Partly Private is an intensely personal, ironic, witty look at the absurd ritual of male circumcision. Danae Elon documents her own pregnancy and the un-expected dilemmas and arguments she encounters with her partner and father of her unborn child Philip Touitou. What should they do to their baby boy’s penis?? Determined and obsessed Danae sets out on a worldly quest to find out all she can about what “other people do”. The exploration leaves no rock unturned and exposes in an amusing way the flaws of simply being human. Throughout the process we discover something about family about relationships and going to the edge of question
Arik Bernstein, Ina Fichman, Maryse Rouillard
Andrew T. Dunn
Miki Watanabe Milmore
Tribeca Film Festival
Jerusalem Film Festival
Rome Jewish/Israeli Film Festival
Jewish Motifs Warsaw Poland
Best NY Documentary Tribeca Film Festival
Jewish Motifs Warsaw Poland, Best representation of Israeli and Jewish Contemporary Culture
At the heart of this emotional, shockingly funny journey is a modern family, an innocent little boy, and a mother’s unwavering love…
Partly Private illuminates the aspects of out culture and the body treatment with humour, and seems like this is going to be one of those films that will be in a row of future argumentation against circumcisions, whether male or female.
To snip or not to snip? That was the question facing new parent Danae Elon, who didn’t just wrestle with the controversies of circumcision — she made a documentary about it…
Dear Ms. Elon:
I have not seen Partly Private, but salute your courage for having opened to the world a very private part of your family life. Here’s hoping your sons do not come to resent your having made this film about this tender part of their life journey. I know that my wife and I could never make a documentary like this about our own children (all daughters).
I came of age in the American middle west, during the 1950s and 60s. I was raised an austere and Biblical Roman Catholic. I am intact because my mother is French. She flatly refused to allow the preference of my father and her mother-in-law to become reality. My father went to his grave having never raised this tender subject with me. My mother said nothing until I was 19, when she broke down and cried. I was the only intact male in my family of origin (my brother was neonatally circumcised in 1954, without my mother’s consent). During my entire upbringing, I saw all of 4 intact boys in physical education and summer camp. I never heard lewd joking about circumcision until I was a university student. (My fellow students were 30-40% Jewish.)
I have concluded that American hospitals cut us Baby Boomers ruthlessly, and gentile parents seldom talked about it with their sons, probably because they simply did not know what to say. The only defence of the foreskin published in the USA during 1940-80 I have been able to find is the first edition of the Joy of Sex, written by an Englishman. Is it any surprise that the circumcision rate among white middle class Americans was 95-99%? That some circumcised American gentiles are very angry about it? The questioning of bris that has emerged in Israel and the English speaking diaspora over the past 20 years follows on the questioning that began among certain USA gentiles starting in the 1980s.
The main reason circumcision persists among Americans and among secular Jews is parents’ fear that their son will be thought odd and will face rejection by sex partners.
I trust you know who the iconic American Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce was. I wrote the following monologue about bris in the spirit of Lenny Bruce. Had you offered me the great privilege of appearing in your film, I would have asked to deliver it.
“This old dude named Abraham hears a voice in his head saying: ‘Abraham, God here. Gee, I’m sorry you and your wife don’t have kids. I’ll see to it that she gets pregnant. Yea, I know she’s way past menopause, but I’m God so I can do anything, right? And I promise you’ll have lots of descendants through that kid, forever. Now here’s your end of the deal: you know that bit of skin that hangs off the end of your willy? Well, you’ll have to cut that off. I also want you to do that to every hired man working for you. Also, your descendants will have to do that to their baby boys when they’re a week old. Any descendant of yours who’s got all the willy skin he was born with, well it’s no deal for him. He’s a loser for life. Got that, Abe?’
“Now can you believe it, Abe did as he was told and trimmed his willy, even though it’s hard to even think about getting the wife pregnant when it hurts like hell down there, you know. Did Abe use a sharp metal knife or scissors? Forget it, not invented yet. So he probably used a flint knife. And where was God coming from when he told people to cut their kids, thousands of years before anybody knew what germs can do? And here’s the weirdest thing. Abe’s descendants – I’m one of them, by the way – have been reeeeal good about keeping up their part of the deal. We don’t want to get written out of God’s will, you know! And what about God, the big guy upstairs? Well, who let the Holocaust happen? And who let the Gestapo order men at gunpoint to down trousers?”
Time: Friday September 25, 2009 at 12:01 am
A few key facts I think all readers of this blog, and all viewers of Partly Private, should be aware of:
1. Moslem men make up by far the largest block of circumcised men. This is so even though the Koran nowhere mentions circumcision. While Islamic circumcision is a religious requirement, it is not a religious ritual. No prayers whatsoever, and a nonMoslem doctor can do it. Islam does not object to anesthesia. Infant circumcision is not unknown in the Moslem world, but is not the norm.
2. Another large block of circumcised men are subSaharan African men who are not Moslem. These circumcisions are a puberty rite of passage and ordeal, a test of fortitude and courage.
3. Around 1900, routine infant circumcision (RIC) became fashionable among the educated middle class in English speaking countries. RIC became well-nigh universal among hospital-born Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders. The British taxpayer stopped covering the cost in 1949; New Zealand followed suit in 1969. Within 1-2 decades, RIC died out in those countries. Australia and Canada did likewise in the 1980s, and the rate is down to 10-15%. Despite a vocal anti-circumcision movement that began in the early 1980s in the USA, and that resonates well with militant breastfeeders, and advocates of natural childbirth and “attachement parenting,” a slight majority of American baby boys still leave the maternity ward without their foreskins.
