City Paper is not for tourists
It is Sunday, a little more than a week after baby Hayden’s birth, and God demands he shed some skin. It is time for the boy’s ritual circumcision. A little after 11:00 a.m., in the crowded living room of his grandparents’ Potomac home, Hayden Ammerman goes under the knife of Rabbi Michael Henesch.
Henesch performs the procedure in 30 seconds flat, uttering prayers while he clamps and cuts. It is Hayden’s entrance into the Jewish covenant.
The baby wails.
Henesch now moves on to his second feat. He takes Hayden in his arms, puts his lips to the back of the infant’s head, and starts humming into his skull. Within seconds, the baby stops crying.
A bris ceremony is part operation and part celebration, so a crowd of friends and family are there to witness Henesch as he soothes Hayden with this unusual technique. After the singing and clapping of “Mazel Tov, Siman Tov,” Henesch packs his scalpel and clamps into a black leather briefcase, and grandparents gather around to thank him.
Before Henesch leaves for Baltimore, and his third bris of the day, he gets another chance to demonstrate his expertise. While Henesch examines the baby in an upstairs bedroom, Hayden starts crying again, so Henesch scoops him up, hums into his head, then sits down with the baby and hums some more, this time with a drawn-out revving sound. “It’s probably gas,” Henesch says. Hayden stops crying, and one of the grandmothers, welling up, says she wishes Henesch were always around.
“They are amazed by it,” Henesch says of the effect on his audiences of the hum. “They try to replicate it. Some people can; some people can’t. I wish everyone could.”
The hum is Henesch’s signature move. Every ritual circumciser, or mohel, has some ready method to stifle tears, some no more complicated than pacing across the room with the baby or having a bottle of mother’s milk at hand. Many mohels simply blame gas and instruct parents to keep burping the child. Whatever the lasting effectiveness of these various methods, it is Henesch’s hum that makes an impression, and news of the magical hum telegraphs by word of mouth from bris attendees to a multitude of moms- and dads-to-be. It is the hum that has helped make Henesch what one D.C. father calls “the man, the myth, the legend.”
By most estimates, including his own, Henesch is the busiest mohel in the Washington-Baltimore region. Henesch declines to divulge his annual count, but he takes credit for more than 7,000 brises in his 19-year career. And that was after getting off to a slow start. He has done as many as seven in a day (though often does just two or three). Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have witnessed his brises, says Henesch.
Maybe a couple of thousand Jewish boys are born every year between Richmond and Baltimore, and maintaining a commanding share of that market takes more than baby-calming wizardry. At minimum, Henesch must be technically competent. He must also be a showman, a salesman, a tireless traveler, and a meticulous scheduler. A single lost bris can lead to a loss of future clients to another mohel. But the grind generates some friction. The pressures of being a mohel don’t always accommodate the pressures of being a parent.
Henesch may be good with babies, but he’s got some problems with adults.
Three years ago, D.C. dad Monk Topping and his wife booked Henesch for their son’s bris. But they had some reservations. Topping’s call to the rabbi had been a strange one. “He said he was sort of the mohel to the stars,” says Topping. “That he was the best.” Topping also thought Henesch condescended to him because, although Topping’s wife was Jewish, Topping wasn’t. “He made me feel that I just didn’t understand what was going on with the bris,” Topping says. “Something like, ‘I don’t expect you to understand.’”
Henesch called back soon after to say that he couldn’t give the couple the time slot they wanted. Topping agreed to a different slot. But then Topping and his wife found a mohel who could do the bris at their originally desired time—a mohel, Topping adds, who wasn’t so arrogant.
Henesch never got Topping’s cancellation message. When he called Topping on the day of the bris and learned the family was going with another mohel, he wasn’t happy.
“He said, ‘You’re using Larry? Oh my God, you are foolish, foolish people,’” recalls Topping. “‘You are making a big mistake. Your son is a pawn in all this.’” Henesch hung up, and Topping wrote down what happened—shocked, he says, that a rabbi spoke this way to him. Henesch doesn’t recall the situation, and he says it sounds fabricated. “I can tell you I don’t treat people that way. I respect other religions, and I respect other people,” he says, adding, “If that’s the impression I gave someone, I am sorry.”
