I have often gone to a brit and felt queasy and uncomfortable, as lots of men stand around -- drinking, eating and watching -- while the new mother sits pale faced on the side, and the little boychik undergoes a major trauma of his young life. How does a ceremony, which, on the one hand, touches on the most personal and private part of our being, actually make sense as a public initiation rite into the tribe? In the last few years, two documentaries were made in Israel which shed light on a subject that you might have thought was a "clear-cut" issue, the meaning of brit.
The Quest for the Missing Piece (2007), directed and written by Oded Lotan, is a film with a lot of charm, creativity and humor, which also provides insight into issues of Jewish identity and why anyone, in this day and age, would continue the custom of circumcising their sons.
Oded Lotan talks openly about the three parts of his identity and how they interact – being male, Jewish and gay. In his search for the meaning of brit – both past and present – he discusses the matter with a psychologist who explains the irreversible nature of the brit, how it connects us to God and to the tribe and how it is hidden, yet at the same time we cannot ever really hide it; he talks to members of a group in Tel Aviv who are against brit for their children; he takes us to the ritual circumcision of a seven-year-old Muslim boy in Germany; he goes in search of the mohel who circumcised him 30 years ago; and he follows a Russian immigrant soldier, a Jew by choice, who decides to become religious and undergo a brit.
Why does a gay man have a special perspective on brit? In talking to his mother, Lotan discovers that his mother gave him a brit not only because of social convention, but because she didn't want him to be different, because being different is hard to cope with. It still hurts her to this day that her son turned out to be so different.
Sitting in the sandak's chair, holding a new baby boy, born to two women, Lotan realizes that he has taken on the role of sandak (godfather) willingly and with love, just as he hopes his friends will do for him when he decides if he should or shouldn't have a brit for his own child.
The Woman's Point of View
My husband and I have three daughters, so we have never had to contemplate the meaning of brit for ourselves. It seems to me much easier for the new father – after all, the baby is not the fruit of his womb – and even moreso, this ceremony will make his baby look the same as he looks in the most private sense. But how does a young mother relate to this event, is it painful for her to turn her perfectly formed little baby boy over to the mohel for a brit?
Filmmaker, Nurit Jacobs Yinon, looks at the woman's point of view in Covenant – Women, God and All Between (2005). She interviews young mothers who discuss the meaning of brit for them especially vis-à-vis their relationship to God and that brit is a unique opportunity for a new mother to state publicly that she has actively taken part in the process of creation.
Both documentaries are 52 minutes long. Covenant can be ordered from Ruth Diskin and The Quest for the Missing Piece can be ordered from Hedva Goldshmitdt or Claudia Levin.