Carrying On an Ancient Ritual

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January 16, 1994
By Cathy Singer

"I sometimes get asked," said Paysach J. Krohn, an Orthodox rabbi and mohel, 'If G-dGod wanted boys to be circumcised why are they not born that way?' And I say: 'So that the child can become perfect. The role of the parents is to perfect a child's life.'" According to Orthodox tradition, it is the responsibility of a Jewish father to circumcise his infant son, a thought that makes most men wince. So when Rabbi Krohn said that Michael Forman, 33, of Smithtown, was supposed to perform the circumcision on his week-old son, the roomful of friends and relatives gathered for the event nervously laughed.

Then he explained that Mr. Forman could appoint him to perform the bris, and Mr. Forman happily read the prayer authorizing Rabbi Krohn to act in his behalf. Mr. Forman handed over his tiny son, Jared Matthew, who began to cry loudly.

"We didn't do anything yet!" said Rabbi Krohn as he undressed the baby. Reciting prayers in Hebrew, he began removing the foreskin, performing a Jewish ritual that dates back from Abraham, who circumcised his son Isaac.

Rabbi Krohn, who is 48, is a fifth-generation mohel. He had not planned to become a mohel until his father died at age 47, leaving behind a wife and seven children. At the time Rabbi Krohn had been studying with his father because his father thought he should know the art even if he chose another profession. When his father died, however, Rabbi Krohn needed to support his family. Although only 21, he quickly completed his studies and was certified by the Brith Milah Board of New York, the youngest person ever to do so.

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'The Baby Is Also Young!'
Carrying on a family tradition was not easy at first, however, because of his youth. "Well, would you want a 21-year-old to do your son's bris?" Rabbi Krohn asked. "When I showed up at the door people would say, 'Oh my gosh, you're so young!' And I'd say, 'The baby is also young!' That helped to break the ice."

He has officiated at thousands of brises in the New York region, three-quarters of them on Long Island. He drives 35,000 miles a year, occasionally doing a bris in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut all between sunrise and sunset of one day.

For Rabbi Krohn the ritual is "a blessing." Some people, though, do not see the bris that way and call it a bloodletting ceremony and barbaric act, which offends him greatly. Technically, a bris is very similar to a circumcision done in a hospital. They are performed on 75 percent of all baby boys in the United States, regardless of religion. But as common as hospital circumcisions are, they are not witnessed by parents and relatives. It is this lack of familiarity, he said, that breeds fear.

"When a surgeon cuts open a patient's head or stomach to remove a growth," he asked, "is that a barbaric act? Is a surgeon akin to a mugger because they both use knives?" The bris symbolizes the family's commitment to G-dGod and Judaism as well as the baby's link in the chain of Jewish continuity, a point Rabbi Krohn emphasizes at each bris, during which the baby is given a Hebrew name. "Those who came to share in his bris," Rabbi Krohn said at the Forman home, as he recites at every ceremony, "may they share in his bar mitzvah and wedding."

He likes to use the opportunity of a bris to educate about Judaism. "I am a mohel who has a mission: to share the beauty of Judaism with the community."

While some, particularly parents, look away while the bris takes place, what makes Rabbi Krohn wince is the elaborate party that sometimes follows, a few even with bands. Rabbi Krohn knows, however, that it is often the party that has drawn family and friends together. After all, he said, Abraham had a party the day he circumcised Isaac.

So he ignores some of the inappropriate aspects of the occasion and focuses on explaining the meaning of the ritual, for he knows that many Jews who do little else religiously have their sons circumcised ritually.

"Being a mohel is my way of making a contribution to the Jewish community," he said. "I show them that it is a dignified and beautiful moment and a meaningful time to connect to G-dGod. When a father is crying before a bris as he prays for the welfare of his wife and child, he shows he is connecting to his religion. That has great meaning to me." To add to the importance of the bris, Rabbi Krohn always wears a suit. "It's always someone's special occasion," he explained, as he took off the white doctor's coat he wears during the bris. "I learned that as a teenager when I accompanied my father to a bris. I yawned during the ceremony, and the next day the baby's grandmother called my father. 'How dare your son yawn at our bris!' she scolded. My father was understanding, but that was a good lesson."