Emotions swirl around the bris. It is one of the holiest events in a Jewish male’s life. Family is arriving from out of town. The new parents are suffering anxiety overload. The first time they talk to Henesch is in the frenzied hours after their son’s birth. The phone conversation is brief. Henesch may seem on-point. He may seem curt or abrasive. Many don’t care.
They schedule the bris. He gives them instructions on how to prepare. When he shows up eight days later, in accordance with the Torah, the parents realize they know him about as well as they know the plumber—except the mohel’s tools are sharper, the piping more delicate.
Jewish men—and more recently, women—have performed the rite for about 4,000 years, mostly without a hitch. While there’s some mutual suspicion, many physicians acknowledge mohels’ mastery of the procedure. Mohels are frequently called on to teach doctors their techniques, and they may even be summoned for tricky situations. Mohels pride themselves on their quickness and their ability to limit pain; they’re certainly faster and far more practiced than your average obstetrician. A mother before she was a queen, Elizabeth called on London’s chief mohel to circumcise baby Prince Charles.
The mohel is often also the master of ceremonies, educating his audience on the importance of the rite. The people who become mohels like the idea that they’re bringing newborn Jews into the fold. Around here, they’ll charge about $500, but they’ll charge less, and sometimes nothing, depending on a family’s means. Mohels consider it an added success if, through the ceremony, they can get nonobservant parents more interested in Judaism.
But a nervous parent needs more than just a competent mohel. She needs the best mohel. Who would allow a mere journeyman anywhere near her son’s nether region with sharp instruments? If there weren’t a top mohel, it would be necessary for parents to anoint one.
Henesch is the one. Parents pass his name to new parents like a gift. Whatever his phone manners may be, he’s known for beautiful ceremonies. Moms who thought they couldn’t watch, do. Henesch gets bushels of mail from parents thanking him for his warmth, his “wonderful touch,” his ability to put everyone at ease. “My personal opinion is I love the guy,” says D.C. mom Laurie Moskowitz, whose two sons were circumcised by Henesch. “I think he did a fabulous job.”
Henesch looks a lot like Rudy Giuliani, before the former New York City mayor softened his rough-edged image. The mohel is in his early 50s, with wisps of black hair strewn across his balding crown. His head and shoulders are large for his small frame. He has small dark eyes behind rimless spectacles, and brows and jowls that fall naturally into grim seriousness.
When Henesch smiles, his face bursts alive, and he charms the crowd. But it is the stern pose that reinforces his command over the ceremony. He methodically walks parents through every detail of the bris in the minutes before. The rapid-fire lecture can be either comforting or intimidating, depending on your state of mind. Sometimes it’s good to feel as if someone else is in charge. “We met him for 15 minutes, and he made it seem we had a long relationship with him,” says one mom. “He was very professional and very concerned.”
Henesch gets raves for his inclusion of lots of family members in the ceremony, nods for his joke-telling skills, and can-you-believe-it gasps for his now-famous humming technique. The most common tribute may be that almost everyone uses him. The implication is you’d be foolish not to.
At a bris in Gaithersburg, Henesch moves swiftly around the kitchen, mixes a sugar-water concoction, and then pops it in the microwave. It’s for the baby, to keep him happy during the cut. (Humming is for after the procedure.) Henesch dismisses the Manischewitz-on-a-chew-rag used by many mohels to dampen the baby’s pain. “Wine is for the mother’s head,” Henesch says. “Any doctor will tell you that.” He cites an article from a medical journal that supports his sugar-water thesis. He spells the name of the author: “B-L-A-S-S.”
Maintaining his stony face heightens the effect of his dry delivery as he slings any number of tension-breakers at an uneasy audience. Near the end of a ceremony, for example, Henesch often holds the baby out in front of him and, speaking as if the serious rabbi were the child himself, says, “Thank you, everyone, for coming to my bris.” It brings down the house.
There’s an inevitable plug-and-play aspect to the ceremony. A mohel fills in the blanks on an index card to remind himself of the names of relatives and the baby’s Hebrew name. He recites the necessary prayers. He does the cut. Over the course of thousands of ceremonies, lots of things come quickly and easily—so easily that much of Henesch’s challenge is to avoid repetition.