4. When RIC became fashionable, novocaine did not exist and general anesthesia was far riskier than now. So the procedure was done without anesthesia, on a baby held down by force. This protocol was not reexamined when novocaine became widely available around 1920 and lidocaine around 1950. In any event, the vast majority of RICs performed last century were done without any anesthesia whatsoever. To deny that RIC is painful is a rationalization. Lidocaine is now good practice. But is it standard practice?
5. Two American cultural colonies circumcise. South Korea began imitating American practice around 1960, but doing it around puberty. The Philippines has circumcised boys between ages 6 and 10 since time immemorial, for reasons unknown.
All Judaism added to the above is religious ritual, and the requirement that it be done to newborns. Less than 5% of circumcised men worldwide are Jews or of Jewish ancestry.
By doing it in the first few days of life, and by completely excising the foreskin and frenulum, American RIC curiously paralleled Jewish ritual. These parallels are not logical necessities. Australasian protocol now requires local anesthesia, and waiting until the child is at least 4 weeks old. It also appears to be the case that in recent years, some American doctors cut off less than was the norm 1-2 generations ago. Perhaps in reaction to adult men who complain that so much was cut off that their ability to have an erection and enjoy sex is impaired.
Dear Danae and Philippe:
Do not be hard on yourselves for having circumcised your first son. The only unambiguously evil aspect of ritual or medical infant circumcision is the disdain for a prior injection of lidocaine, despite its having been marketed since 1950. The haredi practice of having the mohel take the bloody infant penis in his mouth must also be banned forthwith. Get real, frummies!
It appears you have one son snipped and the other not. That was the situation in my family of origin, and was a problem only because my parents chose to say nothing about it. I trust you will find the wisdom and grace to help your boys come to terms with the difference. Maybe it will help them discover the value of mutual respect and tolerance.
Most circumcisions are indeed carried out because of “sheer conformity,” conformity to one’s wider social set, or to the expectations of one’s tribe and family of origin. And we need to examine the witting and unwitting role of sheer conformity in our lives. But let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Conformity also keeps many of us from many a moral train wreck.
You and Ms Press seem insufficiently aware that routine circumcision never caught on in most Western countries. In no country does the system of socialized medicine pay for it. The practice persists only in the USA and in its cultural colony, South Korea.
The Algerian Jew Jacques Derrida was usettled by his 1930 bris, and meditated on it lifelong.
Philippe is a North African Jew, yet looks very French. Appearances are deceiving.
Many continental Jews do not practice at all and have walked away from bris. A French Jewish couple who immigrated to the USA to flee Hitler, and were contented members of a Reform temple, told me that in their view, bris was an outdated custom. In my view, only Jews in English-speaking countries assume that leaving a son intact betrays his Jewish heritage and his martyred ancestors, forces him to be a lifelong secular Jew, and puts him at grave risk of assimilation.
A secular Jewish author, and an avowed atheist, recently told me that he did not have his sons circumcised, and that that was not at all controversial with him and their mother. But their decision dismayed their grandfather, who exclaimed “how will people know my grandsons are Jews?” Ironically, the grandfather had strayed so far from his Jewish roots that he became the leading disciple of a Hindu mystic. There was zero evidence that anyone in the family of origin gave a fig about any Jewish ritual or tradition. But the grandfather still expected his grandsons to be snipped. Of what value is a Judaism that is no more than minor cosmetic surgery done to the most personal part of a man’s body? Where does that leave the existentialism of Job and Ecclesiastes? The great poem of Isaiah? The wit and wisdom of the Talmud, which dovetails so nicely with the common law tradition?
I wonder if there isn’t some kind of imprinting mechanism going on. What we see don’t see in childhood becomes something we find unsettling on some deep, dare I say it, Freudian level. Hence my admiration for American intactivist mothers. They are defending something they never saw while growing up, something that they have never made love to. The only foreskins, if any, they have seen in the flesh are those of their own sons.
We honestly do not know what difference the foreskin or its absence makes for sexual pleasure. That fact is part of a broader fact: the rising sophistication about human sexuality that began with the writings of Havelock Ellis and Alfred Kinsey has taught us more about women than about men. I often sense that the masculine experience of sex is taken for granted. A general principle in social science and history is that it is very difficult to be truly objective about one’s own tribe. To date, most medical and sex researchers have been men. Ergo… The evident corollary is that the sexual role of the pink bits circumcision discards will have to be discovered and explored by women sexologists. I am confident that women scholars will do just that over the course of this new century. Maybe one of them will discover her vocation as a result of having watched Partly Private while a university student!
The reviewer Kafi Drexel wrote:
“…the film examines the question of how circumcision, something grounded in ancient cultural tradition, has become a regular modern-day medical practice in America and other parts of the world.”
I would have written:
“…the film examines how the ancient religious and tribal custom of male circumcision became medical fashion in much of the English speaking world, only to fall out of favour outside the USA and to become controversial inside it.”
The questions that most need exploring are: Why do circumcised men feel an urge to do to their baby sons what was done to them? How do cultures that did not circumcise come to adopt the practice? Why is circumcision, both religious and anthropological, peculiarly tenacious even among sexually sophisticated people?
Thank you Kafi, very useful comments. Nice to hear from you on this blog.
A propos reflections by a devout American Episcopalian, prompted by his study of the men’s movement, by his reading of Jacques Derrida’s [i]Circumfessions[/i], and by the fact that he, as well as everyone he has seen in an American locker room, is circumcised:
Due to lack of analytical knowledge, the priests are doing the rituals without knowing the meaning of the recited text. Both the priests and doer of the ritual are ignorant due to lack of the knowledge of Veda recited in the ritual.
That was one particular of crucial posts I’ve noticed in an extended prolonged time. A very good deal appreciated, I’m possible need to hang around right here extra.
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