| Magazine Feature |

Into the Covenant 

Flying to Cyprus Erev Pesach, a Chanukah bris in Monte Carlo, walking miles through London to get home for Shabbos… it’s about meeting Klal Yisrael wherever they are

Photos: Mendel Photography


A Blessing on My Head

It was February 1995 and I was doing my weekly Thursday night shift as a junior doctor in Shaare Zedek Medical Center, when I received a phone call from the department head.

“I am admitting Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to the ward. All the paperwork is done. Just take bloods and start antibiotics.”

I had been working in Shaare Zedek for a couple of years by then, and had treated rabbanim and dayanim before, but this was a different level altogether. This was the leader of our generation, the master of the Torah world. Jews flocked from around the globe to see him and seek his counsel. When Rav Shlomo Zalman spoke, his words carried steely authority, yet his face — his sparkling eyes and endearing smile — was all warmth and compassion.

And now he was my patient! I was excited, nervous, worried — the gadol hador in the ward, and little me in charge. I had to take blood from the gadol hador! What if I took more than absolutely necessary? What if I caused him pain?

I looked at the medical folder and the sticker that bore his name. It said simply: “Auerbach, Shlomo Zalman.” Was it possible that they didn’t know who this man was? I told the nurses that Rav Shlomo Zalman was on the ward, and was stunned to discover that they had, in fact, never heard of him. Unfortunately, they were to understand his unique position in the hearts of the Jewish People a week or so later, as hundreds of thousands of mourners flocked to accompany him to his final resting place.

But for now, I would just be taking blood. I approached his room and passed the small cortege that was accompanying him. I was grateful that I managed to take blood efficiently enough, and carried on with my work. The next morning, I decided to wish the Rav a good Shabbos before going back to yeshivah, where I was studying for semichah.

By this time the entourage had multiplied, and as I approached a black wall of men in the Rav’s room, I heard a voice whisper, “Dos iz der doktor.” The human wall duly parted, and I walked straight to the edge of the Rav’s bed. He was sitting up and looking much better than the previous night. His famous smile illuminated the entire room.

I wished him a good Shabbos, and he gave me the greatest gift a person can receive — the brachah of a gadol at the pinnacle of his greatness, who was soon to rejoin Hashem in purity and completion. It was an awesome moment for me, to which I’ve attributed any future success that has or will come my way.

Within a few years, I earned semichah under Rav Yitzchak Berkovits and trained as a mohel under Rav Yossel Weissberg. Within days of qualifying as a mohel, I performed the bris of my firstborn, Avi, and a few months later, my wife Shanni, baby Avi, and I moved to London.

We’ve now been married for about 25 years, and in 2020 I was zocheh to be the mohel for Avi’s own bechor. With a generation of experience in the great mitzvah and privilege of helping families bring their baby boys into the Covenant of Avraham Avinu, I’ve been exposed to diverse and eclectic Jewish families, from struggling single Jewish mothers to media moguls and business tycoons, from the unaffiliated and antireligious to prominent rabbis and leaders of Jewish institutions. I have traveled to far-flung places in the UK and beyond, and have come to realize that Jews, irrespective of their backgrounds, are irrepressibly connected to the mitzvah of bris milah. But most importantly, I have seen over and over that Hashem runs the world and is intimately involved in our lives. Read on and you’ll see it, too.


Just a Little Mist

I was 30,000 feet up, but when Shabbos comes in, it greets you no matter how far you are from home

While London’s pavements are often cold and wet with rain and drizzle, occasionally, the sun will tease Londoners with its presence, but the city had rarely witnessed a summer quite like this.

Shanni and I had chosen to stay home that summer, allowing the kids to punctuate our staycation with their various appearances in between camps and trips. For all their travels, we had been the ones to bask and bake in the sun as we went along our daily routine.

The one day I was due to travel was the day predicted to be the hottest day of the summer across Europe. I had visions of the rubber tires of the airplanes melting on the runway.

Indeed, that Thursday had been a frantic day. I had agreed to perform a bris for a couple living in South London, on the way to Gatwick Airport. They had contacted me the previous day — their baby was now over a month old and clear of his jaundice. The father was a non-Jewish, Hebrew-speaking liver surgeon; the Israeli mother had been his operating room nurse.

