DATE February 14, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ann Crittenden discusses her new book "The Price of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Staying home to raise a child is work that is not financially rewarded. In
fact, it's often financially penalized. That penalty is the subject of the
book "The Price of Motherhood." My guest is the author, Ann Crittenden. She
left her job as a reporter for The New York Times in the early '80s after the
birth of her son. Her new book is inspired by personal experiences, and it's
informed by more than five years of research in economics, sociology, child
development, family law and public policy, as well as interviews with parents.
Crittenden says that changing the status of mothers by gaining real
recognition of their work is the great unfinished business of the women's
movement. She's concluded that motherhood is the single biggest risk factor
for poverty in old age. I asked her why.
Ms. ANN CRITTENDEN (Author, "The Price of Motherhood"): Well, the vast
majority of mothers take some time out of the labor force to raise their
families. And every time--for every year you spend at home, working at home
rather than working in the marketplace, you get no Social Security credits, or
you reduce your Social Security credits if you're working part-time, and so
forth. So women--older women have far, far lower pensions, lower Social
Security pensions than anyone else--older mothers, I should say.
GROSS: Something I found very interesting in your book is about the wage gap,
comparing mothers and childless women with men and women. Why don't you
elaborate on that.
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Women have made great strides in the work force, and young
women now have virtually closed the wage gap with young men. I'm talking
about people under 35. However, if a woman has no children, she has almost
eliminated the wage gap with men. If the woman has a child, the gap between
her income and a childless woman is greater than the gap between young women's
income, in general, and young men's income.
GROSS: What does that say to you?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, it says that mothers have much lower income than
anyone else, and it's saying that motherhood is the key factor keeping women's
GROSS: And why is it doing that?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Not so much sex discrimination anymore, it's more
discrimination against mothers.
GROSS: Why are mothers earning less?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: There is a wide range of factors here. One of the ones that
struck me in some of the reporting I did is we have a climate in the work
force now where people are working longer and longer and longer hours. And
people with family responsibilities simply can't work those kinds of hours.
So they often just don't accept jobs in many, many industries or many, many
workplaces where they know they can't be home in time to see their kids, they
can't get home in time for dinner or anything else. So they're being excluded
from a lot of places.
Secondly, we have a lot of mandatory overtime going on. Now maybe with this
current slowdown that'll start mitigating. But I interviewed several people,
and there's a lot of cases floating around where people were asked to work
maybe 10 hours a day. These are people--single mothers with kids, and they
simply couldn't do it and they were fired. So that's another--in every--it's
a situation where if you have a child and you have a family, you have another
job. You really have two full-time jobs. And there's just no way mothers can
compete with that kind of situation.
GROSS: So you think a lot of mothers aren't hired because the employer knows
that they can't work around the clock, like a childless woman might be able
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, they're not as desirable employees in the eyes of many
employers, I think.
GROSS: Have you calculated what you gave up financially when you became a
mother in 1982 and left your job shortly after?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Yeah, I do. I did explain that in the book, and it turns out
to be very typical. You can estimate that the average American college
graduate who has a child will probably forego about a million dollars in
lifetime earnings. That's how much less their earnings would be over their
lifetime if they didn't have a child. And that's--mine is a little less than
that because I didn't have my child--I only have one, and I didn't have him
till I was over 40. So I had already had some work life. But I lost, let's
say, a minimum of 15 years of--I went part-time, and I did part-time writing,
part-time work for the last number of years. And my income was close to a
million dollars for--lower than it would have been had I stayed at The New
York Times where I was.
GROSS: Why did you decide to give up full-time work?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: You know, it took me by surprise. I really didn't plan this.
And again, it fascinated me interviewing other mothers, that you really don't
expect several things to happen when you have a baby. One of the biggest
surprises is how incredible the emotional attachment is and how you just fall
madly in love with this child. A lot of mothers use the phrase `besotted.'
And I became besotted with my baby. I just could not imagine going back to
work what--in my case, the job I had was more than an eight-hour-a-day job.
It was a really quite demanding, stressful, you know, high-pressure workplace.
And I just couldn't see doing it. But I never thought it through because I
had never had a--you know, I didn't have the experience before. But when I
had the baby, I just could not imagine going back.
Now that's a very, you know, personal thing, and not everybody feels that way.
But I think, certainly, what I heard and what I've read and all the research
I've done, most mothers would absolutely like to be home much, much more with
their infants than they are able to be.
