[05] The Cut Tour: Austin, Texas Q&A with Janet Heimlich

On Wednesday, 7 September 2011, this recording was made of the Q&A after the Austin, Texas screening of the film Cut by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon. Eliyahu was joined by Janet Heimlich, author of:

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

(slightly modified)

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

From the White Letter Productions studios in Los Angeles, California, I'm [Eliyahu] Ungar-Sargon, and this is The Cut Podcast.

Janet Heimlich

I just want to let folks know who I am a little bit, because I sort of appeared out of nowhere. I wrote a book that just came out a couple months ago called:

Breaking Their Will

and it looks at what I call religious child maltreatment—any child abuse or neglect that is religiously motivated. Towards the end of writing the book, I knew I was going to write about male and female circumcision, but I wasn't quite sure where it was going to go; I thought it was going to be kind of wedged into the chapter on ritual abuse, but as it turned out, I [came to realize that] it needed to be a whole separate chapter. So, my book contains a chapter on male and female circumcision, asking the question:

Is it religious child maltreatment?

I think there [are] many [striking] things about [Eliyahu's] film, but what I [think is] the most striking—and this really culminate[s] towards the end—is the fact that this form of abuse comes out of the same cultural problems that give rise to all religious child abuse and neglect. I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the kind of culture in which children are at most risk, and that is [any culture] that [is] authoritarian.

So many of the things that I heard [from the proponents of circumcision in the film]—especially the rabbi and the [mohella] doctor—were elements of authoritarianism (without them realizing it, [I'm sure]). For example, to say:

Well, I'm a rabbi; I know I'm abusing this child, but I'm going to obey God and do it anyway.

[The child in this case is] a victim of authoritarianism; the doctor was sort of doing this mind game with herself [in saying]:

I'm not going to empathize with this baby. I'm just going to go ahead and do what it is [that] I want to do.

She's also, I think, [perpetuating] that kind of [authoritarian] mindset.

[In] an authoritarian culture—and you can see this in extreme cases [such as] totalitarian regimes [and] cults and that kind of thing—the “good” of the culture overrides the good of the individual; when it comes to the needs of an individual child, [that child is] really shoved under the rug and not even considered, let alone talked about.

I saw that also going on [in the film]: The individual needs of the child (and also in some ways the [needs of the] women who [are clearly] bothered by [circumcision]) were really [treated as being] inconsequential; what is most important to that kind of a culture—and you can see this in Orthodox Jewish cultures, fundamentalist Morman cultures, and kind of [any] very conservative or extremist or religious culture—that the need to express one's individualism [is] just tapped down; it's just not a priority; it's not what's paramount.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

I think it's really wonderful to have someone such as yourself who has done this research to contexualize circumcision as another form of religious child abuse, and you were talking a little bit before about how it took you awhile, but you ended up feeling very strongly that circumcision needed to be a chapter in your book—an important part of your study. [It would be great] if you [could] give us some specific concrete examples of other forms of religious child abuse that you see [as having] some similarities with male circumcision.

Janet Heimlich

Sure. Because my book focuses on American problems, most of the cases that I talk about are Christian [in nature]—that's not to say that Christianity breeds more maltreatment than other religions; it just so happens that we are here in America where most people are Christian, and so that's why you're going to see more cases that are Christian [in nature]. I'm sure that you would see more cases that are based in Islam if you go to countries where that is the primary religion.

So, you'll see, for example, the need to physically punish children because parents, ministers, and the community believe that the Bible requires that children [be] corporally punished. Now, without getting into the debate [over] whether spanking is abuse (I personally would never physically punish my child), but if you're talking about physical abuse where there is injury (and that can be something as minor as a bruise or reddening of the skin that lasts for a long time), I have [seen cases] where children have been severely injured and sometimes killed.

It's not necessarily true that the adults who were perpetrators—who were guilty of this [abuse]—just sort of lost [control of themselves] completely. Actually, in many of these high-profile cases, it's all done under [a] very controlled environment; these spankings can go on for 5 or 6 or 7 hours, and [the abusers will] stop [periodically] and pray [and] talk among themselves—a lot of times, it's not just one crazy person, but you might have a couple or you might have a handful of people [who are] all part of a particular church.

I know that most people are aware of the child-death cases where children are denied medical care, and they die from easily treatable diseases because those [who] are in charge of their care believe that medical care should be shunned, and [that they] instead should simply rely on faith-healing and a belief in divine intervention.

[For the book], I looked at the 6 significant ways that people psychologically or emotionally abuse kids, and I focused on 4 of them. One of them is called exploitation, and that's when a grownup sort of live[s] [his or her] life through a child, [forcing his or her] desires or beliefs on a child. Male circumcision (as well as female [circumcision]) when it's religiously [or culturally] motivated is a prime example.

