Wine in the Baby’s Mouth

To circumcise or not to circumcise? The decision is influenced by cultural forces and religious tradition, especially for secular Jews and Muslims.



t’s about to start.” I text a friend from a house in California, a back room, where my brother is holding his eight-day-old son away from the influx of guests. The air is thick with tension and a desire for the thing to be done that is so palpable you can almost run your finger down the length of it. The baby sleeps on, though, peaceful and oblivious, dressed in a onesie decorated with a tallis.

“Wine in the mouth.” My friend texts back and I stare at the words for a few seconds, perplexed, before the mohel — the man in charge, the man who will wield the scalpel — calls us in.

I’ve never been to a bris before. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not true. The last bris I went to, the only bris, was my brother’s and that was 1982. I was five years old, and it must have felt like a birthday party to me. There was food, after all, heaps of food, and there were gifts. A bris is a celebration of sorts, just one with a medical procedure at the heart of it, a medical procedure that needs tending to before you can tuck into the pickles and coleslaw.

My brother and I were raised in the same house, syringed with the same dose of Judaism, but I gave it up a long time ago. I have three sons myself, none of whom are circumcised. This was not a choice my husband and I made on principle per se, at least not initially. In Britain, where our children were born, circumcisions are not performed routinely in the hospital on day one or two of life, an elective extra to be ticked off — or not — on the list of baby’s first pediatric services.

When we had asked our general practitioner about our options in this respect, before the baby was born, before we knew the baby even had a penis with which to tamper, he explained the way it worked. If we wanted a cut aesthetic for our son, and if we wanted to achieve it on the National Health Service (NHS) for non-religious reasons, we would have to wait. A year. Yes, a whole year. “It’s treated as a rather serious intervention here,” the doctor told us matter-of-factly. “We do it in the operating theatre, under a general anesthetic.”

Given this timetable, not circumcising our son ranked among the easier parenting decisions we faced that first year. The idea of ferrying a twelve-month-old to the hospital to undergo an unnecessary surgery and then dealing with the aftercare in the context of his burgeoning toddlerhood was, to put it bluntly, beyond unappealing. In the absence of any truly countervailing factors, religious or otherwise, we chose to leave our first son’s foreskin intact, as we did for the two sons who followed him.

In the UK, this is par for the course: about 90 percent of the male population is uncircumcised, including my British-born husband. According to the NHS, “Most health professionals in England would argue that there are no medical reasons why a baby boy should be circumcised.” It’s an attitude shared by other countries on this side of the Atlantic, several of which have issued deterrents against the practice in recent years, such as the Royal Dutch Medical Association’s policy of discouragement and the proposal by the Norwegian ombudsman for children’s rights that Jews and Muslims replace circumcision with another kind of symbolic ritual.

But my brother is American and he lives in the U.S., where roughly 75 percent of men are circumcised. My brother is also a practicing Jew, as is his wife, which means the circumcision of their son was not just a medical act or a decision swayed by the strong currents of nationality and inertia. It was a deeply religious ritual, steeped in age-old tradition: the most important commandment undertaken by a Jewish male, so the mohel reminded us with due gravity on that uncharacteristically stormy Saturday morning, after the injunction to go forth and procreate.

“Ceremony and ritual march us carefully right through the center of our deepest fears about change,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert. We witness each other’s ritualistic ceremonies to offer support to the people we love who are in transition. Perhaps I interpreted the “witness” facet of this sentiment too stringently, because it was for this reason that I found myself watching my nephew’s circumcision. The cut was the spectacle, after all, the main-stage event for which I had travelled thousands of miles. It seemed wrong somehow not to see it through, literally as well as metaphorically.

While my sister-in-law stood at the window, her back turned on her wailing son, and my brother swiveled to and fro, unsure exactly where to let his focus fall, I kept my eyes trained on the star of the show, all eight pounds of him. The grandfather who had been granted the honor of holding the baby’s legs sat next to the table, as the mohel began his work. The other grandfather daubed the tiny mouth with wine, a rudimentary sedative which colored both the gauze in his hand and the baby’s petal-smooth cheeks crimson.

