I hold my new U.S. congresswoman, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, in high esteem for a lot of reasons, but especially for the character she played in a one-act drama on a Phoenix stage on Aug. 2, 2001. Nearly 12 1/2 years ago, she performed in “Jacob’s Gift,” playing the role of a new Jewish mother who passionately resisted family pressures to have her newborn son, Jacob, put through the ritual of circumcision, or the bris milah, almost routinely carried out on the 8th day after birth if a family is observant. I had seen the play promoted in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix newspaper. Being a longtime opponent of the crude, rude amputation of foreskins from helpless babies and minors for whatever reason, I was determined to see the play.
That Sunday afternoon, my wife, my daughter and one of her friends from Arizona State University went to On The Spot Theater on North Central Avenue for the 50-minute production. Kyrsten had the lead role of Eileen Mendelson Levi. The small cast of six included Eileen’s husband, father-in-law, mother, a mohel and another woman. The cast notes said, “Kyrsten Sinema – Eileen: …Kyrsten is a social worker in Phoenix who aspires to win the upcoming City Council seat in District 8. She loves shoes and purses and hates macrame owls.” (Kyrsten would lose that election, but later win Arizona House and Senate races and then her race for Congress for District 9 last November). A question was asked on the program cover: “How can 5,000 years of tradition be changed in one afternoon?”
Throughout the play, I was heartened by this young mother’s resolve to protect her son from religiously prescribed genital mutilation. Her angst and her motherly instincts were powerfully demonstrated. Her courage and her skills at voicing her objections lifted my hopes that, yes, Jacob would remain intact. But it wasn’t to be. The old grandfather delivered the case that an ancient rite trumps pain, body alteration, penile reduction surgery or self-determination of one’s body. In my theater seat, I felt as if a knife went through my heart. SHE CAPITULATED! NO! NO! The tyranny of family tradition and religious history won the day. Isn’t humanity suppose to progress out of its ruthless habits?
Well, I went home and wrote lengthy letters to Kyrsten Sinema and to the playwright, Judith Eisenberg of Phoenix. I told Judy, “Both curiosity and dread commanded my thoughts as we sat down in the front row of ‘Jacob’s Gift.’ I feared we would be given a long, Old Testament harangue on the total necessity of the bris milah, with all the cliche puns and jokes about circumcision weaved in. I expected to be cursing under my breath at tired, ancient pretexts for circumcision. I cannot tell you how heartened I was to follow the words of Eileen Mendelson Levi. Her courage of expression, powerful delivery, compassion and grit promised new hope and a new day for the 8th day naming ceremony. … Thank you for creating a strong, intelligent character who could be believed with such iconoclastic thoughts.”
In my two-page letter, I informed Judy Eisenberg of my decades of circumcision prevention writings, education and advocacy. I pointed out how many Jews and Jewish writers had written on the topic “to awaken Judaism to what is needlessly happening to their sons.” I supplied her with a partial list, like Edward Wallenstein’s 1980 book “Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy”; Ron Goldman’s books, “Questioning Circumcsion: A Jewish Perspective” and “Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma”; or Rosemary Romberg’s books, “Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma” and “Peaceful Beginnings.” I named other Jews working to end such body alterations. Then there were such high-profile men of Jewish heritage, radio shock jock Howard Stern, and radio medical host Dr. Dean Edell who don’t miss opportunities to debunk and discredit the repulsive practice.
Judy Eisenberg later called me and we had a rich discussion. In 2006, she told me she was reworking the ending and hoped to have it staged again.
Kyrsten wrote me a long letter days after the play. “Although I am not personally involved in the movement to end male circumcision, I have followed it over the past four or five years and agree with the arguments against it and am in total agreement there is no medical or hygienic need for the procedure.
“I was more interested in Judy’s play for somewhat different, but related reasons. As an agnostic who has studied world religions for almost 10 years, I am interested in religious thought, customs and rituals and have always been fascinated with the idea that people in societies do things just because ‘they’re supposed to.” Organized religion, by its very definition, prescribes a set of rules and then tells its ‘followers’ to live by these rules.”
Kysten said there were parts of the Eileen character she was “not fond of….For instance, she makes her final decision about the circumcision after having a spiritual experience even though she had obviously been having questions regarding the procedure prior to that event?”
“However, Eileen, like so many in organized religion, buckles under to peer pressure of her family and culture. Every night, I wish that Eileen wouldn’t back down. She made a decision. She was sure — positive — that she wouldn’t do this. Then why did she do it? Many people in organized religion, while criticizing some aspects of it, are yet reluctant to actually do something about their thoughts. Instead, they pay lip service to their questioning and then capitulate, going back to the comfort zone of the prescription.”
Kyrsten talked about her conversations with playwright Judy Eisenberg: “Judy says that Eileen respects the history, the culture represented by her grandfather and knows that circumcision is an integral part of this. I disagree. … Judy, as you know, is Jewish and loves her religion. She talks about the things she doesn’t like within her religion, such as circumcision, the patriarchal nature of authority, etc., However, she feels that these can be reconciled within the relgion. I do not agree. …. A person with conviction who gives in still gives in, and that is what is remembered in the end. I hope that one day she does not give in…..If Eileen were real, I believe she would regret this decision throughout her life. … I was heartened to receive your letter and plan to discuss it with the other cast members. No matter what the outcome of the play, it is refreshing to know that it caused others to think, which is, after all, the first step toward action.”
Now more than a dozen years later, that social worker and one-time actress is a United States congresswoman, still intent on helping make America a better civilization. All of us who have been fighting on many fronts for the end to the repugnant practice of circumcision have been encouraged by many, many Jews who simply don’t see cutting off health body structures from defenseless children as humane or to be carried out on loved ones. So what if it was performed in the time of Torah or that the whole tribe had to undergo it? Jews have abandoned all sorts of harsh things acceptable 4,000 years ago.
We find it utterly outrageous that females in the U.S. are protected by law from genital mutilation while there is no legal protection in the U.S. for males from having a nerve-rich, protective covering of their penises excised against their will. It is medically unethical and a form of sexual assault. Where is enforcement of the 14th Amendment calling for equal protection under the law?
It time for lawmakers like Congressman Sinema to take a look at proposals first introduced in Congress 10 years ago — the MGM Bill — that extends the protection of females from genital cutting to males who shouldn’t have their privates redesigned out of custom or misguided medical quackery. As is said so often, if God or nature wanted males to have foreskins, they would be born with them.