THE MOHEL OF NEWINGTON HIGH STREET

 

By

 

Elaine Elinson

 

 

I wasn't sure whether I really wanted to go through all the ceremony. I didn't have much time to think about tradition, Jewish or otherwise, what with learning how to breast feed and bathe my first-born and tie diapers on his bottom. And since it didn't come on the approved list of National Health Service procedures, my Cockney, dyed-in-the-wool Labour Party husband Gil certainly wasn't pushing it. It was more for health reasons -- I'd read in a magazine that Jewish women and nuns have the lowest incidence of cervical cancer.

If my mother had not arrived from New Jersey to help me with the new baby, I'm sure the little bit of baby Robert's foreskin would have been lost in the shuffle, until it was too late. My traditional Jewish mother was probably shocked when she changed the diaper of her uncircumcised grandson, but she didn't burden me with her judgment. She just gently suggested that I ask the midwife when she came around on her routine visit if there was someone she could recommend to circumcise my little Jewish boy.

My midwife, Mrs. Ellerbee, was from Jamaica. Her blackberry leaf-and-ginger tea had cured my morning sickness. She calmed my dread of bathing my precious baby in the chill of a British November in front of a gas heater in our sitting room. Still, she seemed a most unlikely person to recommend a mohel. But then, why not. The patients at our East End London neighborhood clinic were a mix of Cockneys, orthodox Jews, post-World War II West Indian migrants, and more recent immigrants from Pakistan and Bangla Desh. Why wouldn't my Jamaican midwife know the whereabouts of a mohel, the traditional Jewish overseer of the ancient rite of circumcision.

My midwife knew just the right person -- Reverend Ibrahim who lived and practiced just up Newington High Street. When I phoned, he was not at all surprised to hear from one of Mrs. Ellerbee's charges. But I wasn't quite prepared for him.

"Of course, Mrs. Ellerbee recommended me, I'm highly recommended," he told me in an unfamiliar accent that was definitely not East End London nor Yiddish, "I've done circumcisions all over the world -- Israel, Iraq, the Continent. I responded admiringly, hoping just to make the simple arrangements, my mind still boggled by Robert's endless laundry, his round-the-clock nursing schedule, and my daily post-natal exercises. From the next room, I could hear the baby stirring, anxious for his next feeding. I tried to quickly schedule a time with the mohel. But Reverend Ibrahim did not want to hurry arrangements for this sacred, traditional ceremony.

"Well, let's see, tomorrow's Friday and that means the Sabbath," he said. "But how long has it been since he was born? Hmmm, that's more than a week already, and you know, dear, the Bible tells us that a brith milah must be done in eight days. You don't want to waste any more time -- yes, we'll have to do it tomorrow. Just a minute, dear, let me see what time the Sabbath begins."

After a consultation with his wife and the Jewish calendar, he decided that if we came at 2 PM, it could all be over before the Sabbath began at five minutes past four. "Fine, fine," I blurted out, trying to be polite as I rushed to hang up the phone. But he wasn't going to let me off so easy.

"So, tell me, dear...are you Jewish?"

For some unknown reason, I hesitated. "Yes, I am," I finally replied.

"That's good. Now, tell me, dear...is your husband Jewish?"

I smiled to myself, thinking this was surely the first time anyone had ever asked if Gil was Jewish. The burly Cockney dock union leader had probably never even worn a yarmulke on his curly red hair.

"Not to worry, not to worry,” the mohel's disappointment at my choice of a husband was short-lived. "It only really matters if the mother is Jewish. You see, Eleanor, it is the mother who has carried the baby inside her for nine months." After my own nine months of vomiting, backaches, and weariness, he hardly had to remind me of that.

"It is the mother who is connected to the baby by the umbilical cord. But the real reason, and I'll quote you from the Talmud..." -- at this point he launched into a lengthy Hebrew teaching and then, for my benefit, back to English -- "you can always tell who the mother is, right, dear? We will give your little Jewish son a real brit milah.

Robert's infant cries were becoming insistent. I needed to steer our conversation out of the fine points of rabbinical law. "Is there anything I should bring?"

"Oh yes, dear. Now bring four diapers -- the cloth kind, not the disposables, they are rubbish. Then you want to bring -- now get a pencil because you'll have to write this down -- some Cicatrin powder, Calgatex gauze, some -- are you writing this down? -- a tube of Sodium Cyclimate. You can get a prescription from the clinic and it won't cost you anything."

Hungry infant screams emanated from the bedroom. "Fine,” I replied, "I'll see you at 2 PM tomorrow."

"That's wonderful, my dear. Now don't be late. God bless you. Oh, and get the gauze and the powder at Crow & Sinclair Chemist -- my wife's cousin Yitzak works there, he'll be happy to help you."

Great, I thought, a mohel with a concession, as I checked my scribbled list.

I took Robert from my mother, who was having little success in quieting his hungry cries, and told her about the mohel's philosophy lessons. "At least by this time tomorrow it will all be over," she reassured me.

