Dani Shapiro
August 28, 2013

A Day in the Life

New York’s busiest mohel tells all. “Talk of the Town”

On a recent Friday morning, Cantor Philip L. Sherman found himself stuck in traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Sherman’s destination was Melville, Long Island, where he was to perform his third circumcision of the day. He had already been on Elizabeth Street at 8 A.M., then on the Upper West Side. A tall man in his early forties with a neatly trimmed black beard, he prides himself on spacing brises far enough apart that he can arrive at each on in a calm, Zen-like state of mind. But this was not a Zen moment for the mohel. He reached into the back seat for his beeper and peered at it. Six new calls. He pulled a pad of Post-its from his glove compartment and stuck a few on his steering wheel. He balanced a folder on his lap. Then he called his voice mail on his hands-free cell phone and listened to his messages over the speakerphone. The messages all amounted to pretty much the same thing: It’s a boy. When can we schedule a bris?

Sherman arrived at eleven-thirty, right on time, in front of a modern gray house with a bright-green lawn. He pulled a brush from his glove compartment and ran it through his thinning hair. Then he grabbed the Eddie Bauer computer bag filled with the tools of his trade, placed a sign on his dashboard—”Mazel Tov! Bris in progress. Please don’t ticket”—and walked to the front door.

About sixty people were gathered in the mauve-carpeted, platformed living room. Sherman shook the new father’s hand and took him aside.

“Let me tell you my secret, ” he whispered. “After it’s over, be sure to thank your wife for doing a great job and giving you such a perfect son.”

The new father, owner of the local Jeep dealership, nodded seriously as, behind him, a sixtyish woman with silver hair announced to no one in particular, “I was at a bris in Westchester and I heard, ‘Oh, he does all the brises in Westchester.’ And then I went to a bris in Great Neck, and someone said, ‘Oh, he does all the brises in Great Neck.'”

Sherman assembled his instruments—a thin metal probe, a small clamp, a scalpel—and covered them discreetly with a white cloth. His own thumbnails are sharpened into points, in case he needs to separate the mucosal layer beneath the foreskin. He stood in the center of the living room, in front of a mirrored bar, with a tallis draped over his shoulders. The great-grandfather held Kyle Chandler (Hebrew name: Yehoshua Chanan), who was wearing a tiny, baby-blue yarmulke. The procedure itself took well under a minute, and the infant let out barely a squeal.

After the ceremony was over, Sherman asked if there was anything anyone wanted to add. “Yes,” the new father announced. “I’d like to thank my wife for doing such a great job and giving me a perfect son.”

As the guests descended on a table piled high with bagels, lox and smoked meats, Sherman said his goodbyes and closed the front door behind him. Then he stopped for a moment in front of a bed of hot-pink azaleas. He pulled three tiny gauze-wrapped packages from his pants pocket. And then he dropped all three of that morning’s foreskins into the earth, and tamped them down with his heel.

During the course of his twenty-two year career, Sherman has performed about nine thousand brises. He has done brises in bars, restaurants, and an Internet café. He trained during his junior year in college with the chief mohel of Jerusalem, because he wanted to be a “full-service community professional.”

He pulled up in front of a modest house in East Rockaway at a few minutes before one o’clock. “As soon as I arrive, the anxiety level increases,” he told the crowd. “Wherever I set up, people move away. But your presence is crucial—this is a beautiful life-cycle event to be witnessed. Please stay. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Less than a minute later, the new father was thanking his wife for doing such a great job and giving him a perfect son. As he was leaving, Sherman whispered in his ear, “To enhance your status further as an ever- thoughtful husband, bring your wife a glass of juice. And remember, it was your idea.”

A couple of brises later, at 5 P.M., Sherman arrived in front of a small house in Scarsdale. He splashed on some Polo cologne from a small green bottle, ran a brush over his scalp, and strode up the front walk, not for the last time that day. And to the closed front door of the house, where “It’s a Boy!” balloon sagged in the summer heat, his voice rang out, “Hello, it’s a boy. The mohel is here.