Despite the last-minute plans and inevitable traffic, I managed to reach Gatwick in good time, making sure to remember where I had parked, as I am prone to losing my car in airport car parks. (I’ve even been known to forget where I park my car when I go to shul.)

I arrived in Gibraltar on Thursday night. The rock was standing proud in the moonlight. I checked into a hotel, turned on the air conditioner and tried to sleep. The discomfort of a hot, sticky, stifling hotel room was drowned out by the clamour of a clanking, whirring air conditioning unit that seemed to be spluttering its way to a wearisome demise. We both finally succumbed.

My presence in the Shaar Shamayim shul on Friday morning was warmly greeted. Not only did I help make up the numbers for the sparsely attended summer hashkamah minyan, but I also curtailed the davening time by several minutes as, due to a bris, we skipped the long Sephardi Tachanun prayer. I am still perplexed at the joy experienced by certain people knowing that they can skip a part of davening.

The bris was scheduled for 8:30, and by 10 a.m. I was already on my way back to the airport. With my flight due to leave at 11:30, and the winds that had been evident over the past couple of days in Gibraltar now abated, we were set for an uncomplicated return back to Gatwick.

The mist, however, had other plans. It had clearly decided to settle on the Gibraltar runway, right between the rock and the airport terminal building. After all, who needs good visibility when landing an airplane on a strip of runway that stretches between two bodies of water? Undeterred by such mortal considerations, the thick, dense mist sprawled out and went to sleep. It would eventually melt away some time in the afternoon, but for now the inbound circling airplanes would be diverted to Malaga, Spain, and it looked like we’d need to take off from there, too.

I had already checked in my bag when murmurings from the locals alerted me to the unfolding situation. There was another Jew, David, on my flight, the owner of Gibraltar’s local kosher deli, who was on the phone weighing his options. I, however, had no options — I had three brissim scheduled for Sunday, as well as a bris later that afternoon. I had to be back in the UK.

David and I quickly devised a plan. We would wait to see for what time the flight would be rescheduled. David had an uncle who lived near Malaga who would host us if we got stuck.

With confirmation that our flight would be leaving from Malaga, rescheduled for 5 p.m., David decided to stay at home for Shabbos. He gave me some sandwiches and even offered to take my suitcase, which would allow me to travel with hand luggage only and perhaps save some precious time. As I retrieved my case from the carousel, I declined his offer and made my way with the other passengers to the coaches waiting for us across the border in Spain.

In those few minutes though, I started calculating potential times and quickly realized that David was right — it would be a good idea to travel with only hand luggage. As I was trying to figure out how to amalgamate my two bags into one, I turned back and saw that David was, somehow, still at my shoulder.

“Actually, could I give you some things? Please send them to London when you can.” I gave him everything I didn’t absolutely need, wished him a good Shabbos, and joined the coach party to Malaga.

Sundown in London that Shabbos was 8:45 p.m. I was once again being carried by Hashem’s Hashgachah into an unknown few hours, but I remained sanguine, reassured in the knowledge that however things were to pan out, it would all be for the best.

Another mohel was already well on his way to the Friday afternoon bris in London as we approached Malaga airport. I was in a rush to get to the front of the line at the gate, as the low-cost airline was in the habit of only allowing a limited number of pieces of hand luggage on the cabin, and there was a sign that said that if you had hand luggage only, you should proceed straight to security.

The security check hadn’t picked up that my boarding pass was no longer valid, and that I needed to check in all over again for this new flight. It was only at the gate that the staff realized that I didn’t have the right boarding pass.

“This is the wrong boarding pass. You need to go back to check-in,” I was told.

This was clearly not going to work. With boarding about to begin, I was forced to stand my ground.

Trying to look as desperate, yet respectful, as possible, I told her in my calmest yet firmest voice, “I need to be in London, I neeeed to be in London.”

She looked at her screen, shaking her head. “The flight is closed, and you need a new seat allocation. Why didn’t you check in?”

I felt a slight chink in her tough exterior — this wasn’t an outright no. It was time to emulate the greatest plea in history, delivered by Yehudah to the viceroy of Egypt. Unfortunately, all I could produce was a lame excuse about a sign downstairs directing those with only hand luggage to security.

