There were many coincidences that informed my decision to personally travel to Sweden to deliver Machzorim to Lund. One of the most happy coincidences happened when I sent out a group e-mail asking if any of my cantorial colleagues had a Swedish connection. Imagine my surprise when Hazzan Edwin Gerber of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase replied: “My brother Maynard is the cantor of the great synagogue in Stockholm.”
I immediately contacted Ed, and it wasn’t long before I was engaged in a lively transcontinental telephone conversation with his brother. When Maynard told me he was going to be visiting the States late in June, I considered it an opportunity not to be missed. That is how I found myself in Cantor Gerber’s home, talking to the <I>other<P> Cantor Gerber.
Cantor Gerber’s journey to becoming a mohel began when he was already the Chief Cantor in Stockholm.
“I felt there was need for a real mohel in the community,” says Gerber. “There were a few Jewish doctors performing circumcisions, but sometimes they would say the right blessings, sometimes not, and sometimes they would do it on the eighth day, sometimes not.”
His views on the subject were also affected by his participation in a brit milah in Salt Lake City that was performed by an inexperienced physician; after 20 minutes, the grandmother of the honoree turned to him and whispered, “Is it supposed to take this long?”
When the time came to renegotiate his contract in 1987, he asked that the community support him in his goal to become a trained mohel. He took a sabbatical, and spent 10 months in Jerusalem with his family as a mohel apprentice. Upon returning to Sweden he immediately began applying his new-found skills, and was dubbed “The Yankee Clipper.”
Most doctors in Sweden will not perform circumcisions because they consider it unnecessary surgery at best, or mutilation at worst. Finding someone in Sweden to perform a brit milah has always been a challenge. This situation became more serious, and more politically charged, about 20 years ago.
Cantor Gerber describes it:
“Over the past 30-35 years, Sweden has taken in refugees from Muslim countries who practice circumcision. In some of the refugee camps in the 1990’s, boys of varying ages were being circumcised by very non-professional lay people, without anesthesia, and bad things were happening — infections and accidental mutilations. The story got into the Swedish newspapers, and people began to protest this “barbaric ritual” going on in their progressive country,” the cantor explained.
The government got involved, and formed a committee comprising representatives of all the ethnic minorities practicing circumcision: Jewish, Muslim and certain African communities. Cantor Gerber was appointed as the Jewish representative, which surprised him since he was the only non-physician on the panel. The government came up with a set of rules that stated that not only must anyone performing circumcisions be licensed and approved by the Board of Health, but that some kind of anesthesia must be used, which must be administered by a medical professional. At first, this made cantor Gerber’s job much more complicated. Eventually, he was able to find a retired Jewish nurse who was only too happy to accompany him on his rounds. But because of these new regulations, it became even more difficult for Swedes to obtain a circumcision for either religious or health-related reasons.
Because of the unavailability of professionals who are both qualified and willing to perform circumcisions, Cantor Gerber has found frequent need of his services from an unexpected source- Sweden’s large Muslim population. Although circumcision is not a religious requirement in Islam, it is a very old and established tradition that connects the male Muslim to Abraham. The experience of performing circumcisions on Muslim babies has been very interesting for Cantor Gerber; most of the procedures he performs for Muslims are done in the nearby university town of Uppsala. Cantor Gerber said jokingly, “I have my own Muslim congregation.”
When asked how he is received when he visits a Muslim home, he said, “I have never had a problem. There is often a language barrier because many of the recent immigrants don’t speak Swedish, and since most of them live in apartments the conditions can be very cramped. But they are very gracious and appreciative because there are not many people in Sweden, including doctors, who will perform this important ritual for them. They often offer me Turkish coffee or baklava to take home.”
He also observes that there are a few differences in a Muslim circumcision. Due to the prohibition against alcohol, he will give the Muslim babies sugar water instead of Manischewitz. Instead of singing “sim’n tov u-maz’l tov,” there is a lot of high-pitched ululation.
Cantor Gerber related one personal story which speaks volumes about the impact his work has made. He was invited to an interfaith dialogue at a largely Muslim school, and was seated on stage with an Imam and a Lutheran minister. Every time the Imam would make a point the crowd would cheer, while Cantor Gerber’s statements regarding Jewish tradition were met with stony silence. In particular, one older Muslim man in the front sat frowning and staring, and Cantor Gerber assumed he must be a virulent anti-Semite. After the event, the participants were able to meet with the audience, and the man who had been frowning at Cantor Gerber walked up to him. His face broke into a smile of recognition he said, “I knew you looked familiar. You did my son’s circumcision!”
It is through relationships such as this that relations between peoples are strengthened. Throughout history, Jews have faced adversity and in overcoming challenges have found new ways to connect with other peoples. Cantor Gerber, through his dedication and his humanity, has forged a unique link with a traditional adversary, and has proven himself a true rodeph shalom, a pursuer of peace.