Bris milah was another mitzvah most Jews observed during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Early American Jews respected the requirement of circumcision. It was in Newport, R.I., sometime after 1770, that a son was born to Samuel and Judith Lopez. There was no mohel in the town. When five months had elapsed, the parents took their child in a sloop to New York to have the ceremony performed. The practice of circumcision was respected as we may conclude from the many advertisements for mohalim (circumcisers) appearing in the Anglo-Jewish press. Not every community had its mohel, or circumciser, however; for it was not easy to obtain one.
The smaller towns that did not have a resident mohel would have to “import” one when the occasion to make a bris arose. A mohel who resided in a large city would often travel extensively to perform a milah.
New Laredo, Mexico – Rev. A. Blum of Galveston recently visited this city for the purpose of performing the rite of circumcision on the son of Mr. M. A. Hirsch. This is, we believe, the first instance where this ceremony has been performed by a Jewish minister on Mexican soil.
There were times when boys were not circumcised until they were well past eight days old, because no mohel was available when the baby was supposed to have his bris. At other times there were other reasons, such as parental opposition to the child having a bris. In these cases the parents would reconsider and decide to have their son circumcised despite his relatively “advanced age.”
The congregation had thirty members. On Feb. 21, 1860, the Rev. Z. Emmich, who had served the previous five years in Lafayette, Ind., was elected. On Sunday, March 25th, he performed a circumcision upon an eight-year-old boy. It was explained that “The circumstances of the parents had not before this permitted them to send for a Mohel, on account of the attendant heavy expenses.”
Of course, there were also incompetent mohellim. There must have been more than a few, because New York City authorities felt it necessary to issue the following warning on December 29, 1870:
CHAS. P. RUSSEL, M.D.
Circumcision was one mitzvah that continued to be widely observed even into the latter part of the 19th century when many abandoned the observance of most of the other mitzvos. A major contributing factor may have been that many gentiles thought there were substantial medical benefits to being circumcised.
Dr.Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008.He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens.Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month.Dr.Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.