She looked at my tatty boarding pass. “But there’s a luggage receipt attached here.”

She continued to stare at her screen and shake her head.

“I left my bag in Gibraltar. I have to get back to London as quickly as possible.”

She started typing, still shaking her head. She was clearly a senior member of the staff, and was reopening the flight to let me in. She wrote out a new boarding pass.

“Thank you so much. Could you allocate me a seat right at the back of the plane, so I can get off first?”

She smiled. “All the seat numbers are the same as the first flight. Have a good day.”

She beeped my boarding pass through the scanner as I thanked her again most profusely. I was grateful to take my aisle seat in the very back row of the plane.

Soon the pilot’s voice came over the PA system. He had a soft melodious North American lilt, gentle enough to soothe the most anxious of passengers. He spoke about sharing the frustrations of the delay, about encircling Gibraltar, which we could see below, about the busy air traffic into Gatwick on a Friday evening and how he hoped to get us back into the UK without any further delays.

His estimated time of arrival crept up from 6:30 to 7 p.m. local time, as air traffic control was clearing our flight. The bris in Gibraltar felt like ages ago; the Jews of this mainly frum kehillah that had recently flourished under British jurisdiction were busy making their final preparations before Shabbos as the plane accelerated along the runway and lifted into the Spanish sky.

We touched down in Gatwick at about 7 p.m., but due to ground crew confusion, we only deplaned about ten eternal minutes later. When the doors opened, I ran. It was clear to me that each minute was going to make a difference. On a good day, the journey from Gatwick to Hendon is an hour and a quarter. I sprinted the estimated 11-minute walk to passport control where there was thankfully no line, and ran out to find a taxi.

“I need to get to the North Terminal car park, and I’m in a crazy rush!”

“Did you book a taxi? You have to book a taxi at the office over there.”

He pointed to where I had just come from. I ran to the office.

The taxi was booked and a minute later he arrived. It was the same driver.

“I can’t take you past the barrier in the North Terminal car park. I’m not allowed. You’ll need to take a bus. The bus stop is over there.”

He pointed forward, as a bus was approaching.

“Okay, thanks,” I said as I jumped out of the cab and caught the bus.

The bus was in no hurry, as it trundled toward the car park. As I reached my car, the GPS told me that I would arrive home at 21:05.

I spoke briefly with Shanni — she was about to light Shabbos candles — and told her that although I’d never make it before shkiah, I could probably get close enough to be within walking distance.

As the minutes and the miles passed, I had the sense that rather than me accepting Shabbos, Shabbos was accepting me. As if Shabbos were saying, I’m here! It’s time to get out of the car. I came off the motorway and parked my car on a residential road near Perivale. I locked the car and hid the keys. Shabbos had arrived, and I was nine miles from home.

It was quite a warm evening, coming off the previous day’s heat wave. As Jews in London were singing Lecha Dodi, making Kiddush, eating their Shabbos meals and going to bed, I was pounding the streets and started feeling dehydrated.

Harrow, Park Royal, Neasden, Wembley, Brent Cross. The names were becoming more familiar and I was becoming slightly light-headed.

At one point, I passed a man dressed up in a full clown costume, probably on his way home after a party. His painted face couldn’t completely mask a worn and weary comportment. I smiled at him. He had a squeaky ball in his hand, which he squeezed back at me. That was our encounter, symbolic of the bizarre twists of that day.

I thought about David and the sagacity of his decision to stay at home, I thought about the lady at the gate and the frustratingly unhelpful taxi driver. I thought about Shanni expecting to see me soon, and I thought about the holy Shabbos and how we try to keep her at whatever cost or effort.

I slipped past a rowdy group outside a pub, under a bypass, over a bridge, alongside the road. I imagined each lamp post cheering me on with every weary step.

At about 11 o’ clock I arrived home. The Shabbos meal was still in full swing, and I was given a welcome worthy of a returning soldier. After making Kiddush, I finally slumped into my place at the table.

