Ritual and reaffirmation the world over


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Philip Sherman reflects on his 40 years as a mohel


Photos



  • Cantor Philip Sherman. Photo: Shane Maritch




  • Cantor Philip Sherman and a recent graduate. Photo courtesy of Cantor Philip Sherman



BY ANGELA BARBUTI

Philip Sherman flipped through the appointment book that holds all his scheduled brisses. “If I just open to any random page here ... Brooklyn, Oceanside, Aberdeen, and Scotch Plains, New Jersey.” His record-setting day held 11, including two sets of twins. Aside from the Tri-State area, he has presided over brisses in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bermuda and Puerto Rico.

As a mohel, Sherman explained, he does not perform medical circumcisions. What he does has a religious or spiritual component, since the brit milah ceremony is the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Abraham. He also does baby naming or zeved ha-bat ceremonies, for girls.

Having studied music and Jewish Studies at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s joint program, Sherman uses his musical background as a cantor on the Upper West Side.

Having been a mohel for 40 years now, Sherman has already started to perform second-generation brisses. And as for as his future plans, he said, he wants to continue doing the tradition as long as he is able. “I get to be involved in an amazing moment in people’s lives.”

Explain what a mohel is and how it came about that you became one. I read that your grandfather did the same.

Yes, my mother’s father. The brit milah ceremony is the reaffirmation of the ancient promise between God and Abraham. It is the sign of that covenant. It has nothing to do with health reasons or cleanliness, which happens to be a modern misperception. The person who performs this ceremony is called a mohel in Modern Hebrew or a moyl in more common parlance. Being a mohel has certain qualifications. Although one might know how to circumcise, that does not necessarily qualify one to be a mohel. In order to perform this or any other significant religious ceremony or function, one must personally be religiously observant, Sabbath observing, Kosher keeping, etcetera.

Non-Jewish families choose to use you as well. Why do you think that is?

They learn, either by reading my website or actually attending a bris, the difference between what a traditional mohel does and what they do in the hospital, or what doctors do. So basically, Jewish law requires me to have the gentlest, quickest and most compassionate way to perform the circumcision. Anything which would increase the discomfort to the child is prohibited by Jewish law. So when I do it, the circumcision takes under 20 seconds with the baby on a double pillow held usually by the warm, loving hands of his grandfather. The entire ceremony is 10 to 15 minutes. In the hospital, the baby is often restrained, strapped down naked to a molded plastic bodyboard. The technique which the doctors or hospitals use can take, depending on the proficiency of the individual, from 10 to 45 minutes. This is inherently unacceptable in Jewish law. Non-Jewish families realize that there is a gentler, much more compassionate way to circumcise, performed by someone who is a super specialist at this and dedicated because of the love of the commandment.

What are some of your memorable brises? You have done one in a bar and another in a nightclub.

Yes, PJ Reilly’s on 23rd and Third. I don’t know if they’re still around, but I think they are. The family lived upstairs in one of the apartments, so the most convenient place was the bar. I did a bris in nightclub called Lava. I have to tell you, those are particularly challenging because by nature, they’re often poorly lit. They’re very romantic, but not ideal for a bris. I once did a bris suspended across a swimming pool; they built a platform. One step in the wrong direction and you’re in the pool.

You earned degrees in music and Jewish Studies at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s joint program.

What happened was, I was going to audition at all the major music schools because as a kid, I had a pretty good voice. I came from a family of cantors and thought I was going to pursue a professional vocal career. Unfortunately, I developed a polyp on my vocal chords as I was graduating high school, and had to cancel all of that. So not certain of whether or not I would have a vocal future, I wanted to learn something else which perhaps could secure a livelihood either in conjunction with being a cantor or not. So that’s when decided that I’d better learn something, and this was a good thing, my grandfather did it. So I made the arrangements to study in Israel when I was 20 years old. In my junior year abroad, I trained to be a mohel with the then chief mohel of Jerusalem.

You’ve been in some commercials, movies and on TV. How did that come about?

It actually came about through the synagogue. I believe it was 1987. It was the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights and Philip Morris produced a commercial in recognition of that. And they had an interior shot of our synagogue, but they had some Ashkenazic cantor singing something. And after viewing the commercial, I said, “Guys, right picture, wrong music.” And they said, “Well, can you come down and sing something?” So I went down to the studio and sang a couple of things and they accepted a bit of it and put it in the commercial. And that’s how I was able to join Screen Actors Guild. And in the interim, I’ve done commercials, television, movies, just all by virtue of the fact that people know who I am.

To learn more, visit www.emohel.com



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