Local anesthesia, a bit
of courage and an ancient covenant fulfilled
- New York Times
June 22, 1991
by Doughlas Martin
Local anesthesia, a bit of courage and an ancient covenant
fulfilled. Boris Yakobson was born during the siege of Leningrad,
suffered persecution in the Soviet Union for being a Jew and
immigrated to New Fork City a year ago. He has a job as a
porter in a Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach.
On Wednesday, he sat in a blue hospital gown waiting for
something he has long wanted. At 47 years of age, he was going
to be circumcised.
told Abraham that "every male among you should be circumcised,"
but this sacred covenant wasn't easily followed in the atheistic
Soviet Union. Indeed, Mr. Yakobson's own family tried to protect
him from dangers inherent in a Jewish identity: His grandmother
and mother refused to teach him the Yiddish they spoke to
So on the sunny morning of the seventh day of the month
of Tammuz in the year 5751 of the Jewish calendar, a miracle
was about to occur in the day surgery unit of the Interfaith
Medical Center in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. A
soul was taking flight.
"I want to feel myself a real Jew," Mr. Yakobdon
said in halting English, "I am very happy I have the
opportunity to be within my people."
Then came the short walk to the operating room where the
bris would be done with local anesthesia. Mr. Yakobson raised
his thumb and smiled, but there seemed to be a glint of nervousness
in his eyes.
* * *
The operation went quickly and smoothly. As he sipped champagne
and nibbled cheesecake afterward, Mr. Yakobson took glory
in his new name, Boruch, Meaning "blessed" in Hebrew.
"It is a wonderful day for me," he said. "Memory
What was happening here represented a step toward identity,
part and parcel of the process that all the immigrants swarming
to New York City face. For Russian Jews, the process is complicated.
Though eager for a chunk of the American dream, they aren't
simply hoping to be Americanized. They seek a part of themselves
they have never been allowed to truly know.
Hence, the organization Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe,
or FREE. It was started by two Russian brothers, Meir and
Hershel Okunov, rabbis in the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement
who immigrated to this country in 1967 and started the organization
two years later. Mr. Yakobson's was FREE's 9,348th bris.
"We're living in a cold world," Meir Okunov said.
"The Torah tells us the think of another Jew as one's
The group's efforts -- which also include helping Jews learn
to keep kosher kitchens, running a Russian-speaking synagogue
and schools and offering social & humanitarian services -- find parallels
in the work of many New York Jewish organizations. Though
most of the Jews leaving Russia now stream to Israel, this
year almost 40,000 are still expected to come to the United
States. Of these, more than half may come to this area. People
are scrambling to help.
This influx has led to a war for immigrants' souls. Christian
missionary efforts, often conducted by Russian-Americans of
Jewish backgrounds who offer such inducements as free summer
camps, are viewed as a threat by many Jews.
* * *
So the Lubavitchers have struck back with free camps of
their own. And one thing they can offer that the Christians
certainly can't is free circumcisions performed by a trained
Why anyone past the age of eight days, the standard time
for a bris, would want one is another matter. "There
are just so many chances of problems developing," said
Dr, Errol Mallett, the Interfaith chief of urology.
But he is quick to say that there have been only the slightest
complications in thousands of operations at Interfaith, many
of which he has overseen. "He can do as a good a circumcision
as most urologists in the country," Dr, Mallett said
of Rabbi A. Rome Cohn, FREE's mohel.
Reasons for seeking brises vary. Some Jews here on tourist
visas seeking political asylum believe it will strengthen
their cases if they get circumcisions they were denied back
home. Others see advantages in being part of the Jewish community.
But most who have undergone the operation cite loftier aspirations.
Said Igor Goldberg, 32: "It's a sign of union between
you and God. That's all, nothing more."
Sergei Zakuta, 32: "Its soul level. A very deep thing."
Peter Asnes, 35: "Even if it were much more painful,
I would have done it."
Rabbi Cohn said he can see wonderful transformations, even
on the operating table. "It's impossible to describe
the joy in their expressions," he said.
Might greater freedom of religion in the Soviet Union today
mean the end of the Brooklyn brises? eventually, probably
yes. A team of mohels has already been dispatched to Russia.
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