The next morning, the phone rang early. "Eleanor, darling, how are you? Are you excited about the brith milah this afternoon? Did you get all the things at the chemist? Imagine, I forgot to tell you, bring a bottle of wine, unopened. But don't worry about the cake, my wife already made your cake."

Cake, what cake? Rather than get into a lengthy conversation about the culinary requirements of the ritual, I answered with enthusiastic politeness. "Oh, that's so kind of her. Thank you very much." Then I began ticking over in my mind if we had any wine in the house.

"Of course, dear, the wine must be kosher. Bring Mogen David. Now, how many people will you be inviting?"

"Well, I think just my mother and I will be ---"

"No, dear, I mean men, Jewish men, of course. The Talmud tells us we need ten men for a minion."

I went through a list of my friends in London -- Cockney dockworkers, Jamaican poets, a couple of American draft resisters -- did I know any Jewish men after living here three years? Oh, would that I were back home in New Jersey.

Reverend Ibrahim must have sensed I had a problem. "Don't worry, dear, we'll have a minion, I'll take care of that, you're little boy will have his brith milah.

"And just one more thing. Your husband -- the one who isn't Jewish -- he won't be coming, will he?"

"Well," I hesitated, "he has to work..." Gil, who had two older sons by a previous marriage, had pretty much left the first few weeks of Robert's babyhood to my mother and me.

"You see, since the boy's father isn't Jewish, you just tell everyone that he had to go to America."

"You mean it's better that a father of a newborn baby fly off to America just a week after the birth, than that people find out he isn't Jewish?"

This time, the mohel cut short the conversation. "Yes, he had to fly off to America, that's it."

I put the phone down on the changing table and sat in the wooden rocker in front of the gas heater, cooing to Robert, smelling his sweet baby skin and the Ivory shampoo in his wispy red curls. “Everything will be all right,” I promised him.

A few hours later, my mother and I were pushing his navy blue pram up Newington High Street through a cold drizzle to Reverend Ibrahim's red brick row house. Tucked against my baby's lacy pillow was a bottle of Mogen David wine and a bagful of gauze, cloth diapers and other bris paraphernalia. "This must be it," my mother said pointing to the brass mezzuzah on the doorframe and she mother squeezed my hand as we pushed the doorbell. We were both taken aback when our mohel opened the door.

Reverend Ibrahim was barely five feet tall with dark olive skin and almond-shaped eyes. A white and gold satin yarmulke sat on his thinning, jet-black hair. His wife, who quickly lifted Robert from the pram and nuzzled him, was quite dark too, gypsy looking. She wore a tightly fitting purple crepe dress and gold hoop earrings. Four or five men were already in the sitting room, some looked Indian to me, others North African, but they were wearing the yarmulkes and a few had white satin fringed t'fillen draped over their shiny polyester green and aqua suits. They were unlike any Jews I had ever known.

"Ah, Eleanor, my dear, come in, come in, we're almost ready. This is my wife Sophia, my cousins, I think you already know Yitzak from the pharmacy, my two eldest sons. Sit here, sit right down here," he patted the plastic-covered sofa in front of the gas fire. A pile of overcoats, scarves and hats on an overstuffed armchair filled the room with the smell of damp wool. A steamy waft of cinnamon and honey escaped from the kitchen

"Did you get everything? No troubles, good. Give me your things." Reverend Ibrahim added our wet parkas to the pile of coats. "Mogen David, very good, dear. I'll just get the rest of the minion."

At that Reverend Ibrahim left the room and we heard him calling upstairs, "Yosef, Yosef, come on down now. Put away your algebra homework, we have a brith milah to do. What's algebra compared to a holy ceremony? Get down here now."

As we dried off in front of the gas fire, I kept a close eye on Robert, now snuggled contentedly in Sophia Ibrahim's ample bosom. I tried to figure out the protocol for the unfamiliar surroundings. On the mantle over the fireplace, we saw the Sabbath candleholders, on the side table the mitzvah box for donations to Israel decorated with e Star of David. The same items were in my grandmother's home in Brooklyn, but Reverend Ibrahim's were made of rosewood and hammered brass and looked more Arabic than the Eastern European ceramic crafts I was used to.

"So, tell us, where are you from?" said the mohel's wife, jiggling my happy baby in her arms. "Oh yes, America. There are lots of Jews in America, aren't there, love? My husband is from Iraq, I am from Yemen. Not that many Jews left there now. Our cousin Yitzak, you know him, love, don't you from the pharmacy, is also from Yemen. Oh, I must check the cake, excuse me, dear," she handed my baby back to me.

"All right, all right, we're ready. Everyone come in, come into the dining room," Reverend Ibrahim called and my mother and I followed the crowd through a narrow passageway. All the men filed into the dining room. I could see Reverend Ibrahim, now with a white and gold prayer shawl draped over his rumpled brown suit, standing by a table arrayed with gauze, powder, my bottle of wine and miniature surgical instruments in a blue velvet case.

We followed the men as they formed a circle around the table and draped their satiny prayer shawls over their shoulders.

"Oh, no, no, no," said Reverend Ibrahim excitedly. "Only the minion is allowed in this holy place," he said pushing my mother and me toward the door.

