The great foreskin debate

To snip or not to snip? That was the question facing new parent Danae Elon, who didn't just wrestle with the controversies of circumcision -- she made a documentary about it.

Published April 30, 2009 10:45AM (EDT)

New parents face an endless barrage of questions: which prenatal tests, what kind of diapers, which nursery school? But one choice is irrevocable: to snip or not to snip? That is the daunting question, one freighted with intense cultural and religious meaning. And yet people often don't give it much thought at all.

For someone like me, a nonpracticing Jew married to a non-Jewish husband, it was a confusing moment. Neither of us had been raised in a religious household, and neither had set foot in a house of worship except to attend the occasional wedding. But I felt myself tempted by the lure of ritual and tradition. Jews consider circumcision a commandment from God, practiced over thousands of years -- who was I to cut my son off from that? My husband, meanwhile, considered it an antiquated ritual lacking sufficient medical justification (an opinion similar to that of the American Academy of Pediatrics). On top of that was the fear of robbing one's child of something -- nerve endings, sexual feeling -- that can never be returned. It's an issue that American couples continue to wrestle with; although the number of boys routinely circumcised in the U.S. has decreased dramatically (one study shows the rate at 57 percent, down from a 1960s circumcision rate of 90 percent), the majority of parents still opt for it.

Could so much really depend on this thin slice of foreskin? That's what Danae Elon set out to explore in her documentary "Partly Private," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Elon lives in Brooklyn, but she grew up as a secular Jew in Israel with an American mother and an Israeli father, the well-known author Amos Elon. In her first documentary, "Another Road Home," Elon went back to Jerusalem and to the West Bank looking for the Palestinian nanny who had cared for her as a child, using her own experience as a way to touch on deeply complex issues about class and Palestinian-Israeli relations. Likewise, Elon places herself at the center of "Partly Private," making her own pregnancy into a fraught and funny investigation into circumcision.

Sitting in the filmmaker's lounge at Tribeca, Elon looks both radiant and a little anxious. She says that she tried to avoid taking an overt pro- or anti-snipping stand in the film, preferring to survey the whole world of circumcision with an open -- if amused -- mind. She introduces us to a broad cast of characters, from the mohel (a Jewish specialist who performs the procedure) who keeps all of his clients' foreskins in a jar, to the anti-circumcision activist who expresses his own penile trauma in a children's book, to the employees of a skincare company who use discarded foreskins in their antiaging cream. "Every bottle is not a foreskin," one of them assures the camera.

Elon also ventures further afield, visiting the Italian town that once supposedly housed Jesus' foreskin (it was stolen) as well as a Turkish party hall called Circumcision Palace, where she films dozens of little boys (aged 6 to 9) dressed in white suits going under the knife in front of their families and friends. Finally she journeys to Hebron on the West Bank, looking for the exact spot where Abraham is said to have received the order from God, and finds instead a wasteland decimated by war and religion. As she says in the documentary, "Did he really say to Abraham, 'Cut off the tips of your dicks?' What if we got it all wrong?"

All of this serves as research for Elon's own charged decision, which she has to make not once during the film but twice. When the movie opens, she is pregnant with her first child. Her husband, Philip, a French-Algerian Jew, feels the strong pull of tradition, and she ambivalently goes along with his desire. But when she gets pregnant with another boy after several years of immersion in the topic, she is forced to decide what she really believes is best for her son's penis.

Was it always your plan to make a movie about circumcision?

I had always wanted to make a film about it. I thought about extreme rituals, things that might be anthropologically interesting and contradictory, but I could never find a story structure that made sense. So I kind of let it go, until one day I was two months pregnant with my first child and Philip came through the door. We used to live in the East Village in a railroad apartment with a bathtub that was in the kitchen. So he comes through the door, and I'm kind of in this pregnant bliss in the bath, and he says to me, "What are we gonna do about the circumcision?" with a really solemn face -- knowing what I was gonna say to him. So at that moment, it clicked. That's the film!

You come from a secular Jewish family. So was your resistance to circumcision a matter of wanting to shake off that element of religious tradition?

Well, everything in my family is political and to me, creating the mark of circumcision meant also identifying with something I had a very hard time with. So it wasn't so much the issue of, am I harming the child or not? It's: What kind of a mark am I giving him? As someone who was born in Israel, that took on a very deep meaning.

In the film, I decided not to make a political statement. But when I went to Hebron, and I realized that this tradition comes from here, and [I saw] this ritual taking place in one of the most conflicted, horrible places in the world and it's done in such a primitive, very nationalistic way -- I was basically saying, you know, why is [what we are doing] different? We're all doing this because we believe that we belong to this group. And I don't want to belong to this group, but I do.

Whereas Philip does want to belong. He wants to feel part of this Jewish tradition.