GROSS: How did it affect your identity to stay home and no longer be able to
identify yourself as a journalist with The New York Times?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, it is a job to reintegrate your identity, I think, as a
professional, the way we define professionalism, and as a nurturing, caring
person. You're on a different time frame. You have to move much slower, much
more patiently. You can't be under pressure. You can't demand the child do
this and that. You know, you can't have that workplace time frame. So you
have to integrate a lot of very different things. And I found that was quite
a challenge. But I think the first hardest thing to adjust to was the outside
world's perception. Because I was like, maybe totally, hopelessly naive, but
I thought, `My God, I've got this incredible thing going here. I have this
beautiful child and I'm raising this child.' And I was extremely proud of
what I had done. I was proud of my work as a mother and proud of what I was
And I'm saying never was pride so struck down because it was as if I had
vanished in the eyes of many people. I did not have the same stature of the
same status as I had had earlier. And that's, you know, maybe a reflection
that I was in Washington, which is one of the more credentialistic places on
Earth, and it was the early '80s when people were putting on their shoulder
pads and the women were marching off to battle in the corporate wars, you
know, and there was--I think it's much, much more baby friendly now than it
was then. But still, it's quite a change in status.
But as I say in the book, I knew that I had to write about this one day when I
was at a party and someone said to me, `Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?'
I said, `Oh, my God. You know, I still am,' but...
GROSS: Now, you know, we've been talking about the things that women give up
financially when they become a mother; things that working women give up when
they become a mother, particularly if they decide to stay at home with their
child for a short or a long period of time. What are the ways around that? I
mean, you know, everybody has to make tough choices and you can't be home full
time and in the workplace as well. So what are the ways around what you
describe as the mommy tax?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: I think we have a tendency to say, `Well, the mother has
this obligation to find a personal solution,' and all the women are always
seeking, you know, my personal solution to this; how am I going to cope with
it? And I really don't think individual women can do it. I think we're going
to have to some really sweeping changes. I think we're going to have to make
some--have almost another movement to say, `Look, we've got to have a
workplace situation that enables women to have some income or to maintain
their careers on some level without this all or nothing.'
We have the most all-or-nothing situation in this country. You either go back
full time, many people, or you are almost forced to quit. It's only
20-something percent that work part time at all. As somebody once said, `We
have more choices in breakfast cereal than we do in good part-time jobs.' We
need a much more various part-time labor market with benefits prorated to the
In Holland they decided they wanted to do that, and they did it. They now--a
third of all jobs in Holland are part-time jobs and they have the same
benefits as every other job only prorated to the amount of hours they are.
And we need some really serious structural changes, I think. I think we need
a shorter work week. I don't think people with families should be ordered to
have mandatory overtime. There are a lot of things that are--you know, we
really lag behind other developed countries in being a family oriented
country. We are very unfriendly to families really. So...
GROSS: You like some of the policies in France? What--what's happening in
France that you think we should be taking note of?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, France is notable. I think in the news this week
France is really notable for the fact that they've just said half of all
political candidates have to be women. The women were making very little
progress politically in France. Then they finally said they only way to do
this is to require every political party to run as many women candidates as
men. So that's going to revolutionize French politics.
But as far as family supports and valuing motherhood, the French are most
noted for having a superb child-care system. They have early childhood
education beginning at three, so that, in effect, their public schools begin
at age three with nursery school. Not as long of a day, but then the French
working day is not as long. The French now have a 35-hour work week. So
those two things--we have a 35-hour work week, which by the way is spreading
in Europe, and you have nursery school--free quality nursery school for
everyone. You know, women are in heaven. It's extremely easy for women to
have a job and to have a family and to have time for both.
GROSS: You also say that in France every mother, rich or poor, married or
single, receives free health care and a cash allowance for each child.
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Right. A lot of European countries--of course, they all
almost have free health care, which we do not. Even for children--all our
children aren't covered yet. And they almost--many of them offer cash
allowances, which are payments. I like the French system. They just
pay--they write a check--and the British do the same. They write a check to
the primary caregiver of the child. You get that check, and you can spend it
anyway you want. It's your allowance. And if the mother's working and she
needs better day care, she can spend it that way. If she's at home, she can
spend the money on whatever--on diapers or whatever she needs, so it
supplements the income.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Ann Crittenden, and her new book is called "The
Price of Motherhood." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Ann Crittenden. She's the author of the new
book "The Price of Motherhood."
