“In medical school, they try to prepare you for this. They do. They tell you there’ll be tough decisions, times when you have to hold someone’s fate in your hand, times when you are forced to play God. But nothing really prepares you for times like this. Nothing. 

— Dr. Joel Fleishman on circumcision 


I was a kid when the TV show Northern Exposure was a hit on NBC. Seeing it now (it’s currently streaming free on Amazon Prime) has given me a fresh appreciation for the series, which takes place in the fictional small town of Cicily, Alaska. The show ran for six seasons, starting in 1990, winning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards.   

The premise: a newly minted big-city doctor is obligated to practice in a remote town in exchange for a med school scholarship. If you think this sounds a lot like the 1991 Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood, or even the 1979 novel by Neil B. Shulman, M.D. titled What, Dead Again?, you’re right. All of these creative expressions reflect the real experiences of many Jewish physicians in the mid-20th century who practiced in remote areas, although only North Exposure kept the uniquely Jewish angle. 

The show has much of the formulaic feel of TV shows of that era, and there are errors that today’s audiences would never accept in a modern production. It’s winter and the actors are sweating in their parkas. The extras are costumed in different shades of the same plaid shirt. Snow on the ground abruptly stops in some of the long shots. In one scene, a deer that is supposed to be wandering free can be seen wearing a collar, tied to a tree, and munching an apple.


But Northern Exposure isn’t about representing an authentic town or its residents. There is an unreality to the show, which at times can feel more like a stage production, or a dream infused with symbols generated from the human unconscious. Each episode attempts to tackle a big idea (or two) while also providing high-level entertainment. Season 2, Episode 3, titled “All Is Vanity,” addresses the controversiality of circumcision, the folly of demanding the procedure for its fashionableness, and the ethical problems it presents for physicians. This episode reminds us that a Jewish-led public discussion about male infant circumcision, and cultural responses to the practice, are not new. 

Spouses Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider wrote the episode. They’re the stellar writing and producing team that also brought us The Sopranos and Chicago Med, among many others. As Schneider told Forward in a 2016 interview: “Both my parents were MDs in Los Angeles. It was a very secular Jewish family, but they had friends who were very religious, orthodox and I always found that interesting, the intersection of very devout Jewish observance with medicine.” 

In “All Is Vanity,” there are three interwoven plotlines: the impending adult circumcision of Holling Vincoeur, the death of a stranger, and a surprise visit by Maggie’s father. In this post, I’m doing a deep-dive into Northern Exposure’s circumcision-skeptical episode, providing my own ideas about the potential symbolism and deeper meanings.   

The episode opens with a scene in The Brick, Cicily’s bar/restaurant, which is owned by Holling, who lives above the establishment with his much younger girlfriend Shelly. There is an intoxicated man in the bar who is trying to start a fight with anyone who does not share his opinion that the Labrador retriever is the best hunting dog in the world. Holling courageously confronts the man and gets him to leave the bar without incident. 

In the following scene, Holling and Shelly are in bed and Shelly is raving about the sex they just had. Then she looks down at his penis and notes that it looks “funny,” and not like others she’s seen. She asks why Holling wasn’t “clipped.” He explains that circumcision wasn’t done when he was born. Although Shelly says she isn’t bothered by Holling’s difference, their conversation prompts Holling to visit Dr. Fleishman at his medical office in town:


Holling: I’m thinkin’ about gettin’ circumcised.

Fleishman: Circumcised? As in circumcised? Why on earth would you wanna do that?

Holling: Well, uh, for one thing I hear it’s more hygienic.

Fleishman: Yeah. It’s a very controversial issue, Holling.

Holling: And for another thing, I hear it’s also more, uh, in style.

Fleishman: In style? What, like pleated pants? Like an earring?

Holling: Aren’t most men of your generation circumcised?

Fleishman: I don’t know. Maybe. It depends where you’re from.

Holling: Are you? 

Fleishman: Yes, but that’s irrelevant. I’m Jewish. It’s in the contract.

Holling: I see.

Fleishman: I was eight days old, Holling. A baby. I had no choice in the matter. My father held me, my mother wept. You can’t compare that to a 63-year-old man who’s opting to have his foreskin removed because he thinks it’s in style.

Holling: You’re against my doing it?

Fleishman: Absolutely. There is no medical reason for you to be circumcised. I am personally opposed to unnecessary surgical procedures.


Holling leaves the office satisfied with Dr. Fleishman’s answer, but changes his mind when Shelly misunderstands and thinks he’s decided to have the procedure, which she sees as a badge of courage and sign of his love for her: 


Holling: Joel, I’ve changed my mind.

Fleishman: Good. A mind that can change is a healthy mind. In fact, intelligence is actually determined by the ability to adapt to new stimuli.