This last part stunned me, maybe even more so than the actual procedure, its archaism both disturbing and profoundly moving. As with the perpetuation of other aspects of Judaism that have been rendered obsolete by modernity, the wine in the baby’s mouth represented to me two things at once. The heft of history, the long and winding thread that binds a people together, a community, over thousands of years. But also the often times vexing nature of anachronism. As a classicist, I am vulnerable to the power of these traditions, these bridges between past and present. And yet, the mother in me couldn’t believe what I was looking at: the incongruity of Manischewitz dripping from an infant’s lips, where I had only ever seen the cloud-white of milk.

Since that day, I’ve spoken to many of my American friends about circumcision. Of the raft of conversations I’ve had over the years about new parenthood, this is a topic that has been left virtually untouched. Suddenly I had a million questions. About their emotional reactions to the surgery (no big deal or somewhat traumatic?). About the practicalities of caring for the wound site (it doesn’t look fun for the squeamish). Most of all, however, I was curious as to how they made the decision in the first place, assuming it even registered as a decision.

What I learned is that, as with most parenting choices, there is a desired outcome and then there is the justificatory path one takes to get to it. The preponderant reason for circumcision — be it religious affiliation, potential medical advantage, the benefit of blending in with one’s peers or one’s father — varies from family to family and is determined largely by personal experience. As ever, culture and its attendant values weigh heavily.

My husband’s was the first uncircumcised penis I ever saw. I was twenty years old. Such was my naïveté, such was the parochialism of my Jewish American upbringing, that it took me longer than might be expected to realize this was the case. It never occurred to me, as I spent that semester abroad exploring the streets of London, that I was amidst a country full of penises that were a different shape from the one with which I was familiar. Now, of course, with three young, uncut sons in constant states of undress, my sense of the familiar in this regard has shifted entirely.

When my first son arrived into the world, he was, in my eyes, perfect. I counted his toes, I traced the contours of his face, I drank in every ounce of him. Despite our preliminary investigation into circumcision, I saw his penis, the way it emerged from the womb, as simply another perfect part of the whole. The truth is, at that moment, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about him. Not a single little thing.

Lauren Apfel

Lauren Apfel is a writer and mother of four, including twins. She blogs at omnimom and is the debate editor and a contributing blogger for Brain, Child Magazine. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.



  1. Why not call it what it is?: Male genital mutilation, a barbaric relic of primitive Abrahamic superstitions. A little known fact is that significant erogenous tissues are excised–forever. People are rightfully outraged when similar atrocities are perpetrated on female infants, but we guys get very little sympathy.

    There is no legitimate medical reason for this procedure (problems attributed to foreskins have far less drastic solutions), and it’s a shocking violation of one’s person when done without consent, which infants aren’t capable of furnishing. It needs to fade away, like the archaic religions that spawned it.

      1. There are more effective ways to avoid AIDS than cutting off part of one’s dick. Get a life and quit advocating for mutilating helpless infants because you read in some dusty book that a primitive and bloodthirsty deity requires it. If an individual does his due diligence and decides to go down that path, great–it’s his dick. But don’t inflict that without consent.

        Maybe your god is a sanctimonious and narcissistic dick who needs more than just a circumcision. Isn’t he the one who also commands homos to be stoned to death? Yet billions choose to follow such a depraved overlord. No wonder human progress is stalled. Or perhaps you’re just a lunatic man-hater that rejoices in male suffering. Hard to say with both kinds of sick thinking so prevalent nowadays. Wise up and quit cutting on the babies.

        Did you know the glans of the penis is a mucous membrane? Try sticking your tongue out for a few decades and see how it fares. In your case that might be a good thing if it prevents you from using it to promote your perverse agenda.

    1. This isn’t how we share differences of opinions on STIR. Please review our comment policy. Any more of this hostility and I’ll delete your comments and block you both.

          1. Sorry Laurel, I actually did have a somewhat-thoughtful response to Lauren Apfel piece, before I got distracted by a penis. I think that I’ll submit it separately as an unsolicited article.

