Navigate to News section

Berlin Exhibit Explores Ritual Circumcision

Jewish Museum shows custom in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian contexts

Ruth Ellen Gruber
February 24, 2015
Jewish circumcision kit, Israel, 2014(© Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Foto: Oliver Stratz)
Jewish circumcision kit, Israel, 2014(© Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Foto: Oliver Stratz)

The first things you see when you enter the current temporary exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin are the life-sized, hyper-realistic sculptures of two naked men.

One is a dark-skinned Australian Aborigine, a plaster model made for anthropological purposes in 1939. The other is a 1998 sculpture in resin by the Canadian artist Evan Penny, depicting a thin man with very pale skin named Murray.

Both are very visibly circumcised—and that is, as it were, the point.

The exhibit, which runs until March 1, is called “Snip It!” (in German “Haut/ab!”), and its logo is an upturned banana with the end portion of its peel cut away. Get it?

The exhibit explores “Stances on Ritual Circumcision” in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim contexts in the wake of bitter national debates sparked by a June 2012 court ruling in Cologne that declared ritual male circumcision to be “bodily harm.”

Six months later, the German Bundestag overwhelmingly passed a law protecting male circumcision. (The exhibition includes video footage of the parliamentary debate before that vote.)

“Jews and Muslims alike felt threatened in their ability to practice their religious customs, whereas many critics of circumcision demanded state protection for the physical integrity of children,” exhibition co-curator Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek and museum program director Cilly Kugelmann wrote in the museum’s journal. “Atheists bitterly challenged religious positions, pediatricians attacked the practice of circumcision as bodily injury and a traumatic incision, and legal scholars argued over whether religious freedom could be interpreted as a license to commit violence.”

The exhibit sketches the history of the practice. Ritual circumcision of boys dates back thousands of years, and today one third of the world’s men are circumcised, according to statistics quoted in the exhibit. These include 70 percent of men in the United States.

Snip It! focuses on both the ritual and the politics – as well as on the surprising ways the practice is dealt with in popular culture, including in TV sitcoms, memoirs, short films, and even on South Park.

On show are highly decorated knives and other instruments used for the brit milah, the ritual circumcision carried out on the eighth day of life that is a boy’s first rite of passage into Jewish identity.

Jesus was born a Jew, and paintings in the exhibit, including a lush scene by Peter Paul Rubens dating from around 1605, depict his circumcision. Some celebrate the Christ child’s Jewish birth. But other artworks demonize Jews and Jewishness, portraying circumcision as the first step of Jesus’ suffering, martyrdom, and ultimate passion on the cross.

The Muslim section of the exhibit, which focuses on the large Turkish community in Germany, is particularly interesting. Here, ritual circumcision takes place when boys are older, between four and 12. Photo essays, videos and other displays show how the youngsters are dressed up for the occasion in elaborate outfits, like fairy-tale princes. It is a major rite of passage for the family and community that clearly shares some of the celebratory aspects of a bar mitzvah.

I’ll confess that I spent most of my time in the exhibit’s final room, which features a selection of short films, sitcoms, and other video presentations, including hours of filmed debate of legislators euphemistically talking about penises.

Here I watched the entire pilot episode of a German sitcom about an acculturated Muslim family called Everybody Loves Jimmy. In it, 18-year-old Jimmy’s tradition-minded grandmother presents him with a classic car, on the condition that he finally become a “real man” and get circumcised. Jimmy panics and tries to escape, and, amid the chaos, his best friend, a German teen, ends up under the knife.

“Snip It” has clearly been making an impression. The guest book was rife with reactions—many too bawdy to repeat—and page after page of phallic doodles.

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes frequently about Jewish cultural and heritage issues and coordinates the web site Jewish Heritage Europe. Her Twitter feed is @ruthellengruber.