Let's look at Sweden. What kind of help does a mother get in Sweden?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, I'd always heard Sweden was a paradise for mothers and
children, and I thought, `Well'--skeptical journalist--`number one, is that
true?' And two, if I find out it is true, I sure do want to know why. So I
went over there, and I--guess what? It was true. They really do have an
amazingly pro-family set of policies. One of the things I discovered was
their--well, they have some of the things I've talked about so we don't maybe
want to go into it too much. They have day care--maybe not as comprehensive
as the French, but they do have subsidized early education. They have a
year's paid leave. And the fathers can, of course, take any portion of that.
But one month of it has to be taken by the father only, so they guarantee that
the father's going to be home. Most of the fathers take two months off. They
take one summer vacation month and add it to their father leave, so they have
two months off with new babies. And the mothers get 11 or 12 months off. So
that's pretty good.
And I interviewed these young people who were sitting there talking about, you
know, this is part of life. And I interviewed one young woman who's about
ready to go back to work and she was talking about how she was going to
negotiate with her employer her schedule, and it was--by law, any parent has
the right to a 30-hour work week. They can work three--let's see, 4/5ths of
their normal work as long as the child is under school age. Until age six
they can do this. So she knew when she went back she could negotiate either a
four-day week or a six-hour day. It depended on what was convenient for that
workplace. But that was her statutory right, so she was bargaining with her
employer with the law on her side.
GROSS: Has there been any opposition in Sweden from employers? You know,
from the corporate world? From businesses who have felt that giving new
mothers a short work week--giving them a year's paid leave and then a shorter
work week when they returned to work would compromise the business?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, one of the interesting things is I did not detect so
much of that in Swedish companies, but everything is multinational now. And
one young man, who was going back to a flexible work schedule said, `You
know,' he said, `the German companies and the American companies have very
little respect for the Swedish way of life.' I thought that was a fantastic
comment. He didn't--he found that the big multinational companies were--were
tough in that respect. He was--he turned out to be--he was a management
consultant, so he had a little more ability to be independent. But, of
course, I think the major multinationals don't like this, and that's why they
fight it so hard in this country, and why we don't have it.
And there's been a debate in Sweden whether the fact that women have so many
benefits, as mothers and motherhood is subsidized to an extent, doesn't hurt
women in the job market. But I interviewed a number of Swedish economists,
and there's just no evidence that they have any less stature in the job market
than American women in terms of rising to high positions. It seems to be
pretty much the same. And, of course, they have very much higher incomes than
American women because they don't have to lose their jobs. They never--they
don't leave their jobs. They don't have to because they have nice long
leaves, paid leaves. Whereas here, as I said earlier, many American women
just have to quit in order to do the right thing, or what they want to do with
GROSS: Journalist Ann Crittenden is my guest. She's written a new book
called "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is
Still the Least Valued."
One of the concerns that we've talked about is that women who leave work for a
short or a long period of time to stay at home and take care of their child or
children, they lose a lot of money in Social Security. What would you propose
to compensate for that?
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, one thing we're not talking about is marriage. In
other words, I'm not--this is not a book saying that we should be like Sweden
exactly, or we should have more government necessarily or we should--what I'm
really--my point in this book is that no institution puts any serious--any
material value on this huge amount of work that women are doing, and that
includes marriage, a private institution. So that if a woman or a mother or
father, for that matter, although it's very many fewer people, does not--they
cut back on their paid employment in order to do the work of the family, they
become extremely dependant on the family. And they are a dependant in
marriage. So then it becomes extremely important that marriage is an equal
partnership, and as the book goes into great detail to describe, that marriage
is not, under any American law an equal financial partnership, an equal
economic partnership. And that is one of the most serious obstacles to
women's economic security, equality, to children's well being. It's really
bad, I think.
GROSS: What kind of financial changes would you like to see in marriage and
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Well, I mean, most people who are married do believe they're
in an equal partnership; that one spouse--they may have a division of labor,
they may not. Most people have a division of labor. The money brought into
the household does not belong to the family; it belongs to the person whose
name is on the check. And if there is a divorce, that person leaves with the
income. And it is--they are not required by law to--to share a certain
portion of it. There are child support laws now, but the child support laws
are set very, very low and they don't meet a fraction of the expense of
One of the statistics that just blew me away in the--in looking into this is
that something like 40 percent of divorced women have to go on welfare, and
we're talking in many cases middle-class women. So that, to me, is one of the
biggest issues we need to address. So most women are impoverished by divorce.
