GO AHEAD, I dare you. Try and tell Rabbi Michael Rovinsky a circumcision joke he hasn’t heard before.
“So tell me, Rabbi. How much do you charge for a brit?”
“Nothing. I work for tips.”
“I’ve heard all of them 1,500 times,” Rovinsky said. “But every time I hear them, I laugh anyway.”
For Rovinsky, a certified mohel (pronounced moyle), a measure of laughter is as important in the ritual circumcision ceremony as salt in chicken soup. “You are dealing with the most intimate part of a man’s body,” Rovinsky said. “It makes everyone uncomfortable. So what do you do? You make jokes. But I’m very careful not to cross the line with humor. A circumcision is a spiritual, joyful occasion – one of the major milestones of a Jewish man’s life.”
During the week, Rovinsky can be found at his desk at Epstein Hebrew Academy in Olivette. He has been the school’s executive director and a classroom teacher since moving here from Dallas in 1990. Rovinsky’s children, Saara, 10, and Avi, 8, are both students at the school.
But on weekends, the 32-year-old Rovinsky hits the road, traveling thousands of miles a year to perform one of the most ancient and important ceremonies of the Jewish religion, the Brit Milah. This weekend, for instance, Rovinsky’s sideline will take him to Dallas, Austin and Cincinnati to perform circumcisions. A cellular phone – dial 991-BOYS or 1-800-85MOHEL – dangles at his side, beside the fringes of his prayer shawl. The license plate on his blue Hyundai reads MOHEL.
If there is a bit of Barnum in Rovinsky’s nature, it is firmly harnessed to his religious devotion. His goal, he says, is to see that every Jewish baby born in St. Louis is circumcised by a mohel, in keeping with the precepts of the Jewish religion. As it is, Rovinsky said, only about 20 percent of the Jewish baby boys born here are circumcised by mohels. Most are circumcised by doctors.
Rovinsky apprenticed for more than a year with a mohel in Baltimore, who in turn had learned his skills and secrets from the chief mohel of Israel. Rovinsky worked his way up from observing at each Brit, to holding instruments, to the moment of truth – making the final cut on a close friend’s newborn.
The Brit of a healthy baby boy is done on the eighth day of life. According to the Bible, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself as a sign of God’s special covenant with the Jewish people. Thereafter, Jewish men were supposed to circumcise their own sons as a symbol of their faith and identity.
However, in the 20th century, that delicate task falls almost exclusively to trained mohels. Rovinsky is one of three certified mohels in St. Louis. The ceremony usually takes place at home or in a synagogue. The baby is then placed on the lap of a male relative, usually a grandfather, who holds him during the actual circumcision.
Rovinsky uses customized surgical instruments to cut the baby’s foreskin and his techniques take less than 10 seconds, shorter by several minutes than the standard techniques used by medical doctors. Rovinsky contends that his technique is also far less painful.
Most babies are circumcised without anesthetic, but if a family requests an anesthetic, Rovinsky will make arrangements with a physician to provide it. Circumcisions on older children are performed under general anesthetic in a hospital under the supervision of hospital staff. Adults are given a local anesthetic. Unlike midwives, mohels are exempt from state regulation. Their practices are considered protected religious activities.
At the time Rovinsky was certified eight years ago, he was the youngest mohel in the country. Now, at the tender age of 32, Rovinsky has performed more than 2,500 circumcisions on infants and grown men, Jews, Christians and Muslims. He keeps the fingernails of both thumbs clipped to sharp points, in the rare instances he is asked to circumcise an infant according to Chasidic tradition, which requires part of the foreskin to be torn, not cut.
He has performed circumcisions beside lakes, in operating rooms, under trees and even in the back seat of a station wagon. He does not charge for his services, but – jokes aside – works for tips.
“My greatest reward is being there for families, sharing Jewish tradition,” Rovinsky said.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thursday, November 30, 1995