A stand-up comic can do the same three-minute routine in every town in America and still seem fresh and spontaneous. Henesch has to mix it up with every performance, and not just for his own sanity. Over years and infinite appearances on the local bris circuit, the same people see him again and again. They sniff out the canned material.
So in his suitcase Henesch has a variety of card-stock testimonials for grandmothers to read that run the gamut from “mushy” to “traditional.” He makes small talk with the grandfather, aka the sandek, the second-in-command, who will grip the baby’s legs during the cut. He gives a shout-out to kids in the group that he remembers doing the year before. He turns to an older boy in the audience and tells him not to worry, he’s not next—canned, but no one cares.
“I never use a script,” he says. “I always have a different theme.” And at a recent bris he speaks extemporaneously, and at some length, about the significance of the eighth day—because a grandfather asked him about it. During the naming ceremony, he explains the meaning of the baby’s Hebrew name.
And even if everything falls flat, there is this saving grace: No matter what, the occasion will generate tears.
Last year, Henesch traveled to Israel and couldn’t serve his loyal customer base. So he recommended an experienced New York mohel named Daniel Frank, who was going to be staying in Baltimore while Henesch was gone. Frank didn’t work out so well.
Silver Spring parents Judy and Jayson Slotnik had used Henesch for their first boy, they loved the rabbi, and they were upset when they learned he would be in Israel this November for their second son’s bris. They wasn’t interested in the other local mohels. “I was willing to roll the dice with the replacement,” says Jayson.
So Frank it was. Once the bris was completed—seemingly without a problem—the mohel took the parents and the baby upstairs for care instructions. After offering an explanation neither parent can remember, the mohel then used his knife to cut away more foreskin.
“He said he was going back to New York, and that he wanted to get it right the first time,” says Judy. “I don’t really know. I wish he would have just left it alone.”
Frank said his farewells, returned to New York, and then flew to Israel.
The following day was the baby’s scheduled visit to the pediatrician. After one look at the boy’s penis, the pediatrician directed the Slotniks to see a pediatric urologist immediately: Too much skin had been cut away.
“When we took our son to the hospital, the chief urologist over there basically said what happened to Evan could happen in any situation,” says Judy. “It could happen in a hospital with a trained surgeon. The difference is, if you have a circumcision in the hospital, you can stitch it very quickly.” Because the wound was now 24 hours old, too late for stitches, it took a longer time to heal. But the parents say the boy is fine now, and Jayson says the pediatrician may have overreacted.
But a couple of months later, the Slotniks heard through the grapevine that they weren’t the only parents who’d had difficulties with the New York mohel. A few weeks before their son’s circumcision, another set of parents who had used Frank at Henesch’s recommendation took their child to the hospital. Frank had allegedly removed too much foreskin from their baby as well. (The mother of this first child declined, through Judy Slotnik, to speak for this article. But the child, says Judy, is fine.)
The Slotniks learned that Henesch had known about the earlier situation when he referred them to Frank. Jayson confronted Henesch. “I called Henesch back and said he misled us,” says Jayson, “and he said, ‘You know, it depends on the doctor. I wasn’t sure.’” Henesch told Jayson he would consider not recommending Frank in the future.
The Slotniks, satisfied by his response, say they would still recommended Henesch.
Henesch agrees with the Slotniks’ version of events. “You hear situations routinely when you speak to pediatricians,” he says. “Babies have to be redone. It’s not cutting a piece of paper; it’s much more delicate than that.” He says he spoke with Frank after the first situation and gave him the benefit of the doubt. After the second situation, though, he not only stopped recommending Frank—he stopped recommending anybody. “I can’t take the responsibility,” he says.
Frank says both brises proceeded as they should have. The first bris was complicated by an anatomical abnormality, he says, one that mohels are used to dealing with. The second was “within the realm of a normal bris.”
“It never happened to me before,” says Frank, referring to the Slotniks’ doctor’s reaction to his work. “That’s why it was clear to me it was the referral business.” People get jumpy, he says, when they’re dealing with their second choice.
