On a gray Sunday morning at the Eldorado Country Club in McKinney, Rabbi Michael Rovinsky stands in a high-ceilinged back room that’s nearly empty except for a few chairs. He’s a mohel (the Yiddicized pronunciation is “moil”), a rabbi authorized by Judaic certification to perform the bris milah, the Jewish ritual of circumcision. While the family mills about anxiously in the hallway outside, he is trying to set up the room for this sacred 3,000-year-old ceremony that bonds their 8-day-old baby boy to God by slicing off the foreskin of his penis. Rovinsky’s concern at the moment? Where to place the Chair of Elijah, the shawl-draped seat where the baby rests during the ritual, so the bris will receive the best light for the news photographer.
“Where’s the best place, photography-wise, for you to shoot?” asks the short, slight 36-year-old rabbi with the mile-wide grin. He moves to one end of the room, examining the glass double doors that bathe the room in overcast light. Then he traipses to the opposite end–a solid wall–looking pleased. Near the wall it will be.
“I’m going on three hours’ sleep here, which I should never tell the parents,” he chatters amiably. “But sometimes I tell them, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I don’t like to watch it either. I keep my eyes closed the whole time!'”
This is one ribbing rabbi. He keeps it up when little Benjamin’s mother, a lovely but nervous Vietnamese-American woman named Lisa Eisenberg, arrives before the crowd begins to trickle into the room. He tells her the “I keep my eyes closed the whole time” line, then takes a couple of minutes to offer more serious, albeit brief support. They had met before: Rovinsky circumcised her first child.
As the room begins to fill with more than 50 friends and relatives, Rovinsky sets up his white-draped surgical table against the more photogenic wall. He lines the table with kosher wine, a ritual knife, surgical scissors, pink antiseptic, “secret healing stuff” (“If I told you what it was,” he says, “I’d have to shoot you”), and what Rovinsky declares is his “secret weapon,” an instrument that is used, he claims, by only three other mohels in the country–a hemostat, specifically designed for open-heart surgery.
With his narrow shoulders draped in an ornate prayer shawl, he tries to silence the loud buzz of conversation and begin the bris. He turns off the beeper stuck to his belt–he also has a toll-free number(1-800-85-MOHEL), a Web site, and a laptop with modem that he carries everywhere with him.
Rovinsky, who counts a bachelor’s in education from Adelphi University in New York among his many degrees, is a master of showmanship to groups large and small. He offers the crowd a short opening speech, serious but still seasoned with a few jokey asides.
The crowd grows a bit restless, and Rovinsky later admits that this is a low-energy bris–loose and informal with only a few tears from the gathered women–an appropriate mood for a country club. Most brissim are conducted in the home or the synagogue, where strong emotions and religious pride are more freely vented.
“All right, what I’m about to perform is the ‘bris milah’ [meaning covenant of circumcision],” Rovinsky explains. “Medically, it looks like circumcision, but it’s not. You can do that in a hospital. This ceremony will reconnect this child 3,000 years back to his patriarchs and matriarchs.”
Rovinsky was referring to a passage in Genesis that describes God entering into a pact with Abraham and the Jewish people: “Every male among you shall be circumcised. And Ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you.”
Then Rovinsky, after invoking the Jewish prophet Elijah, whose hands are said to work through the agent performing the actual snip, asks the dad if he wants to perform the bris: According to Jewish law, the mohel is merely the agent of Elijah and the father, and must hang in the background if poppa wants to make the cut. Paul Eisenberg, a tall, curly-haired man with a distinct Texas accent, declines without hesitation.
With sleeping Benjamin wrapped in a white blanket and resting atop a pillow on his grandfather Jerry’s lap in Elijah’s Chair, Rovinsky does the work that has made him a most popular mohel. Grandfather Jerry undiapers Benjamin and holds his chubby legs apart with five fingers each. In less than 30 seconds, with family and photographers in a tight circle around him, a surgically gloved Rovinsky slits and separates Benjamin’s foreskin from the head of his penis using a speedy 380-degree rotation of his wrist. Bleeding is minimal; Benjamin screams nonetheless. The rabbi then applies a narrow, antiseptic strip of gauze around the penis. In accordance with Jewish custom, he also dips a finger in kosher wine and nudges it into the baby’s mouth to suck–a token gesture to alleviate the baby’s pain and the parents’ anguish.