that we both agree with and appreciate. We’re thinking it over, which direction we want to go.”
Unlike many couples Rovinsky encounters, Wende and Donald have never, as the Catholics would say, “fallen away.”
“No we don’t fit that category,” says Wende. “Both of us have investigated different areas of Judaism. My grandparents were very adamant about making Judaism a part of my life. My parents enforced that as well, but the grandparents were more closely involved with World War II, and I think it had an effect on making sure that we, as their grandchildren, recognized what it is to be Jewish.”
In picking a mohel, the Meissners followed their friends’ lead. Says Wende, “Years ago, there was an article on Rabbi Rovinsky in the Jewish Light, and I remember reading that he traveled all over to do it and how highly regarded he was. And then, a year ago, we hosted a bris for some friends, and they picked Rovinsky. I thought he did a wonderful job, explaining the history of it and the reason why he’s doing it, making sure that people understand. These days there’s a lot of non-Jews coming to a bris, and so it’s nice to have them feel involved — and we liked his sense of humor and how he handled Noah, our friends’ baby.”
One wonders what Ron Goldman would think of this gathering. The anti-circumcision crusader says he’s been to only one bris. “I found it very distressing, as did a lot of people there,” he recalls. “The parents were crying, because the baby was crying at the top of his lungs — for a full 20 minutes. There was no question how the infant was feeling.”
This bris, on the contrary, is nothing but smiles, laughter and general conviviality. There are no adults blubbering in their Manischewitz; baby Gideon cries for perhaps half-a-minute after the bris, then goes back to napping. “I couldn’t have been any happier,” says Wende. One friend, she admits, did exhort her to reconsider calling the mohel. “It was a very short conversation, not an argument, just a view that was expressed. But my beliefs are my beliefs. It’s what you do when you’re Jewish.”
And Rabbi Rovinsky is always willing to oblige. As he gathers his instruments after performing the brison baby Gideon, he looks over the crowd and calls out to the men in attendance:
“Are there any volunteers before I put my instruments away?”