Jonathan Friedman was raised according to Orthodox Judaism, and is now an ardent intactivist. He describes his awakening to the damage caused by circumcision, how his frustration with that fact has been received by his mother, and the ways in which he has channeled his energies into productive work toward convincing others to relinquish this tradition of forcibly cutting up the genitals of completely healthy individuals.
Because I have such a big family, and people are always getting married and having children, there [have] always been [circumcision rituals] throughout my whole life, [which] I've attended. So… as far back as I can remember is the first time [this subject] entered my consciousness.
So, every time I had a new [male] cousin [who] was born, my family would go and attend the “bris” ceremony: All the men would go on one side of the room, and the women would go on the other side of the room. The mother would bring the child, hand it off to usually the grandfather, who would be holding the child while the mohel is circumcising [him]. And, it sort of happens during the morning prayer session; you know, you pray a little bit, there's a little break, and then you do the circumcision, finish the prayers, and then you eat bagels and things like that afterwards to “celebrate”.
I think the first time that I really felt angry that I was circumcised was when I was about 16 [years old]; I went to some family wedding, and my parents pointed out the mohel who circumcised me, and I felt really really angry. I understood the effects of circumcision slowly; I think right around when I hit puberty (around 10, 11, 12), I started to realize more things: The glans (the head of the penis) should be covered; also, I experienced difficulties masturbating ([during] my first experience, I was bleeding and chafing). So, I didn't consciously understand that it was because of circumcision, but I started to notice all of these bad effects, and then, I think, once I saw the mohel when I was 16, I connected them, and I realized: This is what they did; these are the effects.
I think that after witnessing so many circumcisions—and the metzitzah b'peh; I think that's what I associated with it, and I sort of thought, like, “Gee, this guy performed metzitzah b'peh on me!”, and, like, that's really… it got me really angry.
Metzitzah b'peh is a practice that Orthodox Jews do when they circumcise baby boys: After they cut off the foreskin, the mohel—the circumciser—sucks [with his mouth] the blood from the penis to sort of “clean” the wound; this practice really shocks people when they first hear about it, but it's a rigorously defended practice amongst Orthodox Jews.
In the past 10 years, I think, there's been a number of [known] infant deaths from boys who have contracted herpes from the mohel—from the circumciser—but it's [still] a rigorously defended practice amongst Orthodox Jews, and I think it's because they're really afraid of any change; so, changing a little bit, they think that the rest of the stuff they practice will be in question, and their identity is going to be in question, so it's a very difficult thing to criticize and to have a dialog on, but I think the more people know about it, the more the discussion will happen within the Orthodox communities, and the more varied opinions are going to arise. [NOTE: This paragraph was moved from the end]
[My] first sexual experience [was] with a girl—a friend of mine; she had been used to dating intact men, and so the experience was very… traumatic—for both of us, in a sense. I told my mom after that (I got the courage to say to my mom):
I didn't want to be circumcised; you circumcised me, and I'm suffering now because of it.
And, she basically said:
If you want your foreskin back, then just go get it back!
Just kind of joking around, but… I think back then it was kind of new to her—to question this [practice]. Although, I mean, I don't know how she felt when she gave me up—handed me off—to be circumcised, but I think now I've been talking to her more and more (saying "OK, look, I made the German press"; [I] didn't send her the article, because I was a little apprehensive about her fully seeing this), I feel like slowly, slowly I can talk to her. I think now she still says: You have to do it; it's something we have to do… but I think she's starting to recognize that I'm harmed by it; she's accepting that.
So, I guess when we started, one of the big issues was Wikipedia, [articles of which] had a very very pro-circumcision stance, and it's because of these pro-circumcision lurkers there. Around this time, there were 2 websites that popped up:
That was kind of interesting to see all this information on there that I didn't know—that I wouldn't even think about finding—so, I think I learned a lot just from those sites, and just the idea of documenting all the facts that we know and all the studies and putting it in one neat place… that [has been] a really attractive idea. Also, it's good because if you get into a debate on the comment section of some article, you can just go to Intactipedia and pull something from there and just copy/paste it, right? So, that was kind of interesting.
But, then, after a while, I kind of realized that we couldn't tackle the media; there's all that stuff about circumcision [as a preventative measure for] AIDS, and Bill Gates's foundation spends a lot of money on promoting it, and there seemed no way we [could] penetrate the media, so I thought: Well, we have to create our own media! That's when I started IntactNews, and I guess for the first few months, I would find the latest developments and write an article from an intactivist perspective, and I think people really responded positively to that. Shortly afterwards, Steven Svoboda from Attorneys for the Rights of the Child asked me to help out with his website and newsletter, so that's what I've been doing for almost 2 years (working on that), and it's been a really good experience.
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child has been doing some amazing work in the past—well, since they started, but in the past 2 years, it's been really amazing, [what] with the German court decision and now the AAP statement (critizing that and being able to be in that debate); I feel really good being a part of that.
I was participating in [the] Occupy Wallstreet movement, and there were a lot of “Zines” floating around, and I've learned a lot about issues from them, so I figured: Why not try a zine on circumcision? [It had been] about 1 year since I started getting involved with the intactivist movement, so that zine is a product of 1 year of research. Now, there are a few thousand (maybe a couple thousand) copies floating around, and I get people coming up to me, and they say: “Oh, I saw someone reading it on the subway the other day!” So, I think it's good that information is spreading that way, and like I said: We have to create our own media; it's just another way to get our message out.
The first time I put on the blood-stained mansuit was in Berlin, and I just showed up at this demonstration on the same day that the German parliament passed the law decriminalizing circumcision—legalizing it, actually—so, [activists] approached me and asked me if I wanted to wear it, and I said: Maybe… [laughter] It's very provocative—it's a very strong visual; I was nervous putting it on in Berlin, but I felt very empowered, because there were a lot of [other] people doing it—and having women there also helped a lot; they weren't circumcised, but, still, to have that kind of solidarity was really empowering for me.