The doctor [in the film], for example, who [is] so thrilled to sort of get back her Judaism by [forcibly] performing this operation [on another person is] a perpetrator of exploitation; I think that a lot of [it] is subconscious, but when you as an adult are gaining some sort of gratification [personally] by committing an act that causes injury on a child—that permanently disfigures that child, or just something else that's abusive—you're committing an act of exploitation.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

That's very interesting.

I'm wondering also if in your work you came across similar kinds of [justification]—this is one of the things that is sort of really striking to me about circumcision: It's so deeply embedded in our culture that when you ask people why they want it done—and people do feel very strongly about it—they'll give you like a myriad of reasons. It's never just sort of one reason, it's always:

  • It's healthier.
  • It's beneficial.
  • It will look better.
  • He'll look more like his father.
  • God commanded it.
  • [etc.]

[Of course], with religious people, the religious significance is usually given more weight than the other sorts of considerations, but if you speak to sort of a general—just an average—American, it's like it's all those things.

The interesting thing to me also is when people—including physicians—give the medical justifications for [circumcision], they don't just tell you:

Well we do it because it prevents HIV.

They say:

  • penile cancer
  • cervical cancer
  • urinary tract infections
  • HIV
  • etc.

and it's almost like there's an [archeological expedition] that needs to be done [in order to get] into the different layers of rationales. To me, this makes very clear that [the need to circumcise children is] motivated by something much deeper than [such common and rather weak considerations].

Can you address that? Also, [it would be great] if you [could speak] to whether some of the other forms of abuse also share this feature.

Janet Heimlich

Well, I think that [in] a majority of [the cases of] any [kind of] abuse or neglect, if you were to question the perpetrator, very rarily [would he or she] say:

I shouldn't have done that; I was wrong.

It's way more common for [someone] to rationalize in some way that [he or she is] not a bad person [and] didn't do anything wrong. I think that's kind of a common psychological element.

I do think that psychologically, people feel they must belong to a community—to a culture, to a race, [etc.]—they just have to belong. We have seen through[out] history [that] people go through so many rationalizations to justify whatever it is they're doing so that they can still belong [to some group]; this was the case with Chinese footbinding, it's the case with female genital cutting, it's the case with cutting tribal scars on children in other countries—it's just amazing [to what lengths] people go [in order] to rationalize keeping a custom, even if it [can cause] their [child's] death.

So, I saw that time and time and time again when I was looking at these criminal cases, and these people were on trial for doing these heinous things to their kids—sometimes causing their death[s]—and to the [very] end, they were holding their Bible and they were saying:

I know I did the right thing. I did the right thing for my child; it would have been wrong [to do otherwise].

[It's] kind of like [when] your father said in the video:

It would have been immoral if I hadn't [done this thing to you].

They just want to believe that what they believe is right, [especially under the] “God-backup” (so to speak):

Well, God is behind me in this; God wants me to do this.

There is really no stopping what adults are capable of doing when it comes to what they think is pleasing [to] God.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Do you have any questions for me?

Janet Heimlich

I am very curious about the couple—the ones [who have] the bris at the end [of the film], the ones [whose child] the female doctor ultimately [circumcises].

I wonder two things:

  • What was their attitude about what had happened afterward.

  • Also, were they aware that they were being part of a project that [is] showing the negative aspects of circumcision? How do they feel about that?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Well, the Weber-Shifrins were wonderful [to work with]—just in terms of giving me access to their lives, and I was really appreciative of it; it was [extremely] difficult to get anyone to agree to allow me to [film] a circumcision, and I tried—I mean, over the course of the 18 months that it took me to make the film, I must have tried with 4 or 5 different families, through like 3 different mohels—and the mohels were always [obliging]:

I just need the permission of the family; [otherwise], no problem.

[However], the families always sort of pulled out at the last minute. I got [the Weber-Shifrins] through Dr. Phyllis Marx, who I had sort of approached, but it happened right at the end; it was the very last thing I shot, and it was the very end of the film-making processes—I should say the end of production, right before I went into [post-production].

You know, I didn't—I'm trying to remember, [as] this was a long time ago—I didn't sort of try to hide what my film was doing, but I didn't come out and say:

You know, I have serious doubts about this practice, and I don't think you should do it.

I was just very sort of upfront; you saw early on in the interviewing process that I asked them if they were aware that there [is] a large anti-circumcision movement, what they felt about that, what they thought about that, [etc.] They came to the premiere (if I'm not mistaken) at the Gene Siscal [Film Center] in Chicago, and I saw them a number of times after that, and they didn't seem upset with me in any way, which made me very happy.