          2. Look, Andy, I regret that my opinion offends you, and I acknowledge I could have been more gentle in my criticism, but there’s no need to escalate to juvenile name-calling. The fact that I object to infant circumcision has no relation to any antipathy on my part toward Jewish people, because I have none. I’m just curious about why this ritual is so sacrosanct when many other commandments of Jehovah have fallen by the wayside and would be considered evil if practiced in this day and age. The Torah contains all manner of divinely-sanctioned (and even required) behavior that would be regarded as outrageous even by most Jews (excepting the fanatical fundamentalist exceptions present in every religion). So why is it that this thing hasn’t gone the way of, say, stoning disobedient children, or forcing a woman to marry her rapist? Both Judaism and Christianity have moved on from a medieval phase in which much of Islam appears to have become stuck, and circumcision seems to constitute a relic of that bygone era. So if lots of other things that Jehovah commanded are no longer regarded as appropriate, why is it that this thing still is? Can you please explain that without resorting to hostility? Because there is no need to regard an attack on infant circumcision as an attack on Judaism, any more than (I would hope) an objection to capital punishment for gathering sticks on the Sabbath would be regarded as such. Could we please lay emotion aside and have a reasonable discussion? Traditions can have value, but they can also outlive their usefulness. Is there to be no human progress?

          3. Yes, we can have a civil discussion, and I appreciate your reaching out. And when you put it that way (“Why is this ritual so sacrosanct when many other commandments of Jehovah have fallen by the wayside and would be considered evil if practiced in this day and age?”), I am curious to explore it, too.

            First, an aside. “Being Jewish” does not refer to a theology per se; it’s some inseparable amalgam of theology, race, nationality, ethnicity, culture, shared history, and tribe–a “people”, for lack of a better term. And no one argues that Jews have a “monopoly on oppression”–that’s a strawman argument made all the time by people who have a serious problem with Jews as a people. But nevertheless, it is universally accepted that, for the past two thousand years, Jews have been tortured and killed en mass with the goal of making them and their religion “fade away”. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were ostensibly about religion and not race. The Russian/Ukrainian pogroms were not about theology. Hitler didn’t consider religion at all–anyone with one Jewish grandparent was marked for death, regardless of whether his other three grandparents and both parents had become fervent Christians. Regardless of the motive of any particular demagogue or murderous mob, calling for the demise of Jewish theology is indistinguishable from calling for the demise of the Jewish race, nationality, ethnicity, culture, shared history, and tribe. They are each a facet of the same stone. So when someone says that my religion is archaic and needs to fade away, I tend to take it as a very personal assault, and respond predictably. (N.B. Beginning May 14, 1948, the Jews, officially and at long-last, stopped rolling with the punches.)

            On circumcision: Many if not most Jews believe that the Torah is allegorical rather than literal. Even those who believe it is literal also accept the thousands of years of rabbinical interpretation and moderation as truth. As a result, from very early on, any practice that today would be considered to be violent or cruel was effectively eliminated. Many argue that that’s why Jews were easy targets. Frankly, if the ideals of today’s Jewish theology were put into practice, it would create a socialist utopia that would satisfy any self-identified progressive. Plus, an enthusiasm for debating assumptions is considered a point of pride in Jewish culture, so the question of whether circumcision is unnecessary or cruel is absolutely fair game.

            I don’t presume to have the answer, but I can relate my own experience. My first child’s bris was the first I had ever attended. Ethnically, and technically per religious doctrine, I am a Jew, but I had been raised in a family with a general contempt for all religion. Somehow I had ended up as an “agnostic theist”: I believed that there almost certainly was a god—to paraphrase Albert Einstein said, the universe is too fantastically complex to be an accident–but I didn’t know a thing more. My wife, on the other hand had been raised with a moderate “dose” of Judaism, and had no regrets, but at heart was (and remains) essentially an atheist. So, the long and short of it is, when I started a family, circumcision was never a given.

            By the time my son was born, my wife and I hadn’t discussed it in any depth. The topic was easily ignored in favor of much more life-altering decisions that first-time parents face, such as the precise make and model of crib to buy, or whether to use cloth diapers or disposable. Plus, we didn’t know whether the baby would be a boy or girl.

