Every January, newspapers fill with photos of the first babies of the secular year. Now Lucy Waldman — one of a handful of mohelets, or female mohels — in the United States, is running a baby contest for the Jewish New Year.
Waldman, who also works as a nurse midwife and childbirth educator, was certified as a mohelet in 2010 through a program of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2010. In her first annual “New Year, New Baby Contest,” (the first baby born in 5774 will win a $100 gift card for Diapers.com and be featured on Mama Mohel, Waldman’s blog.
With four sons, Waldman, 43, has been both a consumer and provider of circumcision service: in fact, negative experiences with her older sons’ brisses spurred her to learn the trade herself.
The Jewish Week spoke with Waldman, who lives in Short Hills, N.J. and works throughout the New York area, by phone this week. The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Jewish Week: What was your experience like with your sons’ mohels?
Waldman: My first son was with an Orthodox mohel who actually used a glass pipette and did metzitzah [a controversial ritual in which the mohel sucks the blood from the penis]. As a certified nurse-midwife, I’d been doing circumcisions in the hospital for years, so I stood over this mohel to watch, and I was horrified. What I was concerned about, and went to an urologist to confirm, was that he had taken off too much. The bleeding was immense and the healing was concerning. For someone who does circumcisions and had a pretty good handle on what to expect during the ceremony, it was, from my perspective, so over-the-top upsetting. … Then, with my twins, the [Conservative] rabbi was an hour and 45 minutes late, and was quite rude. Again, one of my sons needed an urologist to correct the circumcision. For the fourth son, I used a Conservative rabbi referred by my rabbi [Steven Bayar at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn]. He said, “He’s not particularly pleasant or kind, but he does a good circumcision.” After that, Rabbi Bayar said, “Go get certified, we need you!”
If you are Conservative, why did you get certified through the Reform movement?
Another midwife who’s also a mohelet recommended this program, and I did it with my rabbi’s blessing. It was a four-day intensive study of the halacha [Jewish law] of brit milah, studying from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. just of Torah study: what’s OK and what’s not OK. It was wonderful. I went to a Schechter [Conservative day] school [The Brandeis School in Lawrence, L.I.] as a girl, so I’d studied Torah before, but studying as an adult was magnificent … As a mohelet, I don’t just serve Reform Jews; I work with everybody but the Orthodox, and even with some Orthodox. I always say, “Make sure your family is OK with this. Once a bris got cancelled, because one of the grandmothers couldn’t handle [having a female mohel]. But I’ve done many ceremonies where there were Orthodox guests, and they always have something lovely to say, which is nice.
Is there any halachic prohibition against women serving as mohels?
When I first start exploring this seriously, I Googled and found a JTA article from the 1990s about whether or not mohelot were halachically correct. Here’s the neat thing: Tziporah [Moses’ wife] in the Bible set a precedent by doing her sons’ circumcision with the flint. If you go to the Gemara, it will say a woman is OK, but only if there are no men available … In the JTA article, it said a number of Orthodox rabbis interviewed said it was OK within halacha [for women to be mohelot], but what’s interesting is they all refused to have their names mentioned.
How does your experience as a mother affect your work?
I know what a new mother is experiencing, and my priority is to keep the baby safe, do a quality circumcision and make sure everyone in the family is comfortable, Mom and Dad especially. We have a number of discussions before the bris, but when I walk into the bris room, the first thing I do is take Mom, Dad and baby into a separate room and have a quiet moment, get them in tune with what’s next. When parents say they’re scared, I say that’s understandable. My goal is for the parents to feel the beauty of the welcome ceremony. It’s a sacred event. I love when the mom or dad says, “I felt it.” That’s when I know I’m OK.
A lot of liberal and secular Jews are opting not to have a brit milah nowadays or even a circumcision, with some feeling it is cruel or barbaric. Have you encountered families in which one parent doesn’t want to circumcise the child, and how do you deal with that?
I won’t do Brit Shalom — that’s what they call a bris without circumcision … There are a lot of families that call and want me to do a circumcision but “without all those blessings and prayers and stuff.” I tell them I’m happy to do a secular circumcision for you, but that’s not a bris, they’re not synonymous. … Generally after a conversation, most families I speak with feel more comfortable. I say that everyone needs to be on board, and if they’re not, that needs to be worked out ahead of time.
What’s the case you make for families that are on the fence about whether or not to have a bris?
There’s such a clear benefit from circumcision regarding [mitigating] the risk of HPV and HIV, both of which can be life threatening, and we all want to protect our children. But when asked, I’ll tell people what I feel, but it’s a personal decision and I’m not the spokesperson for circumcision, although I do believe in it. There are lots of good and very valid [medical] reasons to do circumcision, but the reason we’re in this room is for this special ceremony, this welcome after the eighth day, which we do because we were asked to do it, because it was put forth in the first book of the Bible.
I know a lot of your clients are interfaith families. Will you do a bris if the father is Jewish, but the mother is not?
Because I was certified by the Reform movement, I definitely accept patrilineal descent. However, I have to make sure the mom who is not Jewish is board with raising the baby in Judaism … What’s neat is that it’s often a spiritual experience for the gentiles at the bris, as well as the Jews. One grandma said after a bris, “I’m not Jewish, but I felt the beauty.”
You’re a midwife and a mohelet. Have you ever done a bris for a baby you delivered?
I’ve definitely circumcised babies I’ve delivered in the hospital, but I haven’t performed a bris for a baby I delivered. A number who I’ve done childbirth education for, but I have not caught a baby and then eight days later done a brit milah.
Your mohelet practice, Birth to Bris (http://www.birthtobris.com/), includes childbirth education and brit milah, but not childbirth itself. Why?
I work part-time at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, but mostly doing prenatal care with their Medicaid patients. Bris and childbirth education is more schedulable than birthing, so for me, as a parent of four children working around soccer games and baseball games, it’s a little easier. It’s still hard, since people can’t plan more than eight days in advance, but it mostly works out. I also have an au pair and a very good husband.
What’s the best part about your job?
What I love is that there’s so much good will in the room. Everyone is there in support and with love and good wishes, everyone is happy, joyful and is feeling tremendous amounts of love. I love knowing the baby is going to be OK. I love working with young families. The first couple of weeks after birth a mother is almost in a hallucinatory state from hormones and sleep deprivation, and I love being able to be there for them.