I was very concerned, because there [are] people who had absolutely no idea—just by nature of the project, they couldn't know [from which angle] I was coming and what my particular perspective [is]; I couldn't share that with them, and there [are] a lot of people [with whom] I didn't share that, [as] there were some that may not have agreed to participate in the project had they known.

[However], for the most part, everyone [who is] in the film—and I've spoken to almost everyone (there may be one or two exceptions)—[is] OK [with it].

There was one person, Rabbi Donni Aaron (the Reform Rabbi in the white who [is] the head of the Reform Brit Milah program and who [is] talking a lot about health benefits). She was a little upset, but as it happened, I was able to meet with her and we had a good conversation that I thought was constructive. I saw [the Weber-Shifrins] twice, and they didn't seem upset at all, and I asked them:

Are you OK with the way you were portrayed? Do you feel like I took any cheap shots?—I really tried not to do that.

and they said:

Yeah, no. It was fine.

and they totally got it, and they were very understanding.

Janet Heimlich

After the circumcision occur[s], I mean, the look on their faces [is]—they [seem] kind of mortified. Did they talk to you about their feelings about circumcision after having Jason [go through that] and having witnessed it?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

What happened after the bris—and I actually got footage of this that I did not include in the film, because I thought it was too much, actually—we went up for the first diaper change, and I caught it on film, and—I mean, the bris seen in my film is very hard to watch, [but] this was beyond that: The baby's penis was swollen to about 5 times its normal size; it was bright red, and Dr. Marx told the parents not to expect the penis to look normal for years.

There's a lot of graphic footage in my film, but I felt this would have been stepping over the line a little bit.

That's sort of what we did after the bris itself; I went up, and I caught this footage, and, yeah, I slowed down the footage right after the bris when you see Eryn [(the mother)] crying, and that sort of mirror[s] in a previous bris (the Orthodox bris, which was actually [done to] my cousin) [when] my aunt [is] crying after the guy [says]:

He took it like a man! What a guy! What a guy!

and you see her crying. I try to emphasize those moments because I think very much like what you were saying: The women who are clearly not OK with what's going on [at] some very primal deep level, their feelings really aren't taken into consideration. In fact, if you pay attention to the Orthodox bris—that one, again, my cousin's—the women are in the “women's section”—they're in a completely different part of the synagogue. In traditional brises, it's been that way since the Middle Ages. The women are basically physically removed from the ritual space; they hand the baby off, and then they get the baby back after it's done, and I think that's important to note.

Janet Heimlich

This may seem like a strange [allusion], but there's a book called:

The Child's Song

and it's written by a religious scholar who talks about [the] story of Abraham and Isaac, and how Sarah is completely left out of that story—Abraham and Isaac head up the mountain [to sacrifice Isaac], [and] we never hear anything about Sarah's feelings about that whatsoever. This kind of reminded me of that, [in] that the women [are] just not part of it. In some ways they [are], but for the most part, it's based on a patriarchal ritual, and I think that's the only way this kind of ritual can continue and continue like that, because it is based on a patriarchal type of system.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

I think we're going to open up to questions from the audience now.

Woman #1

Let's see, which question do I want to start with? I guess, first of all, I just want to say [that] the film is amazing—very powerful. I'm curious about the—I think she's a rabbi, the one who [is] quoting study after study that [proves] that circumcision does have health benefits. When you ask her that question:

If you were to find out that there were studies that disagreed with that...

and she was so emphatically [saying]:

Yes, I would look at them; I speak for all the Reform Jewish, we would!

Did you ever go any further with that?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Well, she saw the film, and she was not happy about it. [In fact], the specific thing you're talking about is the problem she had [with it]: She felt that [the editing is unfair, in that] I go from her saying:

We would look at that very seriously...

and then I cut to me presenting [that very] evidence to my father—that's the cut that really bothered her; she felt that [because] I hadn't presented that [evidence] to her in her interview, it was like not fair for me to do that.

But, you know, I felt that was totally fair game, and I thought she was getting her facts wrong, and my responsibility to an interview subject is to accurately and fairly represent what they're saying—not to make sure they don't say something wrong. If they say something wrong, that's fair game, as far as I'm concerned.

[However], I did have an opportunity to meet with her afterwards and we had a good conversation about it. I said to her:

Let's assume for the sake of argument that everything you claim about the health benefits is true, and at the same time, that everything that I'm saying about the detrimental sexual effects [is] true. Have you ever considered that?

She was very honest; she said she had never thought of that possibility, and that's sort of where we left it.

