“The best solution would be that the baby is a girl.” Insights into an internal Jewish debate about circumcision – in 1919

Shortly after the opening of our temporary exhibition “Snip it!”, the Jewish Museum received as a bequest the estate of Fritz Wachsner (1886 – 1942). Included in this delivery was a bundle of letters so enormous that I didn’t have time, in creating an inventory, to delve into each individual piece. But one letter caught my attention. “[…] Your assessment of the circumcision issue […]”, wrote Wachsner on 24. July 1919 to his – then very pregnant – wife Paula’s uncle Anselm Schmidt (1875 – 1925). I read on and suddenly found myself in the middle of a nearly one-hundred-year-old internal Jewish debate on circumcision.

Studio portrait of a woman and a man with a child, about four years old

Fritz Wachsner with his wife Paula and their first-born child, Charlotte, studio portrait, ca. 1916 © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jörg Waßmer, Gift of Marianne Meyerhoff

At the time, Fritz Wachsner was 33-year-old teacher in the town of Buckow in Brandenburg. In the five-page letter he clarifies the reasons for his hostile stance towards the Bris. He was an assimilated German Jew and belonged to a Reform Jewish congregation. As he explains to his uncle, he was “raised fairly orthodox” but, in the course of his university studies in Berlin and Jena as well as at the Academy for the Study of Judaism in Berlin, he learned “to know and appreciate the spirit of Judaism freed from every non-German embellishment”. He became persuaded that the religion should evolve continually and be “modernized and improved”. Wachsner’s maxim was: “Become German, outside as well as inside the religious community”, the overtones of which are especially  continue reading


“Part of something greater”: A conversation about a ritual circumcision that vanquished the past

Coloured photograph of the circumsion ceremony in the synagogue

“A ceremony with friends and family”: The bris of Jaal, photo: William Noah Glucroft

In the last few weeks at “Blogerim” we have reported on the discussions that the subject of circumcision can prompt. We shouldn’t lose sight, though, of the fact that the ritual is a matter of course for most Jewish and Muslim families – as, for example, for Amitay and Meital from Israel. I asked the couple what their son Yaal’s bris was like for them.

In mid-December you had Yaal circumcised by a mohel at the Fraenkelufer Synagogue. Did you have to think about it for a long time?

Meital: For me, there was no question.

Amitay: Same here. But when the time approached, I did have some questions.

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On the hamster wheel of argumentation

I’m not sure what time it is, but it’s already light out. My alarm clock will go off soon. My eyes are already open – the sky is its usual grey. In the space behind my eyes, arguments are going around and around – legal, religious, social, and medical. My tongue doesn’t move but my thoughts speak all the lines of this drama. Right now I’m going around and around on the hamster wheel of an argument that I got dragged into on a tour I gave the day before of the special exhibition “Snip it! Stances on Circumcision.” Every time I thought I had explained to this visitor the profound differences between ritual circumcision of boys and female genital mutilation, she would bring us back into an argumentative spiral.

Visitors in the exhibition room in front of different naked and male sculptures

Visitors in the exhibition room “On the Knife’s Edge” © JMB, Foto: Jule Roehr

Despite Cilly Kugelmann’s assertion that we don’t want to use “Snip it!” to continue the 2012 debate about ritual circumcision; despite an exhibition that addresses, above all, the cultural and historical background of the ritual; despite my careful presentation in the tours, where I aim to encourage visitors to really see and understand, and not to judge and argue; despite the many visitors who embrace my suggestions with great openness and interest:  continue reading