So I would argue that we need something like a two-tier marriage system where
if a person--people have no children that we would have pretty much what we
have now, which is you get married and you have your own income and you
have--no one else has a really ultimate claim on your income. You're really
two individuals living together and you've merged certain things, but not
everything. But if you have children, I think marriage ought to kick into a
higher gear. All the adults' income be joint family income until the children
are 18, so that people couldn't divorce--they could divorce each other but
they can't divorce their children, which is really what happens a lot.
GROSS: Let's look at another aspect of the system that you say penalizes
motherhood, and that's the tax code.
Ms. CRITTENDEN: Yeah, mothers are the most heavily taxed workers in America.
As you know, we tax people's income--married people's income jointly so that
the so-called second income is added to the first, and the first dollar on
that second income is taxed at the family's highest marginal tax rate. If the
two were taxed as individuals, the mother's income, let's say, would be
taxed--there'd be zero taxation on her first $10,000 under the current code.
So there's this huge penalty of tax, and then most women do the calculation.
As ...(unintelligible) show in the book, it doesn't matter if you're very high
income, you're a very wealthy family or you're in a really, really low income
family, the calculation comes out the same. It really doesn't pay to work.
And I had some interviews with--and quote from Republican, Democrat, no matter
what their persuasion, economists agree that the American tax code is the
most--it just heavily discriminates against women. And as one--Michael
Boskin, who was on the Council of Economic Advisers under the first President
Bush put it--said, `It pushes America--it pushes women out of the labor
force.' So that's something that I think people could be aware of and do
GROSS: Ann Crittenden is the author of "The Price of Motherhood."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: David Gollaher talks about the history of circumcision
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The circumcision of boys is an essential part of Judaism and Islam.
Circumcision has also become a fairly standard part of secular American
medicine. But circumcision for medical and hygienic reasons has become
increasingly controversial. My guest David Gollaher is the author of the
book "Circumcision." It's a history from ancient times to the present. He's
the president of the California Healthcare Institute, a public policy group of
biomedical research companies and universities.
In tracing how circumcision became a secular medical procedure, he goes back
the period after the Civil War when a physician named Lewis Sayer claimed he
could use circumcision to cure paralysis. Other doctors began trying
circumcision when presented with problems they didn't know how to fix. During
this period, doctors suspected that the foreskin was the source of problems
they didn't understand. And over the next 10 or 20 years, doctors favored
circumcision as a precautionary operation. I asked him what problems doctors
thought foreskins might be responsible for.
Mr. DAVID GOLLAHER (Author, "Circumcision"): Everything from mental
disorders, dementia, schizophrenia, what we would call schizophrenia now,
depression, to cancer, transmission of cancer later to the sex partners of
uncircumcised men. There's another thread here which is important.
GROSS: Gee, I thought you were going to say infection, you know.
Mr. GOLLAHER: Well, sexually transmitted diseases...
GROSS: OK, yeah.
Mr. GOLLAHER: ...became a big part of the discussion, really as early as the
1880s. And there were a couple of studies, but a very important one done,
based on the 1880 census that seemed to show that Jews had remarkably lower
rates of sexually transmitted diseases and other infectious diseases as well,
compared to Gentiles. And this was thought by many physicians to be going to,
Jews were circumcised and Gentiles, mainly weren't. But I was about to
mention another thread and that has to do with masturbation. The medical
profession in the 1870s, '80s, '90s believed that masturbation was, not only a
bad thing, but had really serious health consequences that could endure
through life. And so they declared a war on masturbation that sort of
resembles our war on drugs today. And this was widely shared, the opinion
that masturbation was harmful by physicians and laypeople alike. And they
came to believe that the foreskin encouraged masturbation and that removing of
it would make boys and young men less likely to masturbate and to harm
GROSS: Well, what are the theories today about foreskins? Do doctors still
believe that it plays a role in increasing infection or the transmission of
infection, other diseases of the area, schizophrenia, does it inspire people
to masturbate? What's the theories today?
Mr. GOLLAHER: There isn't a distinct shared opinion within the fields of
medicine and surgery, about the functions of the foreskin. Only recently have
anatomist, at some level of sophistication, using the tools of modern science,
actually tried to delve into the cellular structure of the foreskin and tried
to add a biophysiological level to understand what role it might play. It
turns out that the kinds of cells--that the kind of tissue that exists in the
foreskin are very unusual. They only exist a few other places in the body.
One comparison might be made to the eyelid, where you have an organ that both
lubricated and protects. There's also a lot of cellular material in the
foreskin which is exquisitely sensitive to touch.