He doesn't come with the baggage that I have, being from Israel and having such strong reactions to the politics there. He emigrated from Algeria when he was just a month old, came to France to a very hostile environment, and his parents clearly hung on to what they brought with them from Algeria, so for him it's not even a Jewish rite. Belonging is what it means to him. For me, my belonging is highly politicized.

I know a lot of people who have had these issues come up, but it's usually from intermarriage. In this case, you were both Jewish, but it was two very different upbringings colliding.

This whole idea of intermarriage was also one of the major forces in my very deep enthusiasm to explore the subject: why it meant certain things to him and why it meant certain things to me. For Philip, his father had died when he was a very young boy. So it was, this is what my father would have wanted.

And on the other hand, your father called your decision to have your first son circumcised "sheer conformity."

He did call it conformity. But you know, my father, he's a well-known intellectual -- and he would have left it up to my mother. He would not have faced this question. It's an uncomfortable thing to question, and even the most rational and intellectual of us feel insecure as to what is the right thing to do.

Did either of you have regrets about it afterward?


Both of you did?

Yes. I think it's a question of -- there's a certain degree of courage that you need in order to face up to who you really want to be. And I think that having circumcised our first son was the initial mistake. Because it took on so much meaning and we'd documented it and really blew it out of proportion. I was making a film, so of course we became representatives of a certain kind of argument or issue.

How much did the subject seep into your regular life? Did you ask men you met at dinner parties if they were circumcised and unhappy about it? I imagine that would provide some awkward social moments.

The best moments happen off camera. Like when you have a man that's circumcised and he has a circumcised child, and the wife starts saying well, you know, actually, I didn't want that ... It creates all these uncomfortable moments between couples. Ultimately, I don't believe [being circumcised or not] does have an impact on your sex life. But it's kind of funny once people start comparing and contrasting, and men feel a little bit insecure. That's the kind of stuff that's very hard to capture. I tried very hard to find someone who was going through the process of getting circumcised as an adult. I couldn't find someone, and once I did, he kind of flipped out on me.

I met someone recently who was circumcised as an adult because he married a Jewish woman, and I was shocked. It's an extreme gesture -- of love or faith or both.

I know somebody who did the same and ended up getting a divorce two years later!

That's worse than getting a tattoo!

To me, the interesting part of making this film was exploring life through the prism of circumcision. So I don't want to become this advocate of what's good or bad, but I think if you look at something that's both so significant or insignificant -- can you think of anything else that has those two complete opposites in one gesture?

You try to avoid getting overtly political in the film. But I have seen people compare circumcision to female genital mutilation.

I absolutely think that it's offensive to women to think that there's any parallel here. Of course, they both involve genitals but are done for very different reasons, and I ran away as far as I could from anything to do with female circumcision, which has to be stopped. It's not comparable. But what does interest me is why the movement against male circumcision needs to be so extreme? They have such a valid point, but they come off as such extremists.

One of the anti-circumcision activists you interview even gets you arrested while you are filming him. They come across in your film as really, really loony.

They are! Both sides of the equation are crazy, the whole thing is crazy. Those who believe in it and those who believe it must be stopped because it is genital mutilation -- they all have valid reasons and all are insane. I love the idea that we look at ourselves through this insane prism, my family included.

In the film, you capture a lot of different contexts for circumcision. But to me the most startling was the Circumcision Palace in Istanbul. Circumcision is treated like a wonderful rite of passage, but there's one little boy who is screaming because he is being forced to let a man take a scalpel to his penis. I found it hard to watch. What was it like to watch your own son go through it?

It is beyond words. You feel like you're sucked into this dimension. There's the supposed spirituality, everything that you're supposed to buy into, and when it's all over you feel that you've been completely fooled. When you hear your child scream you realize that this was very wrong. Both Philip and I felt it.

Is it a very different experience if you get your baby circumcised in the hospital rather than the synagogue?

I just talked to a woman who gave birth in the hospital and after day two, the doctor came in and said, so are you doing this or not? Her husband's like, "Well, maybe he should look like me." That's it. And that's how it happens to most people. They don't even think about it. So I kind of wanted to take you on this journey where you are going to think about it.

You end up having to make choices about whether to circumcise each of your sons. And at the end, you worry that they will be mad at you when they grow up and understand what you've done.

Who do you betray? A son who has been circumcised, a decision you've just spent nine months ridiculing? Or a son that is intact? I was gonna betray both of them, no matter what way I chose.

Aren't they going to be more mad about the fact that you made a movie about their penises?

They're delighted. They don't know it's about their penises, but they're delighted they're in a movie.

By Joy Press

Joy Press is a former culture editor at Salon.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Documentaries Middle East Tribeca Film Access Tribeca Film Festival