My mobile was ringing.
A glance at the screen told me that it was my friend Jake calling from Jordan, where he was news editor for a Syrian resistance website. Jake and I have been friends since college, staying in touch as our journalism careers took us around the country (me) and around the world (him). Still, our voice conversations were usually limited to when he was in town, or for important occasions like SCUDs falling on Tel Aviv. I wondered what was prompting this call.
"Hi," he said, as he wasted no time getting to the point of his call, "if you have a boy, you are going to circumcise him, right?"
While I wasn't sure that for me the topic would have warranted an international call, the truth is, it had been occupying much of my thought. Our twins were due in two months via surrogacy in India, where clinics are prohibited by law from revealing the gender of a fetus. I'm half-Jewish, and while I'm not religious, Jake wanted to be certain that my children remained culturally "members of the Tribe." I was unconvinced that that required subjecting them to an optional surgical procedure. And my European husband, never under the knife himself, was no help, other than to state this: he would accept circumcision for medical reasons. He would accept it for cultural reasons. But not a hint, not a whiff, of a religious rationale. And good luck separating it all out.
Along with breastfeeding, attachment parenting and SpongeBob, circumcision arouses strong passions among parents -- just not necessarily the parents of the child in question. And for something with a 10,000 year history, it still generates a great deal of controversy.
Carved figures link the practice to at least the third millennium B.C. in the Middle East and, possibly, to much earlier in Europe and elsewhere. The rite is central to Jewish culture and religion where it represents identity and the biblical covenant between God and Abraham, but historians say it was likely acquired from the Egyptians, who depicted it as early as 2300 B.C. and for whom it appeared to be a rite of passage into manhood. Circumcision is also an integral part of Islam, and Muslims account for the majority of the 30 percent of the global male population estimated to be circumcised.
For Israeli-born, Toronto gay father Eytan Havneh, who asked that his real name not be used, the decision to circumcise his sons required no thought. While his upbringing was not religious, the cultural pull was strong.
"We never considered not doing it," he said. "I was circumcised as a baby as part of the Jewish cultural context. In fact, where I grew up, not being circumcised was shameful."
His boys, born in the United States, were circumcised in a hospital by a pediatrician rather than by a mohel, a specialist in Jewish ritual circumcision.
"It was important for us to keep in line with our cultural tradition," he said.
It became an unofficial part of the cultural tradition of much of the English-speaking world in the late 19th century, promoted as a protection against everything from syphilis to masturbation to bedwetting. By 1960, some 80 percent of males born in U.S. hospitals were being circumcised.
That percentage has spiked and fallen somewhat over the years as the American Academy of Pediatrics has changed its guidelines, but the procedure appears to be in gradual decline: according to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1979 to 2010 the numbers dropped to about 58 percent of hospital newborns. Numbers vary from region to region, though, and are lowest in the heavily-Latino Western states.
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