GROSS: So spell out what the controversy is now on the medical profession
about whether circumcision should be routinely performed on infants.
Mr. GOLLAHER: The advocates of circumcision basically say that it could be
likened to a vaccination, that it's relatively safe, there are few long-term
complications from the procedure, that it protects men for life from some
dread diseases like cancer of the penis and some less dread but still nagging
or potentially harmful diseases like urinary tract infections. And that these
benefits are worth the minor pain of circumcision in the neonatal period.
GROSS: And the argument against?
Mr. GOLLAHER: The argument against is that, because some people get
cavities, we don't pull everyone's teeth. That the fact that there are some
diseases of this tissue, don't begin to warrant doing a procedure on all male
babies. That if you look at the long-term outcomes of circumcision, that
cancer of the penis, for example, is so rare that circumcising 100,000 babies
to prevent one or two cases is absurd, both in terms of constant benefits, in
opponents of circumcision also say that there is a real loss, that the
foreskin, in fact, has a function, that it does enhance sexual experience,
that it's part of the way nature made us and that it's a procedure done
without informed consent, that it causes real pain, that the only reason that
it's tolerated is because it's done behind closed doors, that parents don't
know what really happens to their babies and that it's actually much closer to
female circumcision or genital mutilation than we would like to think.
GROSS: Done behind closed doors? I mean, I think in the Jewish tradition,
it's done at a big ceremony with the whole family watching.
Mr. GOLLAHER: That's right. I was referring to medical circumcision.
Mr. GOLLAHER: I think it's important to make a distinction between
circumcision that's done for religious reasons, where the health benefit is
not the point so one doesn't get into a discussion of costs and benefits, etc.
But that the point of the procedure is transcendent, in this case to mark
God's chosen people.
GROSS: Do you think that the typical mohel today performs circumcision more
or less the same way that your doctor would in a hospital after a baby's born.
Mr. GOLLAHER: I don't think there's a lot of difference but there are a
couple. In hospitals, because there's a bias towards technology, there are a
whole set of tools like the Gomco clamp, which are used to clamp the penis
and make the procedure more regular. Mohels tend to simply cut and they're an
expert at it and generally perform excellent surgery. Also, there's a lot of
pressure today, partly because of parents and partly because of
recommendations within the medical profession coming from things like the
American Academy of Pediatrics, to provide anesthesia for neonatal
circumcision. And it's certainly advisable for any parent who's having a son
circumcised to press the physician to conform to the latest standards with
respect to anesthesia. By and large, mohels don't use anesthesia.
GROSS: Circumcision is also part of Islamic culture. Do you know how it
became part of Islamic culture?
Mr. GOLLAHER: Islam looks to Abraham in the same way that the Jews do, as a
great patriarch, a source of inspiration and practice. And they take
circumcision from Abraham. But also from Mohammed who, depending on which
tradition within Islam you want to look at, was perhaps born circumcised,
that's one tradition, or was circumcised at an early age, sometimes they say
the seventh day, not the eighth day, to be too much like Jews. But the
tradition that followed Mohammed strongly endorsed circumcision. In fact, so
strongly that there's never really been any controversy at all within the
world of Islam about whether this should be done.
GROSS: Jesus was circumcised but that was not a tradition that became a part
of Christianity. Why not?
Mr. GOLLAHER: Jesus was circumcised to fulfill the law but I think a
practical consideration during the first generation of Christian evangelism
kept circumcision from entering Christianity and that's simply that it would
have been impossible to proselytizes and convert Gentiles in any large numbers
to Christianity if circumcision had been a requirement. Mature men will not
be circumcised. It's too painful and it's too difficult. And so the apostle
Paul, in brilliant theological stratagem, told the Christian converts that
circumcision was no longer necessary because they had been virtually
circumcised by sharing in Christ's blood sacrifice.
And there's a long theological tradition that sweeps all the way from Paul in
those early letters, down to today that tries to define the nature of that
vicarious participation in Christ's circumcision. But probably the high tide
of it was during the Middle Ages when theologians attempted, in great detail,
to describe exactly how this happened. The other part, though, that's quite
interesting is that even by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, theologians were
saying that the lack of the requirement for circumcision made Christianity a
universal religion because it could include women. Whereas Judaism could have
only included men directly in the covenant because only men could be
GROSS: Now this might be getting too personal but were you circumcised.
Mr. GOLLAHER: I'm a post-War baby and a middle-class Southern Californian
and everyone, I think, in my generation was, considering the locker room I
GROSS: Did you have any of your opinions about circumcision change by the
research that you did?