“Good to be here. Good to see you all. I’ve got a great story to tell you…”

Pirate Treasures

A Purim bris made me realize how this unsung holiday remains the buried gem of the year to the majority of Jews

Some Jewish festivals have made it to the big leagues. If you take the subway in New York after Thanksgiving, you’re surrounded by posters wishing you a Happy Chanukah. Most Jews celebrate Seder night, and Yom Kippur is on most people’s radar.

Purim, on the other hand — the day that celebrates the salvation of Klal Yisrael from the clutches of destruction, the day that we recount one of our most gripping historical events, the day we feast and get drunk — seems to have been left behind.

Most Jews in England are unaware of when Purim takes place and how it is celebrated, unless they happen to stumble into Golders Green or Stamford Hill. But for most secular Jews outside the Orthodox areas, Purim is just another day.

So if I have the opportunity, I try to bring a bit of Purim into their lives — and that often means showing up at a bris in costume. You don’t generally expect your mohel to come to the bris all decked out, and some people think that “it is highly inappropriate for a doctor to dress like that while performing such a procedure.” And so, I try to gauge the crowd before making too big of a splash.

Samantha was from South America and had just given birth to a baby boy. Her Israeli-born husband, Josh, grew up in Australia, and now they were living in London. I told Josh that this would be a special “Purim Brit.”

“A Purim Brit. That sounds great! Rabbi, is that different to a regular brit? We just want a normal kind of brit, not too religious… And we want to do it in the St. John’s Wood Synagogue. They said we can do it at one o’clock.”

As it happens, that was an excellent time, giving me enough time to hear the Megillah and deliver mishloach manos in the morning, and then to get home for the seudah in the afternoon.

“St. John’s Wood, one o’clock. That is perfect, and let me confirm again that the synagogue is the one in Grove End Road.”

There are, after all, two shuls in St. John’s Wood. Despite their geographic proximity, these two synagogues couldn’t be further away. The Grove End Road shul is Orthodox, and has minyanim for the younger crowd, older folks, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The other synagogue, on Abbey Road, aligns itself with American Conservative Judaism.

(This is the same iconic Abbey Road of the Beatles’ recording studio back in the ’60s, and their album of the same name. The iconic zebra crossing is still traversed by delighted tourists, much to the consternation of the locals who are actually trying to live their own lives. The image of the Beatles crossing the road is eerily symbolic considering the Jewish history of the area.)

“Yes, Rabbi. See you on Sunday.”

Call it a premonition, but I had a certain sense of foreboding as I approached the deserted shul gates in Grove End Road at ten minutes to one on Purim, dressed in my full pirate paraphernalia. I pressed the buzzer.

To my surprise a woman’s voice greeted me. “No bris here today, I sent the last person to the Abbey Road Synagogue round the corner.”

“Well, shiver me timbers, and blistering barnacles, I seem to be all at sea,” I said in my best pirate accent. Of course, she couldn’t see what I was wearing.

“Yes, ’round the corner, about a five-minute walk,” she said helpfully.

Well, I wasn’t going to walk anywhere in a pirate’s costume unless I was in Golders Green. I got into my car and drove ’round the corner. I had never stepped into the home of the Masorti movement and didn’t know much about the way they officially practiced Judaism — did they know about Purim, was the bris ceremony different?

I called Dayan Lopian to ask him how I should conduct the ceremony. Dayan Lopian, grandson of Reb Elya, talmid of Reb Moshe, and posek to the kiruv rabbanim in the UK, was known for his direct and succinct piskei halachah. His response was classic: “Use your common sense.”

As I walked into the room where guests were drinking and talking, I could feel some of my common sense drain away. A sudden hush descended. Everyone turned toward me and stared.

Hidden behind my masquerade, relieved of the shackles of conformity, I could say whatever I liked.

“I’m your mohel today, folks. Well, I think we ought to start, then, it is getting a bit late, and it’s time I had a drink.”

I thought I ought to keep pretending I was a pirate for a little while longer. I whisked out my hip flask. There was a gasp. I put it back.

I had to take some of the fancy dress off for the bris itself. My wig, for a start, would fall all over the baby if I leaned forward. I needed to put my glasses back on as I had already bumped into a few chairs, and I thought my sword and scabbard might frighten the parents.

