My Jewish Heritage was Key to Unlocking the American Secret

Photo/James Loewen
I was born and raised a Reconstructionist Jew in Scarsdale, NY. I wish I could say that growing up, with every cousin’s bris, I struggled mightily to comprehend such brutality. The truth is that, like virtually all children, I trusted the adults who told me that foreskin removal was in a baby’s best interest.

As I grew older, it was my Jewish education and upbringing that prompted me to be more considered about rules and authority, and ultimately to be reflective about circumcision.

When you grow up with the reality that your ancestors were persecuted in just about every place in which they tried to settle, and found to be on the the wrong side of the law just a tad too often, you come to appreciate that cultural embrace and legal status are weak litmus tests for determining whether someone or something is good or ethical. In referencing my ancestors, I’m not just talking about abrahamic tent dwellers or European Jewry in the 1930s, but also Russian Jews in the late 1980s. I realized I could not blindly trust the so-called “authorities”--even the Jewish ones--when it came to determining right from wrong. Once you grasp that, you resign yourself to a life of figuring stuff out for yourself.

In spite of initial doubts about how worthwhile the cause, over the past few years my sister has been incredibly supportive, lending her expertise in grant management by helping to edit funding applications. She is also a top contributor to the "American Secret" Kickstarter campaign.

My parents have let me shoot reenactments in their house, they’ve gone and picked up lunch for the cast and crew. For anyone who’s watched the pitch reel, that scene with the coupon clipping? That's my mom! Didn't she do a great job?

One of my first memories of contemplating morality and trying to reconcile an ethical imperative that stood in conflict with a law, occurred at Sunday school. I was about eleven. Our principal was addressing us about Operation Solomon, a fundraising effort to bring persecuted Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He listed the items and services for which we would be raising money: flights, food, clothing--and bribes. I startled at hearing him mention bribes. Until then, I’d only associated this word with duplicitous people. Then he explained: “We have to bribe the guards to get them to allow the Jews to leave.” That sentence was all I needed to understand that bribery could not be automatically written off as an inherent wrong. Some rules and laws should be broken.

Today, I am working to complete my first documentary, “American Secret: The Circumcision Agenda.” The film explores why circumcision became so popular in the U.S., as well as the cultural and economic incentives that perpetuate its practice. Please check it out and support my current Kickstarter campaign to raise much needed funds!

Of course, I am hoping the film will encourage people of all faiths and backgrounds to question circumcision, and also to think more critically about what inspires us to draw the conclusions we do about what’s ethical. Among family and friends, my work on the film has already had this effect. Just opening up a dialogue, and sharing facts and information, can change people’s minds on this issue.

At first my mom was nervous about the prospect of any Jewish ritual becoming criminalized. My sister was kind of eye-rolly, and had a "circumcised men enjoy sex” and “this is not a pressing issue" attitude. To his credit, my dad pretty much agreed that circumcision is an antiquated blood ritual.

Today my family is now fully on board with my work. My mom’s argument of choice, at least among Jewish friends, is: “Think of how many Jewish men and their families could have concealed their Jewish identities during the Holocaust--and escaped the Nazi death camps--if Jewish males did not look unalterably different.” My mom is working on a musical about a family that hid Jews during the Holocaust, so given the amount of research she does around that, it’s unsurprising to me that this is where her thoughts go first. Her point about the Holocaust is valid, but there are excellent present day reasons for keeping boys intact.

Francelle Wax, 32, has overseen production coordination on political media campaigns and for historical documentaries. She has traveled four continents and lived in London, Washington, DC, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, and Berkeley, California. "American Secret: The Circumcision Agenda" is her first film.


  1. Brilliant. I can tell your project will be thoughtful and honest. Excited to see it. I'll be giving what I can today. Thank you!

  2. Really great article.

    I really have a good feeling about this documentary!

  3. roger desmoulinsJune 13, 2013 at 6:07 PM

    “Think of how many Jewish men and their families could have concealed their Jewish identities during the Holocaust--and escaped the Nazi death camps--if Jewish males did not look unalterably different.”

    The first duty of each and every Jew is to survive and reproduce. That means outwitting any antisemitic bastards. If not circumcising sows confusion among the bigoted tyrants, then sweeping brit milah into the dustbin of history is an excellent idea. L'chaim!

    During WWII, the Germans began inspecting the genitalia of British and USA POWs, so as to treat the Jews more harshly. Very quickly they discovered that a fair fraction of POW officers, and some American enlisted men, were circumcised. An exasperated Third Reich had to abandon its dragnet for Jews among POWs.

    I am greatly relieved to read that your parents are on board. I do not take this as a given. For instance, I understand that the mother of Eli Ungar-Sargon refused to appear on camera for "Cut".

  4. Francelle,

    Having met you in person and read your background, you are simply fantastic, uniquely positioned, articulate and insightful.

    This film and all of your work is going to be important and game changing for circumcision as a ritual.

    Jewish Americans are the ones who are thoughtfully questioning circumcision, while other non-Jewish Americans mindlessly continue the practice.

    I will be contributing to your film and anxiously await it's production.

    Congratulations and good luck!

    Sandy Roman

    1. Roman, with the exception of the ultra-orthodox insistence on MBP, nearly all American stubborn stupidity defending infant circumcision is uttered by gentiles. Go to Butthurt Bitches on Facebook to see what I mean. The smug shallowness and childish disgust many Americans feel about the natural penis beggars all belief. I love it when thoughtful Jews grab dumb gentiles, saying "wake up and smell the coffee! Why do it if God didn't tell you to???"

      The first intactivist book was by the secular Jew Edward Wallerstein. The book that launched the intactivism of concerned mothers, the dominant form of intactivism, was written by Rosemary Romberg Wiener, married to a secular Jew. I have learned much by reading Miriam Pollack. Several Jewish mothers who have contributed to BTB have moved me deeply. A powerful female common sense shines through all of what they write.

  5. Hi Sandy!

    While there are some Jewish Americans questioning the practice, the fact remains that Jewish Americans, while only representing 2% of the population, maintain one of the most influential groups perpetuating the practice. In medicine, it is nearly impossible to bring it up among my colleagues for fear of insulting the religious beliefs of Jews. . The number of non Jews questioning the practice is far larger yet so is the the number mindlessly continuing it. One of the greatest threats to global expansion of circumcision to non Jews is Israeli Tzamara Fuerst who is selling the Pre pex circumcision device. Her goal is to make millions by convincing men and parents to circumcise. She is one example. Francelle is in a great position to challenge those who use Their religion as a justification to continue this practice. I hope it has an impact with both religiously motivated as well as financially motivated individuals and those who don't think About it at all.

  6. Thank you for the great work you are doing. Circumcision, like vaccination, is is a form of child abuse.
    Jamie Murphy