I clutched my newborn to my chest and looked at my mother bewildered. "You'll have to stand here," he said, pointing to a hallway outside the open dining room door like a movie director planting the extras on their assigned spots. Women, even mothers and grandmothers, could not come in the room of the brith milah.

"The baby, where's the baby?" the mohel shouted impatiently. I watched in astonishment as my precious son was handed like a football across the arc of Iraqi and Yemeni Jewish men.

"Yosef, sit here now," he motioned to his teenaged son who had carried his algebra book downstairs with him. Yosef looked bored. But he sat down in the solitary chair by the table and Reverend Ibrahim spread an embroidered blue velvet cloth on his knees. On top of the velvet, the mohel placed three cloth diapers and then my baby son.

"Baruch a'tau a'denoi," intoned the mohel. His prayer was met with a familiar, male chorus, "Eloch'anu me'loch ha'olam." Hearing the rhythmic chant, Robert peered up at Yosef, but did not stir or cry. As the Hebrew prayers went on and on, I fidgeted outside the dining room door.

I was jolted when the hypnotic chanting suddenly stopped and Reverend Ibrahim, standing over my naked baby with a Persian engraved silver scalpel, called out "The name? What's the boy's name?"

"Robert," I shouted.

He poised the scalpel in mid-air over Robert's tiny penis.

"We can't go on. We can definitely not go on. That is not a Jewish name."

"It is a Jewish name," I demanded back. "It's his name." My husband and I had pored over the big name book in the hospital. We only looked in the "M"s because I wanted to follow the Jewish tradition and name my baby after my beloved grandmother Malka who had died the year before. "He's a Jewish boy," I insisted.

"Then he needs a Jewish name. We can't go on," he said, scalpel raised precariously.

"His name is Aaron."

I turned and looked at my mother, who had shouted out the new name from our hallway exile. She whispered to me, "That was your grandfather's Hebrew name."

"A-ha-ron, A-ha-ron," the mohel pronounced the name with a decidedly Biblical inflection. "Aaron Ben-Eli, my darling Jewish boy, now we will go on. May this boy grow in vigor of mind and of body to a love of the Torah..."

As Reverend Ibrahim prayed, I wondered, who is Aaron Ben-Eli? Is it my own dear Robert, son of a Cockney dockworker and his American wife? Ben-Eli, son of Eleanor. The absent goyishe dad isn't even going to get a mention in this dining room full of bobbing men in shawls.

Robert howled. I buried my face in my hands. The next thing I knew generous triangles of Sophia Ibrahim's baklava on China plates and the Mogen David wine were being passed around. Reverend Ibrahim's cousins and sons grabbed the wine and cake with gusto.

The mohel handed me a gold-rimmed wine glass and my swaddled baby at the same time. "Mazel tov, Mazel tov," the men greeted me as if I had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Yosef dumped the velvet lap robe on the table and hurried back upstairs with his algebra book.

Reverend Ibrahim wrapped Robert up in a complicated arrangement of three diapers. He looked like the baby Moses pulled out of the bulrushes. "So, here is your Aaron Ben-Eli, a beautiful little Jewish boy. Now, you change his diapers -- you must use cloth diapers -- every three hours. Don't let him sleep on his stomach, don't let him move around for 24 hours. I'll come see you in two days to check up on him. Mazel tov!

Outside the lace curtains, the puddled Newington High Street was darkening in the late November afternoon. "Now you must go because the Sabbath is about to start. I can't have the neighbors saying that Reverend Ibrahim broke the Sabbath law by having a brith milah after sundown!"

When my husband came home later that night he found my mother and me occupying our big double bed, passing the elaborately-diapered Robert between us to keep him from moving. We'd been through about a hundred verses of "Rock-a-Bye Baby." Gil decided to sleep in the living room.

My mother and I spent the whole night holding Robert according to the mohel's instructions. We changed his diapers every three hours. At first we tried to imitate the intricate diaper construction of Reverend Ibrahim, but by the third change or so, we were happy just to get the diaper on over his little healing penis without waking him up. "Rock-a-bye, little Aaron Ben-Eli," I heard my mother sing out of the corner of my sleep. Before she dozed off, she'd nudge me and hand over the scabbing, but sleeping infant. "When the bow breaks..."

On Sunday morning, Reverend Ibrahim showed up early just as he said he would. "I'm sorry, I'd love to stay for a cup of tea but I really can't because we're going out to my cousin's place in Golders Green. It's so nice to get away of a Sunday, don't you think, dear? Where is my little Aaron?"

I led him into the bedroom and he lifted the swaddled Robert out of the crib. He placed him gently on the aqua vinyl changing pad on the bureau and unwrapped the diapers.

"Oh, this is beautiful," he said, turning Robert's little penis from one side to the other. "What I beautiful job I did. A brith milah like this, I never even did for my own grandsons.

Then, looking into my baby's eyes, Reverend Ibrahim said lovingly, "Someday, Aaron Ben-Eli, someday, your wife will kiss my hand!"

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