That was a disappointing moment to me—I had a number of very strong disappointments with the liberal movements in Judaism as I was going through the process of making this film. For years, I've been trying to show this [film] to people, and the reactions that I've been getting [from liberal Jews]—actually in a very ironic way—[have been] much stronger reactions against what I'm doing and what I'm trying to promote [in] the film [than the reactions I've gotten] from the Orthodox Jews, which [is] a whole interesting subject in and of itself.

You know, the fact that the head of the Reform Brit Milah [program]—the national program of the Reform movement—hadn't [even] contemplated that very simple logical possibility sort of says a lot about where the Reform movement and liberal Jews in general [are] on this issue—and sadly on many issues.

Woman #1

Just to complete that: There are a lot of studies she's not looking at, obviously, right?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon


I got the sense talking to her (both when we were doing the interview and afterwards) that she has her [particular] experts [to which] she goes, and they happen to be the circumcision proponents in this country—the Edgar Schoens of the world, the Baileys, these sorts of folk; a whole film could be made about how it is that those people are doing what they're doing, but those are her experts—those are the people she trusts—and she sort of filters out the other stuff.

I think a lot of people—a lot of people in the medical profession, too—are motivated by subsconscious forces [of which] they are not entirely aware. They also filter out things that go contrary to what they believe.

Woman #2

Where to begin? We need this.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

We do.

Woman #2

First, I want to say something to you about your dad. That last speech, [in which he says]:

I want you to be able to choose to do—

I mean, he had already emasculated you on that level of being able to choose what you're going to do with your life by chopping—I'm making the assumption here—of chopping off your foreskin—

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Well it's not an assumption; it's in the film.

Woman #2

Right, that's what I thought; I thought “Well, I'm putting my foot in my mouth.” [Anyway], you remember. I mean, he says [those words], and I'm thinking to myself:

Well, what is he talking about? [Is it really] more important to him that you have a free choice to live your life the way you want to do it? [That's] absolute BS!

I just want to say that. I mean, it was just so obvious to me that he didn't give a shit!—sorry.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Well, yeah, I mean I think there is a cinematic irony in that moment in the film where he says that, which is interesting—and I'm completely aware of it, and I included it in the film.

I mean, what he was [actually] talking about at that moment was my decision about what I'm going to do with my kids, and it should be noted that I think he changed over the course of the making of the film—

Woman #2

Yeah, I got that sense that there [is] this evolution that he [goes] through from the beginning of the film when he [is] first interviewed, and he actually [says]:

No. you [must] circumcise your son...

[At that point], he only [sees] it that way, but then later he recognize[s] the importance of [making a choice]—I was giving him credit for that; I saw him recognizing the importance [of allowing] an individual autonomy—to make a choice like that—and I appreciated that bridge he traverse[s].

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Yeah, I mean, he's very supportive of me and my career, and [the film], and he has participated in a number of discussions about it. [I] appreciate what that means for a person like my father; it's an amazing thing, because he's a deeply religious man—he's a very complex and complicated man, but he is deeply religious—and for him to be supportive of me in questioning one of the central tenets of the Jewish tradition is a pretty remarkable thing.

Woman #2

That's a very difficult [and] sensitive issue to talk about—the freedom to choose. Freedom is a very touchy subject.

[Being a woman], I want to [switch] to the [subject of the] women. I really get that in terms of sexual fulfilment (to make love)—and again, we're touching on [really] sensitive issues, because if I say to you [that] to make love with a man who [was] circumcised is definitely inferior [to] making love with a man who [was not circumcised], I've already started a massive riot—[some disturbance, presumably from a man]—Wait! Let me finish, because I'm channeling, and it's very difficult for me to channel publicly. I'm a channeler, OK? So, I don't know what's going to come, so please just let me do my thing, and then let your left brain do whatever. I'm talking about women.

I'm deeply greatful that you, [Eli], are doing this. Just so you know, I have twin sons. One of them [circumcised his] son, and the other one didn't, and I didn't do it to [my own sons in the first place], so I've gone through some pretty deep stuff about this [subject], but I'm not even going to go there.

As a woman, [I want to know] what happened [in the past so] that suddenly [we] women were denied our tremendous ability to merge our fundamental spiritual energy from sex—I'm a disciple of Osho [(an Indian mystic, guru, and spiritual teacher)], who you may or may not know—

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

The one who doesn't blink.

Woman #2

I don't know if he does; he's gone beyond blinking now. [NOTE: That was humorously said; he died in 1990.]

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

It's the most remarkable thing when I'm watching Osho videos: The man doesn't blink; I've never seen that—but sorry; go on.

Woman #2

Thank you. I'll have to notice that.