Mr. GOLLAHER: Fairly dramatically. I had begun the book being quite neutral
and thinking that many of the activists against circumcision were extremists,
that--particularly the claim that there was a lot of historical continuity, or
that one should draw a comparison between female genital mutilation--female
circumcision and male circumcision, I thought was an exaggeration, if not
absurd. The further I got into the project, the more that I felt that there
were more comparisons than I was even uncomfortable with. And I became
increasingly skeptical of the medical claims that have been made over the
years and ended up writing, as I have, that there is in fact no persuasive
medical basis for doing this routinely. And most younger doctors that I talk
to today believe that it's simply an expression of culture, that there's not
any convincing medical reason to do it. So I think the strong likelihood is
that some years from now, we'll continue to see an erosion in the practice and
that the generation of doctors coming out of medical school today will not see
this in the same light that their fathers did.
GROSS: Well, David Gollaher, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Mr. GOLLAHER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: David Gollaher is the author of "Circumcision." Coming up, we speak
with a mohel about performing circumcisions as part of the Jewish ceremony
known as the bris. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Philip Sherman talks about the Jewish tradition
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the Jewish tradition, the circumcision of baby boys is part of a religious
ceremony known as a bris. The precedence is performed by a mohel. My guest
Philip Sherman is a mohel and a cantor. Although he performs and ancient
ritual, he's up-to-date with a constantly ringing cell phone and his own Web
site. We invited him to talk about the bris.
Mr. PHILIP SHERMAN (Mohel, Cantor): The biggest problem we have today is the
equation of circumcision and bris. They're not the same. Although the
result may be the same, the underlying and fundamental purpose is completely
different and that is one is a religious injunction based on faith. That's
why we do this. The words that we associate with the bris, or the Brit Milah
ceremony is simhat, it's a joyous event and mitzvah, it's an obligation.
And that's why, you know, today whenever I have a chance, I try to make sure
people understand that they're not to be equated, they're not the same.
Although they look the same, they're not.
GROSS: Will you compare the mohel's approach to performing the circumcision
with the way it's done in a hospital.
Mr. SHERMAN: There is contained within the body of law that one learns to
become a mohel, a section called `The Art of Being a Mohel.' And that's when
you--it's almost like, you know, it's reaching a certain like Zen level of
being a mohel, where you've done it long enough that you've developed a
certain smoothness and ability that gives it an artistry. That is to say,
when I explain to people as I'm doing the bris, `The bris will take
approximately 20 seconds. The baby's on a double pillow. He'll be back in
his mother's arms in no time.' All of the things that I use--obviously
everything I do meets modern aseptic technics. I autoclave all my
instruments, I use one-time-only things, you know, disposable swabs, whatever
they might be and the actual circumcision part of the bris takes under--as we
said, under 20 seconds.
In the hospital, it's radically different. Statistically today, if I remember
correctly, the numbers are about 60 percent of the children in the US are
being circumcised. In the early '60s, I think the number was 90 percent or
higher. What that means is the people who are doing this today have
considerably less experience. So, for example, if an obstetrician has maybe
100 births a year, 50 of those are girls, 50 of those are boys, 25 of those
boys won't be circumcised, half won't be circumcised, let's say, maybe a
little bit more. And of those who will be, some will be done by a mohel, not
by the doctor. That leaves maybe a handful, 10, 15 in the course of a year
that a doctor might do. I might do that many in a week. And so the mohels
have become the super specialists. The queen of England, you know, had the
chief mohel of Britain do her children--you know, circumcise her children. So
if you're going to have it done, you get the expert. And that's what the
traditional mohel is.
GROSS: Now if a baby's circumcised in the hospital, the baby's strapped down.
If the baby's circumcised by a mohel, the baby is likely to be held
Mr. SHERMAN: Yeah, usually the grandfather, mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now don't you worry just a little bit when you're doing this really
sensitive procedure that the baby will start fussing so much that maybe the
grandfather will allow the baby...
Mr. SHERMAN: Let go, yeah.
GROSS: ...to move a little bit or let go and you'll slip? You know,
Mr. SHERMAN: I'll go one step further. You're assuming that the guy who's
sitting in the chair, you know, is a well, you know, individual and he's firm,
he's OK. I've had grandfathers sitting in that chair who have had
Parkinson's, who've had a stroke, one guy had a broken arm, they were more
than capable--because the bris is done so quickly, there's no room for that
being a problem. And, again, so I'm setting up and, you know, I help the
gentleman, you know, place his hands so that he knows how to hold the baby.