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Yarmulkes for All Occasions
To add a special touch to the day he gives each newborn a small crocheted yarmulke, which is not only befitting a religious occasion, but also the time of year or location. He has a wide selection of skullcaps ranging from those with "I ♥ NY" along the edge to red-white-and-blue ones initially made in 1976 for the Bicentennial and now given out in July for Independence Day.

He also has orange-and-brown ones for autumn babies, blue-and-white for those born on Jewish holidays, and orange-blue-and-white ones that were very popular when the Mets were doing well. "Now nobody wants them," said Rabbi Krohn.

As was Rabbi Krohn's tradition, after the circumcision and prayers, he held up Jared for all to see and with a few words about his being a Hanukkah baby, he placed a blue and white yarmulke with a menorah aflame with tiny orange candles on Jared's head as those congregated laughed.

Besides being a full-time mohel Rabbi Krohn is also a writer. In addition to numerous articles, he published an authoritative book on brith milah in 1985, which he gives to the parents of every baby he circumcises. He has also written three books, called a Maggid series, retelling inspirational stories and parables of rabbis of the past and present.

He does most of his writing as he drives between appointments. He also uses driving time to work on lectures that have taken him to many American and foreign cities. Last summer he went to South Africa, where he delivered 25 lectures in 12 days, primarily on his Maggid books. At one stop he received what he considers his best introduction. "The host said, 'We all know he's a mohel,'" Rabbi Krohn recounted, "'but we brought him in due to his Maggid books, which proves that the pen is mightier than the sword.'"

Rabbi Krohn likes telling his own stories of the more unusual brises he has performed. He did one in Bermuda, where a couple flew him in solely for the occasion; in Jerusalem, on a warm day in a beautifully decorated sukkah; in Puerto Rico, where afterward the well-wishers shouted, 'Mucho naches!" rather than "Mazel tov!" and at West Point.

'The rabbi there gave a beautiful explanation to the soldiers,' Rabbi Krohn recalled. "He said, 'Like a loyal soldier who always wears the uniform of his country with dignity and pride, a Jewish male wears his mark of circumcision with dignity and pride.'"

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Rabbi Krohn did a bris two decades ago, when the father, a soldier, was in Vietnam. The bris was on the Sabbath, which posed a problem for Rabbi Krohn, because Orthodox Jews do not drive on that day. But he wanted to help the woman, whose husband was halfway around the world, so he walked nine miles from his home in Queens to hers in New Hyde Park.

Once he mistakenly arrived a day early only to discover that the baby was severely jaundiced and needed hospitalization. "The infant might have been in danger had I not gone that day," Rabbi Krohn said. "My error was a godsend."

Rabbi Krohn has been the mohel for twins and even two sets of triplets, one of which was in East Meadow. The protocol is to have a separate ceremony for each child, beginning with the oldest. He has officiated at the brises of fathers and sons and of five boys in one family. He performed the bris of one baby, whose father was circumcised by Rabbi Krohn's father and whose grandfather was circumcised by Rabbi Krohn's grandfather in Scranton, Pa., where his family immigrated from Poland in the early 1920's.

His greatest thrill, however, were the brises he performed on his two sons. "It is a mitzvah that only a few people can fulfill to the nth degree," said Rabbi Krohn, who also has three daughters and two granddaughters. His first son's bris was exceptionally emotional, he remembered, because that child was named for his father, who had died a few years earlier.

He said he hoped that at least one of his sons, who are now yeshiva students aged 22 and 16, would decide to become a mohel, carrying on the family tradition to a sixth generation. "It is a privilege and a responsibility to be a mohel," Rabbi Krohn said. "You are G-dGod's emissary. The covenant of bris represents the bond of Jews to G-dGod throughout the generations. What could be a greater pleasure for a father than to see his son continue this bond."

Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, fifth generation mohel, is affiliated with both the Long Island Jewish Medical Center and the North Shore University Hospital. He is the author of Bris Milah, The Maggid Speaks, Around the Maggid's Table, and In the Footsteps of the Maggid, all published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

For additional copies of this article, or any other information regarding bris mliah, please contact Rabbi Krohn at 117-09 85th Ave., Kew Gardens, NY 11418 or call (718) 846-6900.

Copyright © 1994 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

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