From sex to subconsciousness—because we're talking about an enormous subject here, which really is [the subject of] our right to experience who we really are. Knowing who we are is not just something in the mind; knowing who we are is knowing who we are on an energy layer—we are energy beings.

You only deal with your energy body if sex is allowed. So, the sexual suppression—there are many many sexual supressions, but [circumcision] is like the massive sexual suppression as far as I'm concerned as a woman, because [circumcision] is [like removing the whole violin section from Mozart's symphony].

[Sexual fulfilment] is that lull [into which] you can go—it's not the only way there, but it is an amazing gift from the Universe that we have [this] rhythm of sensuality. So, cutting off the foreskin is actually removing the possibility of [complete] sensuality from men and women.

What happened [in history to our particular culture]?

I've been up in Kashmir, and [among] the Tantric Buddhists. The women make love to all the men in the family, you know; it's accepted that a woman has enough juju to go around [for] everybody: A woman marries the oldest son, and then she's the lover for all the men in the family. So, [somewhere in our past] that tremendous capacity of woman was just trampled on—[circumcision] wasn't [introduced] just to stop men from masturbating or having too much sex; it was also [introduced] to suppress [women's] fulfilment and [ability to give] our men fulfilment.

So, I just want to go there.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Thank you for your comments.

I just want to relate that to something very interesting that I heard: We showed the film at a sex-positive film festival in Chicago, and one of the really interesting things—and, you know, I do these screenings, and I hear the same things over and over, [but] one of the things that I heard at this that I had not thought and that I had not heard before which I think is so interesting is that male circumcision sort of destroys the interiority of the penis, and that in a way—and this was from a Gender Studies [student]—and that by doing that, [circumcision] defeminizes the penis. I never thought [about] the foreskin sort of being like the interior—that there's an interior and an exterior to the penis—and that in a very profound and gendered way, what you're doing [when you circumcise a boy] is you're taking away that interiority and making [the penis] even more masculine, as it were. [Note: This is the reasoning behind male and female circumcision in some African cultures.]

Woman #2

Explain what you mean by that a little bit more, because I'm not understanding when you're talking about the “interior”.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Right, so the foreskin, the way it works is it's a double-layer of skin, and it covers the glans [(the penis “head”)], and the glans comes out during erection, and it goes back in when the penis is not erect. There's variability in that some men have longer foreskins [and] some men have shorter foreskins, but [by the word] “interior”, [I mean] the “inner foreskin”; the covering of the glans is kind of an interiority, because [the glans] sits there [covered], and it [can come] out, and it [can go] back [in]. So, what the Gender Studies student was getting at is that circumcision destroys [this vaginal facet of the penis]. I [think] that [is] very interesting.

Do you have anything to say on this, [Janet]?

Janet Heimlich

A couple things: What I was hearing from you—[what] I felt very strongly—is that [the cultural] controlling [of] sexuality with all of these intentions of “purifying” us has really led to our detriment, and as I do mention in going [over] history on this in my book, the practice of circumcision for males in preventing them—or trying to stop them—from masturbating was also done on females [for those same reasons]; it started around the late 1800s [and] it went through—who knows how long; I ended up interviewing a woman in my book who had it done [to her] when she was probably around 7 [years old], and she's my age! She was not Jewish [or] Muslim, you know, [but rather] she's a WASP [(white Anglo-Saxon Protestant)] woman.

That's the one thing I wanted to point out: The whole repression of sexuality happened in this country for both girls and boys.

The other thing is—and why I'm so glad you did highlight the negative effect on sexuality in your film—I always felt the medical stuff bores people to death a lot of times, and it's just used as a [publicly acceptable] rationalization. When people are asked why they circumcise, they never [appeal to that medical stuff, but rather]:

  • It's customary.
  • I want him to look like his dad.

and these [kinds] of [reason]. [So], the thing that I think would be [best for] discouraging [the practice of] circumcising boys is [emphasizing] the sexuality aspect of [the harm of circumcision]; if women were to say:

[Sex is] better with an [intact] man.

and if men were to say:

Hey, I've had it both ways, [and] the sexual [experience] is so much more heightened when I was [not circumcised].

I think that would make a bigger difference in this country than any other type of [discouragement]. I wish [sexuality were] brought out more [in discussions], and so I'm so glad your film really got into that.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Yeah, I emphasized [the sexual effects]—and there are a lot of reasons why I think it's important, but for me the really sort of central ethical argument against circumcision is that [circumcision] has lifelong consequences.

This is one of the big misapprehensions that a lot of people have; they think that the central problem [people have with circumcision] is the pain that you're causing the infant, [but] the way I look at it is [that circumcision is] damaging a person's nervous system, and that damage is permanent and it lasts [his] whole life.