Holling: I’ve decided to go through with it.

Fleishman: You don’t mean — Holling, we talked about this. You made an informed, intelligent decision. What could have possibly changed your mind?

(Shelly enters)

Shelly: Hi, Dr. Fleischman. Can you believe the Big H.? How many guys would get their Johnny peeled … just to show his babe how much he cared?

Fleishman: Not many.

Shelly: When do we get to look at the pictures?

Fleishman: What pictures?

Shelly: You know, for me and Holling, to make an informed choice. When my friend Pam got her nose busted, the doctor showed her pictures of all the different styles. Long and straight, short and turned up.

Fleishman: Shelly, circumcision is not like rhinoplasty.

Shelly: Oh. Whatever then.


As the date of the surgery nears, Holling is dreading the procedure. He dreams he is being operated on and, in the dream sequence, Holling is shown swaddled like an infant on an operating gurney as the townsfolk look on as spectators. 

On the day of the scheduled procedure, Dr. Fleishman points to a hickey on Holling’s neck and says this indicates he could have a bleeding disorder which precludes circumcision, providing Holling with a way out. Fleishman states: “If this were a life-threatening condition that required surgical intervention, I’d go ahead and do it. But this is elective cosmetic surgery. I can’t do it.” 


There are a number of significant moments in this episode. The first is the bully in the bar. The man has an inflexible belief (about Labrador retrievers) that he insists others accept, under threat of violence. Contrast this with Dr. Fleishman’s later statement that “a mind that can change is a healthy mind.” The viewer is subtly directed not to be like the closed-minded man in the bar, but rather to keep an open mind — an especially salient point when challenging accepted societal practices like circumcision. 

The writers then go on to indirectly challenge Jewish ritual circumcision by implying that as a Jewish male Dr. Fleishman had no agency over his own body, no ability to provide informed consent, and that the experience is traumatic for Jewish mothers (“my mother wept”). While Holling is not Jewish, nor an infant, the imagery of his dream sequence is reflective of the public spectacle of Jewish ritual circumcision and the swaddled child. 

The episode further portrays circumcision as “very controversial” and the foreskin as a healthy part of the male anatomy that should not be tampered with for the sake of vanity. Notably, it is a circumcised Jewish doctor who objects to the practice and ultimately, through his ingenuity, spares Holling from the procedure. Indeed, a number of influential Jewish doctors of that general time period (Paul Fleiss, M.D., Robert S. Mendelsohn, M.D., and my own father Richard Schwartzman, D.O.) had been speaking out against circumcision. Progressive folks in places like L.A. were particularly receptive to their overall message of letting children develop as naturally as possible. 

Another interwoven plot line appears to juxtapose circumcision with images of death and sacrifice. While waiting to be seen by Dr. Fleishman, an unknown man dies in the waiting room, patient “Number Nine.” The man cannot be identified or even buried due to the freezing temperatures, so the townsfolk hold a vigil over the body until it is ultimately committed to fire. There is a striking similarity between the image of Holling, swaddled and laid out on a gurney, and the dead stranger who is similarly swaddled and laid out before the community on a funeral pyre. 

The concept of “the stranger” is a powerful one in Jewish religious teaching. The Torah commands kindness and love for the stranger 36 times. This religious obligation is mentioned more than any other in the Torah. Jewish circumcision critic Lisa Braver Moss has pointed out that this imperative contradicts how newborn boys (strangers to the community) are treated by the act of circumcision. Moss states: “It’s not a natural thing to hand over a tiny newborn for circumcision. How is it that most of us in the Jewish world are able to do it? Here’s one possible reason: we don’t know the baby yet.” I.e. — he is a stranger. 

A third plot line involves an unexpected visit by Maggie’s father, whom she has lied to, telling him in her letters that Joel Fleishman is her boyfriend. Maggie’s father, a successful CEO, has never approved of Maggie’s prior boyfriends because he saw them as “losers.” The theme here is prioritizing authenticity even when it means breaking with, or disappointing, one’s elders. It is especially relevant in the context of Jewish circumcision, where the approval of elder family members (parents, grandparents) is an often-cited reason for continuing the circumcision tradition.  

I appreciate Frolov and Schneider’s portrayal of this topic in a nuanced way. Even decades later, it holds up. I believe they delivered, concretely and through the use of imagery and symbolism, what they felt was an important message for their time. I am sure that interested viewers will be able to draw many more of their own conclusions from this intriguing episode from the past.

Rebecca Wald started “Beyond the Bris” in 2010 as a forum to give voice to the growing movement of Jewish people questioning circumcision. Since then she’s co-authored a book on non-milah brit and has co-founded Bruchim, a nonprofit that supports Jewish engagement for those deciding not to circumcise. She can be reached at rnwald@gmail.com.