There are three other full-time mohels in the area, plus a half-dozen physicians who do brises on the side. So why would Henesch recommend a mohel from New York? Competition.
Nearly every bris ceremony teems with doctors and future parents who are watching your every move. They watch not just because they want to, but also because it would be rude not to. Anything a mohel does or doesn’t do right ripples through countless circles of influence. At a bris, you’re not just impressing the parents. You’re also impressing maybe 15 future clients, says Michael Rovinsky, a St. Louis, Mo., mohel. “That’s a few mortgage payments on a house,” he says. “That’s not mohels—this is human nature.”
The four full-time mohels are all Orthodox rabbis, but they are not pulpit rabbis.
Conducting brises is the bulk of their livelihood. And that leads to elbowing between them. “It’s supposed to be holy, and I just think it’s turned into a parade of egos in the Washington area,” says Tami Bonnett-Admi, a Gaithersburg mom. But the mohels generally avoid knocking the work of other mohels outright. They don’t have to. They can accomplish the same thing by pumping up themselves.
The posturing goes like this:
Avraham Rappaport, a 29-year-old mohel based in Olney, Md., is the son of a mohel. “By far the most experienced mohel,” says Rappaport, “in fact the mohel referred to in the U.S. as ‘the mohel’s mohel,’ is Rabbi Moshe Rappaport in Baltimore.” According to Avraham, growing up in a “house of brit milah” gave him a love of the procedure and the ceremony that few share. “Strangely enough, I love the medical aspect of it. I admire my work. That’s the truth.”
Raphael Malka, a 63-year-old Silver Spring mohel, specializes in making the ceremony “smooth.”
Henesch volunteers that he would never use disposable instruments, preferring to sanitize and reuse one set. There appears to be exactly one mohel in the area who does use disposable instruments: Malka. It’s how he advertises himself in Washington Jewish Week.
Malka has a Web site. The Rappaports, father and son, have glossy informational brochures, virtually identical but for the color rabbi shots; they fan them out at their brises. Henesch, though, boasts that he doesn’t even bother to advertise in Washington—he doesn’t need the publicity. To educate parents on brit milah—even parents who may not use him—he spends evenings and long drives on the phone. “I’m not a book. I’m not the Internet,” he says. “I’m on the phone, man. People know me.”
“The Rappaport bris usually includes a previous appointment and a follow-up [in person],” says Avraham. “Maybe the friendly mohel you saw last week”—Malka—“does that?”
Getting to a bris on time is of vital importance, but that’s a challenge when you have several back-to-back appointments and long distances to cover. So Moshe Rappaport has a satellite-aided navigation system in his car. “Mohelim have a terrible reputation for being late, so I try to reverse that,” he says—after emerging from a bris in Germantown to which he was 10 minutes late.
“He’s always late!” blurts Henesch when Rappaport’s recent tardiness is mentioned. He immediately regrets the comment. Unlike some other mohels, he says, Henesch arrives at homes at least 20 minutes before a bris, almost without fail.
Henesch and Moshe Rappaport live within a couple of miles of each other in northwest Baltimore. But, Rappaport says, some time ago he and Henesch reached an understanding: When one of them is unavailable for a bris, he doesn’t recommend the other as a replacement. Instead, Rappaport started recommending a Philadelphia mohel as his stand-in, minimizing any lasting damage to future referrals. Now Rappaport simply recommends his son.
“We’re very open and honest with each other,” says Rappaport of Henesch. “To give one bris away may have a multiple domino effect. I think we do it in a mutual fashion.”
Henesch says there is no such mutual understanding. When Rappaport called him to explain his domino theory, Henesch says, he was surprised. “What do you mean, you won’t recommend me?” Henesch says. “If you know I’m a good mohel?” So Henesch stopped recommending Rappaport.
Nor will Henesch recommend Malka, with whom Henesch says he “never had a relationship.” The Moroccan-born Malka is known as possibly the area’s most “old-school” mohel, vocally opposed, for example, to female mohels (called mohelets). But one of the rules Malka has followed most rigidly has no basis in either Torah or Talmud: He believes that mohels shouldn’t perform their good deeds anywhere another mohel has already established himself.