And inevitably I warn them. I say, `Please be aware. You're going to be
astounded when you see at how powerful the baby's legs are. He's going to try
to kick out and get away. You know, don't let him. Be firm.' Inevitably the
guy, you know, let's go of the leg but it's always at some point before
anything, you know, significant has happened, then I just reset his hand. So,
again, we've done this--not only I've done this for 23 years and, you know,
thousands of brises, but it's been done, you know, for thousands of years this
way. And we've always--you know, if you look at all the ancient wood cuts and
stuff, you see the guy is sitting on a chair and the baby's in his lap and
that's how we've done it. So, no, it's not a problem at all.
GROSS: It sounds scary to me.
Mr. SHERMAN: Well, again, lot's of things seem scary if you don't have
experience. You know, I'll humorously tell people, you know, in the beginning
as a mohel, you know, you worry about everything. You know, the first few
brises you do, `Did everything go well? Is everything right?' And so on and
so forth. Eventually you gain the confidence to know that was the case. But
until you do, yeah, it's scary. But, again, that's why you call upon the
expert mohel to do that.
GROSS: You know, the bris is kind of a performance in a way. The mohel is
there performing the procedure, saying the prayers, surrounded by friends and
family of, you know, the baby's so it's, you know, a party atmosphere too.
Mr. SHERMAN: It's a celebration, absolutely.
GROSS: Yeah. So it is really something of a performance for you, making the
delicacy of the procedure even more important. Yeah.
Mr. SHERMAN: Well, actually we have t--yeah. To characterize it as a
performance really isn't right. Because the focus isn't the mohel, the focus
is the new parents and the baby.
Mr. SHERMAN: And the ability of a mohel, hopefully who is humble, who knows
what his place is to be the facilitator of this mitzvah. Because he's
representing the father. Here's the interesting thing. The father's the one
who's obligated to do the bris. And, also, let me take a step back and
parenthetically add, traditionally, there are lots of things that I may say
that are going to come across that perhaps will not sit well with some of the
prevailing attitudes today. But without being apologetic, quite simply, the
obligation belongs to the father. The mother, you know, had this great
miracle of being able to give birth to the child and then eight days later
there's a transfer, the mitzvah goes to the father and he's supposed to do the
bris. I offer the father that opportunity at every bris. I say, `By the way,
Michael, you know, it's your mitzvah to do the bris. Would you like me to do
it or would you like to set it up so you can do it?' And sometimes, a small
percentage of the time, the father will actually do the bris after I've set
everything up in place.
GROSS: If a father takes you up on the offer to do it himself, do you ever
say, `Not a wise choice'?
Mr. SHERMAN: No, not at all.
Mr. SHERMAN: It's his mitzvah. It belongs to him. No, not at all.
GROSS: Yeah. But...
Mr. SHERMAN: Usually the one that says that is the wife.
Mr. SHERMAN: Usually the mother, you know--both, they look at me like me
like I'm nuts. You know, `What are you saying? He can actually do the
bris?' I'm going, `Yes, he can, it's his mitzvah.' You see, here's the
concept. The concept is, within Judaism, if one is--you know, again, the
premise is religious observance and if there's a mitzvah to be done and you
know how to do it, you do it. Now if you don't know how or you're not going
to be around to take care of it, you can appoint someone to act on your behalf
and still receive the full credit.
GROSS: What are some of the things you have to do to calm parents down?
Mr. SHERMAN: Actually, you know, when you get to the actual bris and you
meet the parents--before that I've had a chance to talk to them on the
telephone, to answer their questions, to get information about their family,
who they're naming the baby for, who's going to be included in the ceremony,
if there are older siblings we can include the older kids in the ceremony,
before the bris actually happens. And that's a really nice moment when the
older brother or older brother and sister are standing around the Chair of
Elijah, holding the baby. It's a real nice, sweet moment, you know.
