Miriam Pollack is widely recognized within the anti-circumcision community as both a proud Jew and a dedicated opponent of genital cutting. She boldly, yet gently, speaks her mind, which has at times put her at odds with the two communities she holds most dear: the Jewish community and the community of intactivists.
Miriam aligned herself with “NoCirc,” the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, beginning in the early 1990s and has been a featured speaker at many genital integrity conferences since that time. Her lectures are always much awaited, innovative, intellectually stimulating–and they can be controversial. She has also participated in the making of documentary films on the circumcision question.
Most recently, Miriam published “Circumcision: Gender, Identity and Power” an important scholarly article in Tikkun Magazine, a widely read quarterly that analyzes American and Israeli culture, politics, religion and history from a leftist-progressive viewpoint. Beyond the Bris connected with Miriam recently to discuss her involvement with the anti-circumcision movement, some of the joys and difficulties she’s met along the way, as well as her expectations about the future.
Beyond the Bris: For those who don’t know you well, can you talk a little about your upbringing and background?
Miriam: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri in a mixed secular/religious household. I went to a Zionist camp for many years which served to deepen an already inborn love of Israel. I began learning Hebrew as a child and continued when I left home to study at the University of Iowa. My junior year was spent at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which happened to include the life-changing event of the Six-Day War. The following year, I obtained my B.A. in English literature, even though I had more credits in Judaica, albeit an unrecognized major, at the University of Iowa. I continued my education at the University of Wisconsin obtaining an M.A. in English and Education. Thereafter, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where I began a very fulfilling career in Jewish education, which I continued for 20 years, until I launched myself into the world of learning disabilities. Since 1993, I’ve had a private practice diagnosing and remediating children with various learning deficits, first in the Bay Area, and now, for the past nine years, in Boulder, Colorado. I’m a member of a conservative synagogue and am looking forward to my seventh trip to Israel in mid-August.
Beyond the Bris: When and how did you first become involved in the anti-circumcision movement?
Miriam: It took many years until I could even distill questions from the wordless turbulence I experienced around the subject of circumcision. Finally, in 1991, I received a brochure inviting me to the 2nd International Symposium on Circumcision to be held in San Francisco. After much hesitation, I phoned the number on the brochure and had my first conversation with Marilyn Milos, Founder/Director of NoCIRC. That contact changed my life. I attended the symposium and spent three-plus days listening to presentations on the anatomy and physiology of the foreskin, the history of circumcision, and the implications for bonding. I knew with utter clarity that my entire maternal wisdom had been keening underneath the very heavy and beautiful mantel of the religion and culture that I loved: Judaism.
Beyond the Bris: Do you consider yourself to be an activist? Why or why not?
Miriam: Once I was able to hear the purity and authority of this core maternal voice, I began to write and I haven’t stopped. Yes, I do see myself as an activist. I have presented at numerous Genital Integrity Symposia, both in this country and abroad. A couple of those papers have been published in the books that are produced by the symposia published by Plenum Press, later taken over by Springer. My earliest piece was made into a chapter in “Jewish Women Speak Out: Expanding the Boundaries of Psychology,” by Kayla Weiner & Arinna Moon. I was also in a documentary, “Whose Bodies: Whose Rights?” produced by Lawrence Dillon and Tim Hammond. James Loewen interviewed me for a film which he put on Youtube and is widely available. Recently, Tikkun Magazine, just published my latest article, “Circumcision: Identity, Gender and Power”.
Beyond the Bris: How do you reconcile your beliefs as a Jew with your opposition to circumcision?
Miriam: Judaism has always been a core piece of my identity, even though my practice and understanding have evolved over the years. I have great reverence for what we hold as spiritual. When the authorities of my tradition define the sacred in a way that violates the most elemental and life-giving forces, mothers and babies, then something is very wrong. That which is not ethical, cannot be spiritual. That is a basic Jewish tenet. So, I was left with the question: Who defines the sacred? This question led to the conclusions I explore in the article which I wrote for Tikkun, namely, that circumcision fulfills a multitude of unnamed, but very potent needs of tribe, family, sexuality, etc.; none of which is accurately identified by referring to this rite as a “mitzvah” (translated as both commandment, and, ironically, good deed). It is Judaism that has taught me that reverence for life, the principle of pikuah nefesh, and the mandate incumbant upon all of us to distinguish (l’havdeel) between what is holy and what is profane. It is precisely these fundamental tenets of Judaism that have led me to conclude that circumcision is not holy in terms of Jewish ethics.