“There are mohels in Baltimore,” says Malka. “I don’t go to Baltimore.” And he expects the Baltimore mohels to stay out of his territory. “I’m not going to sue them,” Malka says, “but I don’t work that way.”
Henesch says Malka’s protests prompted him to seek the ethical advice of fellow rabbis on the subject of turf prerogatives. They gave Henesch the go-ahead. There are a lot of Jews in the Washington area, says Henesch. “One person cannot satisfy everybody.”
But when Henesch senses that parents have already signed up with another mohel when they call him, he turns the work down. “We’re not colleagues, brothers,” says Henesch of the other local mohels. “But we’re ethical.”
When Henesch and Moshe Rappaport emerged on the Baltimore bris scene in the ’80s, Henesch had an advantage. His father-in-law was Fred Goldberg, a prominent Washington mohel, whose work was known by multitudes. Goldberg recommended him to Washington families, and Henesch says that today, more than half of his business is in the D.C. area.
With skills sets that are pretty similar, some in moheldom have postulated another formula for success: facial hair. Or the lack of it.
Henesch and Rappaport represented something of a change over the mohels who came immediately before them. The immediate postwar generation of mohels tweaked a couple of thousand years of mohel tradition. To show they were up-to-date on modern standards of hygiene and medical know-how, they generally wore white medical coats. They didn’t always have beards.
In the following generation of mohels, there was a swing back: Many were stricter on the rules, heavier on tradition. Many were Orthodox rabbis—steeped in Jewish law—and many had beards and wore prayer shawls for the ceremony.
Henesch was a little different. He was an Orthodox rabbi and he did brises by the book, but he didn’t see a need to grow a beard or don a prayer shawl during the ceremony. Nor was he opposed to it; in environments where many people are wearing prayer shawls, he wears one, too.
“So many people use Henesch because he doesn’t have a beard,” says a local mohel. The clear implication is that Henesch makes less traditional Jews feel more comfortable. “Don’t laugh! He looks a little like a businessman,” explains the mohel.
Henesch himself says his lack of facial hair may make a difference with some people. “I appear more modern Orthodox, I guess—I don’t know,” he says. But he says the beard issue is insignificant. “People who choose a mohel because of a beard are silly,” he says. “If that makes a person spiritual, that’s ridiculous.”
With a bris, time is a precious commodity. Jewish law says that you must have the ceremony during the daylight hours of a baby’s eighth day of life, no earlier and no later. There are exceptions, such as for a baby’s health. If the baby becomes healthy enough after the eighth day, parents can pretty much schedule the bris for any day they choose. They frequently choose Sunday. And because the Orthodox mohels observe the no-drive rule for the Sabbath, any other bris that would ordinarily fall on Saturday often gets pushed 24 hours.
So Sunday, particularly around brunch, is bris prime time. Slots fill fast. Parents who know they want Henesch know they have to contact him just after their baby’s birth or risk not getting the time they want. Depending on their degree of loyalty to Henesch, they may place calls to several different mohels, shopping for the best opening.
It’s a combustible situation. Anxious dads and moms fresh from labor pains attempt to find a mohel and a time they can count on. Henesch, meanwhile, carefully schedules his day. He says he attempts to accommodate as many people as possible, while still leaving large enough blocks of time between brises. Tardiness to a ceremony is a sort of failure. “I can’t ruin my reputation by being late,” says Henesch.
Henesch, it seems, doesn’t always have patience for the parents who don’t immediately recognize his stature. “He was arrogant,” says Bonnett-Admi, who weathered Henesch’s pitch. “He told me he was the best mohel on the entire East Coast, if not the U.S.—that people fly him in, because he’s the best.” She went with someone else. Henesch may also warn callers of the risks of going to the competition. “‘People sometimes regret they didn’t have it with me,’” he told Amy Spiegel, a D.C. mom. “‘Then the next time, they do it with me.’” After D.C. mom Pat Levy went with another mohel, she says, Henesch told her that the mohel is “‘so slow, I could pave a driveway in the time it takes him to do it.’ I thought it was irrelevant and childish.”