            But we did have to settle on a name, which at the same time involves the planning of a bris: In Judaism, boys are not given a name before the bris (short for bris milah, the “covenant of circumcision”), which takes place exactly eight days after birth (provided that the baby is healthy–per Jewish law, protecting life and health trumps every other rule). Choosing the name turned out to be easy; envisioning a stranger cutting my son was not. He had like a strike of lightening become the most precious and beloved thing in my world. I really ticked off the nurses by not allowing them to take him out of my sight, let alone stick any needles into him (don’t get excited, he was vaccinated eventually). So, of course, my first reaction to the actual idea of circumcision was, absolutely not.

            But as my wife and I discussed and studied the ritual, our minds gradually changed. Who were we to break a chain that stretches back 3500 years? To forsake the sacrifices that our fore-bearers made to preserve our connection to the covenant described in the Torah–regardless of whether it was literal or allegorical? And by all accounts we had heard and read, a bris could be a beautiful and joyous ceremony, an event that gathered all the extended family and friends around a new life, and marked and celebrated his entry into his family and world—as well as, yes, his connection to the god of Abraham. “Agnostic theist” or not, to me he felt to me like a miracle. So, although I was not by any means convinced, the planning marched forward.

            My wife’s childhood friend had almost off-handedly taken care of arranging all the catering and other preparations for hosting fifty-or-so of our closest family and friends. The guests had arrived, and random enthusiastic reunions were being made. The mohel (an observant Jewish man who is trained to perform circumcisions) called from his car to say that he had gotten lost, and asked for more detailed directions. Twenty minutes later he called again–still lost–which didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Everyone else was had already dug into the lunch by the time he finally made his appearance, but I wasn’t eating; the knot in my gut had grown to the size of a melon.

            The mohel ushered my wife, our new son, and me into the bedroom, where he patiently explained details of the ritual, and applied a local anesthetic to my son’s foreskin. We stepped back out to the living room to begin the ceremony. My grandfather, of blessed memory, held my son in his lap; I, feeling weak at the knees, held up the wall. Then the cloth napkin—dabbed in Manischewitz and then into my son’s mouth. That surprised me, as I had never heard of the practice, but it didn’t bother me (at the moment, I myself was wishing for a bath towel drenched in scotch). I looked away as the mohel recited the relevant prayers and, without pause or hesitation, expertly circumcised my son. He cried briefly, but to put things in perspective, he definitely had cried longer and louder in objection to his diaper being changed. Then he nursed from his mother, and fell blissfully asleep.

            I recall that day well and with no regrets–though I also remember the melon. My son, 18 years old now, had a respectable dose of religion, but turned out to be a stubborn atheist, just like his mom. He and I have discussed circumcision, and he has no regrets either–though, like I was, he is not at all certain about what he will do when, G-d willing, the time comes.

          4. OK, now we’re communicating. I appreciate that the history of the Jews would foster what could be interpreted as a rigid defensiveness regarding opposition to anything connected with that culture, but I didn’t suggest that THEY should fade away–only that this practice should follow some of the others I’ve cited into oblivion. And when I said “fade away,” I meant through a process of growth and enlightenment, not persecution and prohibition.

            I also appreciate your personal experience, which my opposition to infant circumcision can in no way diminish. My background is different, but similar in some respects. I grew up as an atheist, and regarded religion as a pathetic crutch for weak people. However, that didn’t prevent me from being inexplicably drawn as a young adult into the most extreme, fundamentalist–even cultlike–Christianity imaginable. In retrospect, it’s hard to comprehend how this could possibly have happened, though it did, and escaping the mind control didn’t render the experiences I had any less real or powerful. But I really have moved on, and even though I don’t understand what it was all about, I now look at some of my most cherished previous beliefs as bizarre and distasteful. Still, it’s part of my history, and I’d be lying if I denied that some of the most profound and moving episodes of my life occurred during that period. I can’t even regret it.

            Part of what I find disturbing about the subject at hand is that others are deciding to take from a person without his consent something significant that can’t be recovered. I’ve read accounts by men who were circumcised as adults, lamenting their loss of sensation and sexual pleasure. A sacrifice like that isn’t something that should be forced on another. I suppose it could be argued that a person never misses what they haven’t experienced, but I’m all for maximum potential. Maybe a different part could get snipped…an earlobe or something? It might be healthy to reassess even core values.