I said this in the film, and you have to be honest about this: It's really difficult to talk about pleasure scientifically, [and] it's difficult to talk about pain scientifically; these are not experiences [for which] science has very good [analytical] tools—[not even] philosophy [has] very good tools for giving you any kind of precision [of expression] or empirical fact, but when you talk to people [who] have experienced both states, that's interesting, and we heard from people [in] my film [who have] experienced both states and have a strong preference for one [state] over the other.

Janet Heimlich

I think it was very impactful, and I think seeing the procedure being done, and what those babies [go] through—I mean, I just tweeted about this: [There is a YouTube video that shows 10 clips], one right after the other, [just] watching a baby being circumcised and going from happy baby to that frenetic, distressed child.

It's sad to say that I think when it comes to a lot of people's mindsets, even that is sort of not enough to get them to really come over the fence [on this issue]—[that conversion only happens when] they really relate and see a personal gain or loss. I just think that if more people were aware of the [sexual experience] issue, that would really make a big change [to society's perception of circumcision].

[Also], the fact that now insurance is not covering circumcision as much [has] driven the rate down in this country as it [has] done in [the] other [English-speaking] countries [where circumcision became prominent for the same reasons].

Woman #3

Hi, I just really [appreciate] the film.

I could talk about genital mutilation—circumcision—for hours and hours, and I have [done so] with many of my friends about so many layered issues that go along with the problem. It's just overwhelming.

[However], in the spirit of keeping with discussing your film and your making of the film, I just wanted to say that I respect you so much—so much—for taking the front against your family, asking the tough questions, really bringing this up, and coming to your own consciousness. I don't know the story behind all of that, of course, but I just find it so powerful and so moving; it's so difficult to talk to our [families] about taboo subjects—especially something like this that is so centered on [an] entire cultural [identity] for you and your family, so I really respect that.

One of the things that Marilyn [Milos]—I believe it [is] Marilyn—[says] during the film [is]:

People just close their ears; they just don't want to talk about it. We have all of these great things that all of us can say about why [circumcision] is so bad and why we need to stop doing this immediately—we have so much information we give them, but no one wants to hear it!

So, I was just wondering about your opinion after making the film: What do you think is an appropriate way [to get the] hands [to come] off of the ears? I know that [there] can be different ways with different communities—obviously, if [you are dealing with] people who are very religious, you would have to approach it [accordingly].

  • [In] even my family, [every male] was circumcised. I come from a huge family; my grandfather is an Orthodox Christian minister. Why do they do it?

  • [Numerous Americans] who are atheists will still do it.

There [are] just so many people who keep their hands over their ears for what you would think would be different reasons, but I think it might all be the same [reason], and I was just wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

So, I could give [my answer as to how to uncover people's ears] in one word. I'll try and elaborate; I'm not going to be obtuse.

I think [the solution is] art.

I'm a film maker, and I believe in the power of film to affect people, and I believe that art in general has the ability to pierce people's beings and to get to the heart of a matter in the way that probes, for example, can't really do.

One of the things that I love about film is its ability to involve multiple senses and to create an experience that's not just about language or reason; it can bring everything to the table. [Film is] so wonderful for that reason, and I am so affected by film and art for that reason too, because it's not just about engaging the left brain (if [you would allow me to use that] old cliché); it's really about engaging both sides of the brain and what it means to be a human being.

So, maybe I'm naive, but I believe in the power of art to change people; it has changed me in many profound ways.

Having said that, it's not easy to get people to [this] Q&A part. [However], I feel like once I've [gotten] someone watching my film, and they watch it through [to the end], there's [usually going to be] a flood of interest [from the person, especially when that person hasn't thought about this much before]; all of a sudden, this thing [about which he or she] hadn't thought—[about which he or she] didn't [even] have the tools to think—[can now be processed. This person] now [has] all the tools, and now all [he or she wants] to do is talk about it.

I've had this experience on numerous occasions, where we've had sort of more general audiences attend, and then the Q&A sessions [have gone] for 2.5 hours [with thoughts bouncing around like an opened can of worms]:

  • Well, why this?
  • Why that?
  • What are the effects here?
  • What are the effects there?
  • How is this similar to something else?

So, the practical challenge to me is getting people in the seats [in the first place]—getting people to watch [my film]. That's been a consistent challenge since I made the film.

[Nonetheless], I feel like [the situation is] changing [for the better]; I feel like there's been a ground-shift between 2007 (when I finished the film) and 2011 (now)—I do think that people are more willing to engage. But, [this change is] slow.