And then, of course, the bottom line, there's nothing I can say to a new
mother before her son's bris. This woman has gone through childbirth, she's
risked her life to have this beautiful baby and she'd go through it a second
time, wouldn't even give it a second thought. But now that this child is
born, the last thing that she wants, with all of her heart, is anything to
come to her child to hurt the child. But when we place it in the context of a
mitzvah, in the context of a religious life cycle event, of a beautiful
ceremony that's been done for thousands of years then, of course, we get a
little bit more perspective and although the mother is reluctant, they go
GROSS: Philip Sherman is a mohel and a cantor based in New York. Coming up,
another Jewish tradition, jokes about circumcision. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Larry Josephson talks about mohel jokes
TERRY GROSS, host:
We've heard about the history of circumcision and circumcision as it's
practiced in the ancient Jewish ceremony known as the bris. Now we move on to
another Jewish tradition, telling jokes about circumcision. Perhaps you
caught the rerun of the "Seinfeld" bris episode, earlier this week. Well, we
have a source of our own for jokes, Larry Josephson. Among his many projects
is heading the Radio Foundation in New York, where we record many of our
interviews. He also hosted the Public Radio program "Bridges." Public Radio
insiders know that he has jokes for every subject.
Larry, do you know lot's of mohel jokes?
Mr. LARRY JOSEPHSON (Veteran Broadcaster): Yeah, I know lots of them. I
have been able to recall six or seven of them but they just keep on coming.
GROSS: Well, give us a few.
Mr. JOSEPHSON: All right. A ribbon salesman is about to retire and he calls
in a buyer at Bloomingdale's and he tells the buyer that he's never been able
to sell Bloomingdale's any ribbon and would the buyer just buy some to kind of
cap his career and the buyer says, `Sure, I'll give you a token order.' He
says, `Send me enough ribbon to go from the tip of your nose to the tip of
your penis.' Next day a truck backs up to the Bloomingdale's loading dock
with 3,000 miles of ribbon. The buyer calls the salesman and says, `What's
going on?' The salesman says, `Well, the tip of my penis is in Krakow.'
GROSS: It took me a while to actually get that.
Mr. JOSEPHSON: Yeah, some of these are sort of delayed--have a delayed fuse
GROSS: OK. Joke number two.
Mr. JOSEPHSON: Joke number two. A man goes into a store to have his watch
repaired. The owner says, `I don't fix watches, I'm a mohel.' So the man
says, `Why do you have a watch in the window.' The mohel says, `So what would
you put in the window?' All right. Here we go.
Mr. JOSEPHSON: Two men were standing at adjacent urinals at a men's room at
the Waldorf Astoria and one of them turns to the other and says, `You're from
Cleveland, huh?' The guy says, `Yeah, how did you know?' He says, `Temple
Beth Shalom?' `Yeah, yeah.' `Rabbi Schwartz?' `Uh-huh, uh-huh. How do you
know?' He says, `Well Rabbi Schwartz is very near-sighted, he cuts on the
bias and you're peeing on my shoe.'
GROSS: Where did you hear these?
Mr. JOSEPHSON: I've collected them over the--actually I did some research. I
called Marty Goldenson who called a friend of his who's a Wall Street
investment banker and he reminded me of some of these. Because what happens
is that I have punch lines in my head with no setups or I have setups with no
punch lines or sometimes the internal details are missing. So I actually did
quite a bit of research for this.
GROSS: Larry, thanks for the good jokes.
Mr. JOSEPHSON: My pleasure. Call any time.
GROSS: Larry Josephson is the founder of the Radio Foundation in New York.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with some music to get you into this
Valentine's Day night. This is Fats Waller and Una Mae Carlisle, recorded in
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. UNA MAE CARLISLE: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby.
That's the only thing I've plenty of, oh, baby.
Mr. FATS WALLER: Don't tell me. Yeah. So what am I supposed to do?
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) Dream a while...
Mr. WALLER: Yeah.
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) ...scheme a while...
Mr. WALLER: You're wrong.
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) ...you're sure to find...
Mr. WALLER: If that's what you think, I'm sure to find.
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) ...happiness...
Mr. WALLER: Mm-hmm.
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) ...and I guess all the things you're sure to find
for. Gee, I love to see you looking swell, baby.
Mr. WALLER: Well, my tailor's waiting right outside the door. He can keep
me looking swell. I declare.
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) Diamond bracelets Woolworth's doesn't sell...
Mr. WALLER: I never had a diamond bracelet in my life.
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) ...my little baby.
Mr. WALLER: What do I want it for?
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) Till that lucky day you'll know darn well...
Mr. WALLER: What happens? What goes on in here?
Ms. CARLISLE: (Singing) ...oh, baby. That I can give you anything but love.
Mr. WALLER: Come here and let me tell you something.
(Singing) I can't dish out anything but love, baby. That's the only thing
I've got plenty of, baby. You talk about dreaming a while, scheming a while,
you're sure to find happiness and I guess....
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