            So, Andy, no hard feelings, and I hope this kerfuffle has at least furnished you with some food for thought. I know I’m putting what you said in my pipe and smoking it. I at least hope to become a less obnoxious person because of this encounter. Shalom!

  2. Oh my, I seem to of struck a nerve! Did the mohel botch your own circumcision?

    In Africa, circumcision has saved millions of lives. They tried condoms and education alone, but the compliance rate was too low. Today, adult men are lining up for a new nearly painless circumcision procedure developed by a leading humanitarian relief organization.

    As for the rest of your hate-filled screed, it makes me feel sorry for you. It must be very lonely to have no connection to tradition, or your forefathers and mothers, or believe in anything greater than your angry little self.

    1. Please don’t presume to extrapolate my emotional state from a few words you find disagreeable; the only anger is in your imagination. With regard to hate, I don’t hate babies enough to violate their persons and excise a vital part of their anatomies. Out of deference to the comment policy, I’ll just say that I think it’s great that ADULT African males are making their own informed decisions…that’s the way it should be. Babies aren’t out there spreading HIV anyway, so your point is moot. You have furnished no legitimate medical reason to circumcise an infant, leading me to believe your support for this is superstition-based. Isn’t it?

  3. It’s not so much your words that I find disagreeable, its the way that you strung them together into a seething, hateful, thinly-veiled assault on an ancient and historically oppressed nation of people whom *you* find disagreeable. (A simple-minded people, who, by the way, have passed down a host of ignorant superstitions over the millennia–like that old tripe about not murdering.)

    Your arguments follow in the footsteps of those of a long line of right-thinking individuals who find that ancient people’s ways to be, er, “disagreeable”–Adolf Hitler being the most recent example, but Torquemada being more apropos.

    1. Well, I see it hasn’t taken long for Godwin’s Law to kick in. I’m unable to comprehend how I can be seething and hateful while in a state of perfect calm. Unless you have telepathic ability, you have no certain knowledge of my interior state, and your speculations are inaccurate.

      It appears you are somewhat hypersensitive about this topic. Rather than employing reason, you resort to an appeal to tradition, since the issue at hand has nothing to do with African men and HIV, but with inflicting physical damage on unconsenting infants.

      The ancient people you reference don’t have a monopoly on being oppressed, and have historically acted as oppressors themselves from time to time, as recorded in their own chronicles, which include accounts of sanctioned infanticide during episodes of what is now referred to as ethnic cleansing. Perhaps the worst oppression they suffer is the obligation to follow every jot and tittle of an ancient text, including parts which have been superseded by rational inquiry and bear no relevance to modern life. I sympathize, having been trapped in extreme fundamentalist religion for some years myself. To prove one’s faith in that context, it’s necessary to engage in bizarre and objectionable behavior which confounds even basic common sense (and sometimes human decency). Getting off that bus was a great decision. What you choose to interpret as anti-Semitism is merely anti-funtamentalism, and I abhor Hitler and Torquemada (who were also extreme fundamentalists) as much as you do.

      How do you feel about female genital mutilation, btw? It’s an ancient tradition too, no doubt practiced just as fervently as what you are advocating. It’s difficult to see how you can countenance one while rejecting the other, unless you are prepared to condemn all religions other than your own. Is that what it boils down to–intolerance?

  4. How about this: I won’t lecture you on whatever is central to your life (video games?) and you don’t lecture me about a 3500 year old tradition that binds me and my sons, in an unbroken chain of fathers and sons, to the the beginning of recorded history, the dawn of monotheism, and the bedrock of western civilization’s basic precepts of justice and compassion.

    1. I retain the right to express my opinions about anything, even though you don’t like them, and sorry, your speculation is way off once again–I’ve never been a gamer, so you’ll have to pick a new lecture topic.

      My own son has thanked me for not inflicting this procedure on him, and I’ve learned that it’s possible to grow the foreskin back (minus some parts which are gone forever, but at least my poor glans will have the opportunity to de-keratinize and regain some of its sensitivity).

      1. Once you’ve got that squared away, you might take a little holiday junket to Nigeria, where you can school the Boko Haram on FGM. In return they’ll give you an important lesson on the difference between the traditions of a liberal pluralistic religion and those of a fundamentalist one.

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