One of the things that is also challenging for people who have been passionate about this subject for a long time is not to delude [themselves] into thinking [they] are being more effective than [they] actually are; [the] sort of progress [of which I speak] is [extremely] gradual. It'll hopefully reach a tipping point at which things start to go faster; I think we saw that with gay rights—I'm not trying to suggest there's no more work to be done [on that issue], but I think a few years back we hit a tipping point, and things are moving faster now.

We're not there with circumcision, but we'll get there, [and] in order to get there, we have to not pretend we're somewhere [that] we're not.

Janet Heimlich

I think [one of the reasons] we know we [reached] that tipping point with gay rights is that—speaking of art—you can't have a sitcom now that doesn't have a character who is a gay man (or maybe a gay woman, but more so a gay man), and I just think that's very telling.

Woman #3

I agree about art [as a necessary tool].

I think it is so powerful whether it's a picture or a movie, but I think for me, I have Facebook, and I have my voice through the [Internet] and through my friends—the social media—to just keep talking about [this issue]. I'm proud to say I've saved some babies from the horrors of this [practice], and my friends have saved [the babies of] their friends, and so I know that [the cultural attitude] is moving and it is changing.

[Yet], when I think about Canada ([where] rates [of infant circumcision] dropped so drastically [and] so quickly), and [then compare that to] how much slower the progress has been in the U.S., I think it just really frustrates me; I'm just constantly looking for a way to somehow put up that big blinking billboard that no one can ignore, and we can do more, but definitely people like you—I wish I could walk around with a billboard on top of my head that had [these] flashing statements about fluoride being toxic, [etc.] I wish I had something like that [which] didn't give me cancer!

Janet Heimlich

You are doing that, and I appreciate you trying to educate society, and it's great that you have made these inroads, but I'm going to guess that it hasn't been always easy.

Woman #3

It's so difficult. As a matter of fact, before I came here, I had put up a comment [online] saying that I [am] coming here; I was so excited. I work at a childcare center, and every day, every single boy that I change is cut, and he's so [irritable] and it's so difficult to change [his] diapers. [Anyway], one of my family members immediately responded [to my comment]:

Yeah. [I was circumcised, but] can you imagine all of these abortionists who want to kill their babies? At least I wasn't aborted! At least it was just my foreskin that I lost!

[Put your efforts into something actually worthwhile!]

I mean, this madness that you have to go up against [just] to discuss the issue! The things [in which] you seem to have to engage with people just to break down [the barriers] to get [to] them. It's maddening!

Janet Heimlich

It takes a lot of energy.

I am very optimistic, actually, about the rates [of routine infant circumcision] in [the U.S.] going down. [In] Canada, there was a [boy's] death [due to circumcision, which] did affect public opinion, but my understanding is that the primary reason why the rates went down so sharply was because insurance was not covering [these] surgeries, and now you're seeing the same thing happening here [in the U.S.]—

General audience members

[Is that a recent change?]

Janet Heimlich

In the States, I've begun to read articles about how insurance companies are covering [circumcision] less and less, and so that's what gives me hope that [it's] going to be reflected in the same way [as in Canada]—and with the economy the way it is, I just think that change is going to happen more and more.

Woman #4

Eli and I talked about that on the way here—how [there are 17 or 18] states now [in which] Medicaid is not covering circumcision any more because [it's now considered] a cosmetic procedure; [the policy-makers have been saying]:

Why are we paying for this? We could save a lot of money [by dropping coverage for it]!

You do have other states that have [not had the same response]—like Texas. Michelle Richardson, in fact, wrote a letter to several members of the legislature, and the responses [she] got back [basically say]:

This is a parent's decision; we're not going to mess with it.

[In any case, Eli], I really admire the way that you're able [to broach this topic] without being so emotional when you're interviewing—and I know this is your art, what you do, but my blood pressure starts going, my heart starts pumping, and then I can't talk because it just gets really emotional for me. So, I have to say that for you to be able to present this in such a way for people be able to really hear you is pretty profound.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon


[However], I'm not a Vulcan [(a fictional species from Star Trek; Vulcans strive to live by logic without emotion)]. I mean, you know, I get emotional given the right circumstances, but when I'm conducting an interview, I try to focus on what the person is saying, and that dynamic, so it doesn't help to sort of—although, you know, from time to time, I lose my cool a little bit.

Woman #4

I kind of want to switch it up a little bit, and [refer] to your book, [Janet], and [ask] a question for you, too. One thing that struck me [from] your book [about which] a lot of people have no idea—it [is] something that [even] I didn't know about quite a ways into my journey studying this [issue]—[is] that the original way that circumcision was performed is not how we do it now; it was a ritual nick—sometimes, the mohel had to actually suck the blood out of the penis [with his mouth], so there would be enough blood to have it be a blood-sacrifice.

