Sunday, 7 September 2008

Behikvot Hahatiha Hahasera (The Quest for the Missing Piece, Israel, 2007)

Director: Oded Lotan.

Producer: Claudia Levin.

Male circumcision as a concept was virtually unknown to me until my early twenties when I crossed some American guys' path in Europe and learned to my big surprise that a great deal of the planet’s male population had their willies snipped after they were born. The whole idea of having your most private organ mutilated for (as I was told then) hygienic reasons only incensed my imagination and produced horrific images of sharp scissors swaying at my manhood like a set of ruthless shark jaws. I’ve never been particularly squeamish but this concept just seemed too disconcerting. The premise of Oded Lotan’s documentary „The Quest for the Missing Piece” is exactly the opposite – when he moves to Germany he soon realises that most guys there have something he hardly knew existed, namely foreskins. He then decides to set out on a quest to find his missing piece – the foreskin which was taken away from him shortly after birth.

Oded Lotan is a Jewish gay man who lives in Israel with his German husband. The main reason why it is possible for a gay couple to live openly in Israel, especially in Tel-Aviv is that despite all, this is a secular, modern society and no beard-shaking ultra-Orthodox rabbies have the power to prevent secular Jews from living accoding to their sexuality or their beliefs. It is explained early on in the film that circumcision is an ancient ritual which is a commandment from God in Judaism, thus establishing a link between God and the circumcised (no hygienic reasons are given in any holy Jewish scripts, I must add). So why does an overwhelming majority of people in Israel who are not particularly religious still practice this old tradition? The answer is simple: everybody else does it, it’s a Jewish tradition – brit milah or the Convent of Judaism. If it isn’t done, your friends and relatives will be all over you accusing you of all possible sins, so it’s easier just to fit in, not to stand out. The film even shows a couple of immigrants from Russia in their mid-twenties serving in the Israeli army who’ve had enough of being ridiculed by their comrades in arms and decide to go through with the procedure just to fit in and be accepted as real Jews. That’s what one can call integration by circumcision!

There is, however, resistance to this ancient practice also among Jews in Israel. The documentary takes us to an almost secret meeting of a group of people who call themselves Parents for Intact Children which consists of parents who have refused to circumcise their children as well as pregnant women seeking advice on how to avoid the procedure for their soon-to-be- born ones. The arguments voiced here echo the statement made by the American Medical Association in 1999 – the procedure is medically unnecessary, it inflicts pain and is done without the child’s consent and therefore not recommended as long as it isn’t intended as therapeutic. But there is obviously such peer pressure in the Israeli society that these people still find that they have to hide away from the public eye in order to discuss these matters.

It is evident that circumcision in Jewish culture isn’t just a question of removing a piece of skin from your penis. Brit milah is a tribal ritual which puts you into the fold of the chosen people. It brandishes you, if I may say so, as a Jew. The psychologist who is interviewed by Oded Lotan only confirms it – you may remove all the external signs of Jewdom but you will never be able to restore your foreskin, you become a Jew for life. Since circumcision here is a question of identity, another question begs to be asked – when so much of your Jewish heritage and identity-bearing culture is so rigid and defies modern, secular logic, is it possible to be a gay Jew, i.e. to have both your Jewish and gay identities at the same time? Would Oded and his beloved circumcise their children if they ever were to have any? But our inquisitor only asks the questions and makes no attempt to answer them, thus leaving all doors open.

"The Quest for the Missing Piece" is a rather humorous, semi-animated documentary which touches upon subjects which aren’t in themselves perceived as particularly light-hearted. It deserves credit for attempting to create a debate both in Israel and among the Jewish diaspora worldwide about modernity versus tradition in the Jewish culture and putting question marks to the notion of only one proper Jewish identity. As the film isn’t very graphic in its depiction of the circumcision rituals, only the most squeamish of you should skip it – for the most part it's kosher!