Beyond the Bris: What has been the most satisfying part of your work over the years?
Miriam: I’ve participated in various demonstrations and many informational booths at local fairs. What is most satisfying to me is knowing that I have helped a number of parents, particularly Jewish parents, come to the conclusion that they can be good Jews and leave their baby intact. That is the best! I’m also really pleased that Tikkun published my work.
Beyond the Bris: What strategies have you found most effective in communicating about the harms of circumcision?
Miriam: First of all, listening. Passionate as I am about this subject, it does not work to try to force one’s view on some else—especially with this subject. Second, being very well informed so that you can be ready to supply accurate information about all aspects of this very complex issue.
Beyond the Bris: I hear it said that campaigning against circumcision is silly, or not a “real” cause. How do you respond to this charge?
Miriam: People can only say this because they are denying two things: First, the structure and function of the foreskin, which is indeed, a unique, highly erotic part of male anatomy. Second, that circumcision is profoundly traumatic, and that traumatizing infants is very serious and there is evidence to suggest that there are long term neurological sequellae.
Beyond the Bris: Why do you think there is so much resistance to the idea that circumcision is harmful?
Miriam: What man wants to acknowledge that he has been sexually altered or diminished? What female partner of a circumcised man wants to confront him with sexual difficulties possibly caused by his circumcision? What parent wants to come face to face with the horror that they have done this to their most precious child? For most people, it’s better to blame the messenger.
Beyond the Bris: What do find to be the most difficult part of your work?
Miriam: This work is a many layered torment: I am the voice telling people that when they thought they were whole, they are not and/or that when they thought they were doing the best mitzvah for their children, they, in fact, hurt them. I have also, at times, found myself in the postion of having to stand against antisemitic comments and behavior by some within the intactivist movement. And, to some Jews, I sound like an anti-Semite. It certainly hasn’t been an easy road.
Beyond the Bris: What are the most gratifying aspects of what you do?
Miriam: Every baby that is spared this sexual abuse is my greatest joy, and also finding venues where my voice can be heard is deeply rewarding.
Beyond the Bris: What advice would you give to a young person who is just getting involved with this issue?
Miriam: Become informed, connect with people who will support you, and begin speaking out.
Beyond the Bris: Are you optimistic about the future?
Miriam: Yes, I am. My optimism stems from a new willingness on the part of the Jewish community to even discuss this issue. The evidence for this has been a major article in the Jerusalem Report Magazine, which was also online accessible through the Jerusalem Post website. This was a major article in the most prominent English based Israeli newspaper. Our local Jewish Community Center didn’t bat an eyelash when I asked if they would host Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s film “Cut: Slicing through the Myths of Circumcision.” As a result, he will be here with his film showing it on October 18. The fact that Tikkun Magazine finally accepted my writing on this subject for publication is also a huge shift. Many Jewish venues hosted and welcomed my dear friend, Lisa Braver Moss, to speak about her brilliant novel, The Measure of His Grief. These are all very significant openings and I find them particularly encouraging.
Beyond the Bris: And what concerns you?
Miriam: The appearance of the hideous caricature “monster mohel” in the Foreskin Man comic has definitely been a set back in this process, but, even with this heinous anti-Semitic image now indelibly associated with the anti-circumcision movement, combined with the deafening and deeply disappointing silence of its leadership, many Jews are still capable of listening. I’m especially moved by the generous spirit and open-heartedness of my people, particularly in the face of such blatant disrespect and calumny.
Beyond the Bris: If you could speak to directly to a parent who is now considering whether to circumcise, what would you say?
Miriam: Please, expose yourself to the information that is available. This is one of the most important decisions you will ever make on behalf of your baby. If you choose to circumcise, it can never be undone. If you choose not to, he can make the choice later in life. To Jewish parents, I would remind them that their child is Jewish if the mother is Jewish, according to Jewish law. If they raise him in a Jewish home and give him a dynamic, joyful Jewish education, this child will embrace his Jewish identity with love and commitment.
Miriam Pollack operates The Literacy and Language Center in Boulder, Colorado, which is dedicated to identifying and remediating the underlying causes of learning dysfunction in children. The full text of Miriam’s article “Circumcision: Identity, Gender and Power” is available at Tikkun for a nominal fee.