Of late, there has been a great deal written about circumcision both as a medical practice and as a religious rite. However, as far as I am aware, there has never been a full length novel about what is called “the unkindest cut of all”—at least, until now. Lisa Braver Moss gives us the story of Dr. Sandor Waldman (Sandy), a Jewish physician in Berkeley, California who has taken it upon himself to wage war against the Jewish tradition of what some call “genital mutilation”. (I have always thought about the similarity between the words “genital” and “gentile” but that has nothing to do with anything related to this book except that it bounced into my mind as I was writing this review).
The story really deals with how tradition clashed with modern thought and as I read, I thought that this is really fine writing for a first time writer.
Sandy Waldman is the son of Holocaust survivors who is totally in touch with his Jewish roots except that he does not believe in circumcisions which is one of the basic tenets of Judaism. To make it even more difficult for him, he finds that the more he reads about it, the more he resents “the cut”. To Sandy, circumcision becomes his main focus in life and this greatly upsets his wife, Ruth, who begins to lose patience with him. (I wonder if she had lost part of her genitalia, would she have been more supportive). Sandy puts both his marriage and career at risk as he probes all he can find about circumcision and actually begins to think that foreskin restoration might be the answer for him.
The novel is cleverly related by alternating viewpoints of Sandy and Ruth and we, therefore, begin to know both characters well. It seems that Sandy is going through his middle age crisis (which I can tell you is no great fun) and it all seems to begin on the final day of the mourning period (Shiva) for his father. Suddenly he feels a piercing pain and he wonders if he might be reliving his actual circumcision. As compared to the same crisis that we have read about in other books as it happens to men, Sandy begins to embrace his Judaism rather than wander away from it. But there is something added here in that Sandy becomes bizarrely obsessed with his penis and its circumcision and he begins a journey studying everything he can get on the topic of circumcision both from the medical and Jewish points of view. We learn of Sandy as he grew up, his engagement and marriage to Ruth and his adopted daughter and we are let into family secrets. We hear from Ruth and from his daughter, Amy, and we are with all three of them as they go through changes but basically this is a totally humane story of an anti-hero.
The author has researched the subject of circumcision carefully and there are even suggestions for an alternative way to honor the covenant between God and Jewish men. Circumcision itself is a “delicate” topic for two reasons; it is one of the foundations of Judaism and it has become, in many places, a standard medical practice. Because it is so standard many parents agree to have their male children circumcised at the hospital and what once was a sign of who a Jewish man was, has become quite popular in many places.
Moss gives us a look at the Waldman home which was not only suffering the grief of a dead father but a great deal of confusion and “moral outrage” and we see this through the characters that she has created so well. I also was totally impressed by the author’s approach to the Jewish religion but I must emphasize that even though our characters are Jewish, the religion of the reader is unimportant. The book speaks to everyone. It is original and stylishly written and it teaches a great deal.