Berkeley native takes a novel approach to circumcision

Lisa Braver Moss is a product of Berkeley — she grew up there, went through the public school system and attended U.C. Berkeley. When Moss decided to write a literary novel featuring a Jewish doctor who starts to question the practice of circumcision, she set it in Berkeley.

Moss, who now lives in Piedmont, spoke at last month’s Jewish Book and Arts Festival at the Contra Costa JCC. “The Measure of His Grief” was released Nov. 1.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel that has circumcision as its main theme?

A: I first became interested in the circumcision controversy in the late ’80s, after the births of my sons. We’re Jewish and they were circumcised, but that decision haunted me because while it reflected my tradition, it did not reflect my spirituality. I felt that in order to ensure that my sons would be accepted in the community, I’d been asked to separate myself from my biological urge to protect them. I found myself wanting to write about my experience, and published a few articles questioning the practice from a Jewish point of view.

Lisa Braver Moss

I went on to write articles and books on other topics, but remained interested in Jewish circumcision. I found it surprising that despite all its psychological, sexual, medical and religious complexities, no novelist had ever taken it on.

Two things inspired me to make a foray into fiction with this topic. One, I myself had become much more deeply engaged in Jewish thought and Jewish life and community as a result of the research I did to write those first articles. The more I delved into Jewish writings to understand the circumcision tradition — in order to write in opposition to it — the more Jewishly engaged I felt. I always thought that would make an interesting story, and that’s what happens to [protagonist] Dr. Sandy Waldman. He’s grown up assimilated, for reasons different from mine — he’s the son of Holocaust survivors, many of whom didn’t rear their children Jewishly — but like me, Sandy discovers what Judaism means to him as he rails against circumcision.

The second inspiration happened when I interviewed several men about this topic, including a Jewish man who felt he had remembered his own circumcision trauma. I learned about foreskin “restoration,” in which circumcised men stretch their residual tissue over a period of months and years to mimic the function of the lost tissue. I was astounded by the fact that there may be as many as a quarter of a million men around the world who are currently engaged in this process, and I couldn’t seem to shake myself free of that information and its rich possibilities for exploration in fiction. Also, the idea of that kind of repair struck me as very rich, since repair/healing, tikkun olam, is really the central tenet of Judaism.

Q: Why did you set it in Berkeley?

A: I was born at Alta Bates Hospital and reared in Berkeley — went through the Berkeley public schools, graduated from Berkeley High and then attended Cal Berkeley. My father had a retail store right across from the Cal campus during demonstrations and riots, so I saw a lot, and Berkeley is very much a part of my consciousness. It’s a great place to set a novel: beautiful, forward-thinking, yet also in some ways provincial, exasperating in its self-satisfaction.

Regarding circumcision, I find it fascinating that in a town where anything goes, and even among very assimilated Jews, circumcision generally remains the norm in Jewish families. Things are shifting somewhat with the dropping circumcision rates in the general population and the prevalence of interfaith families in Berkeley and elsewhere. But for the most part, circumcision is still regarded as a central emblem of Jewish identity even in Berkeley, a place that prides itself on thinking outside the box and abiding by its own version of correctness. I wanted to explore that paradox.

Another reason this book is set in Berkeley is that with all its tolerance of ethnic minorities, Berkeley is not an entirely comfortable place to be Jewish. I wanted to explore that, too.

Q: Considering all the causes Berkeley residents have embraced over the years, why do you think they have not questioned the practice of circumcision more closely?

A: If you’re asking about Jewish residents, my sense is that at least in my parents’ generation, Berkeley tended to attract Jewish transplants who were anti-establishment and anti–

religious observance. I wonder if perhaps underneath the embracing of progressive ideals, there’s also been some unconscious anxiety about the dangers of complete Jewish assimilation. Circumcision is a one-shot deal during which the parents can reassure themselves that they’re still holding to something Jewish. That’s my theory for today, anyway.

If you’re asking about Berkeleyans who aren’t Jewish and who make it a point to question authority on all fronts, I don’t know why circumcision often seems to be an exception. Certainly the procedure flies in the face of all medical precedent, which dictates that surgery should be a last resort, not something done as a preventive measure on a routine basis. Also, very few physicians are well-informed about the relatively recent research establishing the anatomical function of the foreskin and the erogenous nature of its tissue. What that means is that many doctors don’t understand the drawbacks of circumcision, and therefore cannot present a balanced choice to parents.

Q: Do you think you can be Jewish and not circumcise your sons?

A: Strictly speaking, from the point of view of Jewish law, you’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish, circumcision notwithstanding. That said, as a matter of practice, circumcision is still seen as central in mainstream Jewish practice. What do I believe? That what’s really central to the future of Judaism is engagement in Jewish life, intellectual and spiritual inquiry and community. This does not necessarily involve circumcision. Indeed, I would propose that a conscious decision not to circumcise can be a more Jewishly authentic act than going along with something that collides with one’s personal ethics, violates one’s spirituality or disrupts one’s biological urge to protect one’s newborn.

Q: What surprised you most in your research about circumcision?

A: I was very surprised to learn that circumcision as done today is a vastly more radical procedure than biblical circumcision. That’s because during the Hellenic period many Jewish men, in an attempt to “pass” as non-Jews and thereby gain civil rights, would systematically stretch their residual foreskin tissue over a period of months so as to look uncircumcised. The talmudic rabbis reacted by legislating a far more extensive operation, one that could not be reversed by stretching. It is this more radical procedure — not Abraham’s comparatively mild cut — that both mohels and physicians are still practicing today.

Q: What has the reaction to your novel been? Are people squeamish about the topic?

A: The response has been wonderful — I’m pretty thrilled with the reviews.

Regarding the squirm factor, yes, that’s there — hey, there are a few scenes in the book that make me wince. But more than anything else, “The Measure of His Grief” is a story about a man and his wife and their daughter as they all try to navigate their ways through love, grief, identity and everything else that’s part of being human.

Is circumcision a squirmy issue? Sure. But then, I’m old enough to remember a time when homosexuality was looked upon as “icky” by the mainstream; when I was growing up, it was seen as a psychiatric condition, even in progressive Berkeley. Well-meaning people felt completely justified in their squeamishness about this; it wasn’t even questioned. So I think we have to question our squeamishness about circumcision.

A longer version of this article previously appeared at Berkeleyside.com.

“The Measure of His Grief” by Lisa Braver Moss (352 pages, CreateSpace, $14.95)