I wondered, I guess, [whether that was] anything that you, [Eli], ever brought up to any rabbis or any mohels—as [to whether] there's such a deviation from the way it was originally performed; is that history correct?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

I'll take it, and then you can—

Janet Heimlich

I'd love to hear your answer on that one.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

I think there's pretty solid historic evidence that before the time of the Mishnah, which is like 2nd Century CE—[when the Torah was redacted]—that [circumcision] was a less radical procedure, and we do sort of know—it wasn't a ritual nick; I mean, they took off the [foreskin tissue] that [overhangs] the glans, most likely [including] the ridged band. So, [significant genital cutting] was still there.

Interestingly, in the recent upsurge in public attention around this [issue] earlier in the summer [regarding the San Francisco MGMBill ballot initiative], I was asked to write an OpEd for The Forward about what was going on in San Francisco, and [there was] some follow-up to that in The Forward; there's a journalist there by the name of Jay Michaelson, who actually suggested [the older form as a compromise]. He said:

Look, we have these two sides, and they both feel very passionately about this; maybe the compromise solution should be that we should go back to the old style of circumcising—where it's just the bit of foreskin overhanging the glans—that it's not the more radical form.

and the more radical form, by the way, includes pariah, which is the tearing away of the [mucosal tissue], and metzitzah, the 3rd step in a traditional Jewish circumcision, which is the suction [to which] you were referring; some Orthodox Jews still practice it with direct oral-to-genital contact, [but] most Orthodox Jews when they do the metzitzah part (the suction part), they use a sterile pipette now because when the germ theory of disease came about in the late 19th Century, that was sort of legislated by Orthodox rabbis—that we should be using a sterile pipette so that kids don't get infected.

[Of course], we know from the New York cases [in which babies died from genital herpes] that there are still particular Hasidic Jews who are insistent on the direct oral-to-genital suction.

So, yes, there was a difference [between the original and the current practice]. I do believe that even in the old form, the ridged band was probably ablated because it is so distal in the foreskin [(meaning situated at the farthest point)], but I guess some of the mechanical action [of the foreskin tissue] would have remained.

The historical reason for the change [to the practice], interestingly, is that Jews were “restoring” their foreskins because they wanted to appear in the Olympic games and also because Hellenic culture at the time was something [to which] a lot of Jews were attracted. So, [Jewish men] were—I guess the scholarly term for it is “epiplasty” or something like that—they were putting weights on [the] remainder of their foreskin [tissue] and stretching it forward; the rabbis didn't like that, so they said “Well, we're going to [perform circumcision] in a way that you can't restore!”

Woman #1

Is your mother alive? because she was really absent from this film.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

My mother is alive and very ashamed of my work, and she is a religious fundamentalist—not like my father at all—

Woman #1

Are they together?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

They are together. She's a religious fundamentalist; she thinks that what I'm doing is terrible. I'm not sure if she's ever sat through the film; I asked her to be in it, [but] she refused. She's very suspicious of most of my work.

Woman #1

Do you still speak and everything?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Yeah. I try to have a cordial relationship with her, but, you know, my mother-in-law happens to be a fundamentalist Christian, so I have people in my life [whom] I care about who sort of feel like they live on a different planet.

One of the things that I have tried to learn how to do is to maintain relationships with people like that, and it's very difficult, but really important, and I dare say it's sort of a challenge of my generation, because if you look around the country, there are a lot of people like this, and I'm not—and maybe this is a mistake—but I'm not of the belief that you can just write them off and ignore them or not talk to them or not have real relationships with them.

So, what that does is it opens me up to a world of pain, but you have to work it; you got to use humor—you have to use all the tools at your disposal to try and maintain connections and avoid being hurt, and try to make yourself heard even though you know it's going to go through one ear and out the other sometimes.

Yeah, it's tough.

Woman #1

Is the brother you interviewed your only sibling?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

I have five siblings: My brother (Naftali, who you saw in the film) and 4 sisters.

[My brother is] the only other [sibling] in my family who's circumcised [NOTE: that's humorously said]. Yeah, he actually—being in the film and sort of seeing the work afterwards—he is dead-set against circumcision now.

Woman #1

And your sisters?

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

So, I have 4 sisters; I haven't spoken to all of them about it. One of them had a boy and circumcised him [because] she's very religious; I did have a talk with her [before the circumcision of my nephew]. I haven't really had deep conversations with my other sisters about it so much.

My brother's against it, and very eloquent. He's a Shaman—in training still, I suppose—so he has a very interesting way of talking about it.

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