A couple of the larger disputes have been over scheduling mix-ups: Henesch thought he had a commitment, but the parent had committed to another mohel. That’s what happened with Monk Topping. One mom, Dana Laidhold, wrote in an Internet posting that Henesch told her she was “immoral” because her husband booked someone else while Henesch was trying to find them a slot. Her husband could hear Henesch’s voice on the phone from across the room. (Laidhold declined to comment for this article.)
Henesch doesn’t recall any of these situations. He admits that one or two times over his career, he’s expressed anger to parents he deemed inconsiderate. As for the charge that he uses harsh language, he says that it is categorically untrue. “That’s certainly not me,” he says. “People cancel on me all the time. If I reacted that way with every cancellation?”
“I’ve done over 7,000 brises,” he explains. “Most people are satisfied. The vast majority are satisfied. Unfortunately, not everybody can satisfy everyone all the time. Sometimes people perceive things differently than was intended. I try the best I can. I try to be attentive. Whether you’re a physician, whether you’re a teacher, you can’t satisfy everyone. You deal with people with different moods, different situations.”
Complaints about Henesch’s style appeared last year on D.C. Urban Moms, an e-mail discussion group with more than 4,000 subscribers. Last month, the mohel discussion sprouted anew, this time with more fireworks. Parents posited the pros and cons of the various mohel choices, but it was Henesch who inspired the most passionate and most frequent comments, both for and against. Henesch was made aware of the postings a few weeks ago, and he says he was very upset by them.
The most harrowing tale was posted by Darlene Lesser. The first time Vienna couple Jeffrey and Darlene Lesser met Henesch, he was inside their house, knocking on their bedroom door. Darlene was nursing the baby. Jeffrey was half-dressed. After having pushed the bris an hour, Henesch had now shown up 15 minutes earlier than expected.
“If my husband didn’t have his foot at the door, he would have bounded in,” says Darlene. “Literally, I just had on undergarments.”
“He was a jackass,” says Jeffrey. “He comes in and wants to rush through everything.”
The ceremony was short, with another rabbi officiating while Henesch did the procedure. Upstairs again, Henesch ordered that they “sit down and listen” to his after-care instructions. Then he was gone.
A week later, when the swelling had gone down, Jeffrey and Darlene discovered that their son’s foreskin was lopsided. The say two doctors confirmed their assessment. The plumbing was fine, but the cosmetics were off: More foreskin had been cut from one side than the other.
The Lessers demanded the return of their $475. Henesch replied with a letter from his attorney. Unless medical specialists deemed their son’s organ dysfunctional, it said, there would be no further response.
“He did a lousy job,” says Jeffrey. “I’d like to have 30 seconds with his ding-dong.”
When the subject is raised with Henesch on the phone, his wife comes on the line. Roberta Henesch works closely with the rabbi, especially on his schedule. Recalling the Lesser incident, she says that it was the same month that her husband’s sister died, and one of the Lessers had shown insensitivity to the situation.
She then spends an hour defending her husband against the collection of criticisms, saying they represent a tiny fraction of his body of work. “He’s one human being,” she argues. “He can’t divide himself in five different places at one time. Occasionally people don’t get their time, and then they get upset. O-caaaysionally. And you better believe that for their second babies they call.”
“Yeah, I’m not perfect,” says Henesch, when he comes back on the line. “Not every procedure I’ve done has been perfect. And if any doctor ever told you he is perfect, boy, I want to use him.”
Henesch doesn’t make much of the Lessers’ claim: They didn’t sue. “She wasn’t happy?” he says. “That’s what lawyers are for. That’s what courts are for.”
“I have been practicing for 19 years,” the mohel adds. “I don’t have malpractice insurance [few mohels do], and I haven’t been sued. And the first time I get sued is the last time I practice.” The parents who posted the most negative comments on the e-mail forum, he says, are “wackos.”
Henesch is by now inflamed, concerned that what he describes as a few dissatisfied parents could, with their comments in this newspaper, turn Jewish couples who might otherwise be on the fence off to the bris and other Jewish traditions.
“Rabbis will look at me and say, ‘I understand,’” he says. “But it’s the laypeople who will say Judaism sucks.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.