After the bris, I spoke to the assembled participants about why we get dressed up on Purim. I spoke about how being dressed up represents the idea of having an inner and outer identity. I spoke about the tension between who we are inside and how we portray ourselves to the outer world. Do our actions loyally represent who we are? Do we even know who we are? I explained the Jewish concept of the duality of body and soul. How the body yearns for comfort, and the soul yearns for greatness.

Driving home, I thought about how strange it must have been for them, seeing a pirate and hearing a mohel. At least I had a good story for the seudah that year. But as the day progressed and the wine revealed the uninhibited soul, the thought of those Jews who are spectators to their own religion filled my heart with sadness.

Purim still remains the undiscovered treasure of the Jewish year to the majority of Jews — what a tragic irony. Purim — the day on which we are meant to appreciate that Hashem is the Hidden Composer of the melody of our lives — remains as mere incidental music to far too many.

Ahead of the Game

Surely nothing could top an unexpected double bris — but a soccer championship would be a close second.

The pavement was covered with white blossoms from the trees in spring bloom, the days were getting longer, the sun was getting warmer, and the crowd was getting excited. This is how I remembered my walk home from the Edgware Adass shul as a young boy on that Shabbos in May — which also happened to be soccer cup final day.

My walk home would take me across the major route taking fans to Wembley Stadium, and the atmosphere was electric: a chorus of hooting car horns and colored flags and scarves fluttering from the car windows that passed by on their journey to the promised land where football is the religion and the Football Association Cup Final is the holy grail.

But for a few years, from 2000 to 2006, all this stopped. The iconic white towers that were the symbol of Wembley Stadium were to be replaced by the magnificent arch that now owns the West London skyline. During these prolonged renovations, the FA Cup Final and semi-finals were hosted by the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. Cardiff, known for its rugby stadium, castle, and university, would now draw the interest of the entire nation.

It was during those years that I was asked to do a bris on a Shabbos in Cardiff. It was an exciting prospect, but it would need planning. I had been to Cardiff previously for brissim; it’s a two-hour drive from London, and the long motorway journey often heralds thickening and darkening clouds as drivers leave London behind and travel due west. The Cardiff community, which was once a large, thriving Jewish center, had diminished and consolidated. The shul had moved to the north of the city, and most of the youth had moved elsewhere.

I was once asked to go to Cardiff for two babies who were born a week apart. The first baby had developed jaundice and was still yellow by the time the second baby was ready for his bris. As I made the long journey from under the white fluffy clouds of London to the slate gray skies of western England, my mood too became darker as I contemplated the hours of driving that lay ahead, not only that day, but also for the next bris. At least I had arranged to see the yellow baby while I was in Cardiff. This would give me a sense of when that baby would be ready for his bris.

The bris in Cardiff was quite well attended for a midafternoon ceremony. As I was clearing away my instruments, I noticed a woman holding a bundle approaching me. She introduced herself as the mother of the second baby.

“I hope you enjoyed the ceremony,” I said, “and weren’t too nervous.”

“Actually, I just arrived and missed the whole thing,” she said, unwrapping the bundle and presenting me with her son. “Here he is.”

I popped open the infant’s baby-grow and took him to the window to check him in the natural light.

“You know, he looks fine to me. There’s just a tinge of jaundice, but he can have his bris — he’s ready whenever you are.”

It’s quite common for different medical professionals to have differing opinions regarding the color of a baby, but generally, the mohel is stricter than the midwife. After all, he’s about to perform a procedure, and the baby must be completely well. Today, I was the one giving the all-clear.

The mother wasn’t too ruffled by this news. “I need to call my husband. He should be finishing work about now. Can you do it today?”

By this time the mother of the first baby had come into the room to ask me about the after-care. She had overheard the last part of our conversation.

“Why don’t you do it here, now? We have the food, and the guests!”

“Yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you!”

And so, in a matter of minutes, the bris was organized. The father arrived within an hour, and Eliyahu, who had barely left, was now recalled to his chair for a second bris. As I was going through the after-care instructions for the second time, the first mother was nodding knowingly throughout. It’s always easier to listen to instructions when it’s not your own baby.

On the drive home that evening, I was in great spirits. Surely nothing could top an unexpected double bris! How wrong I was.

The parents of the upcoming Shabbos bris were an Israeli couple who had come to Cardiff University to study and had stayed. They were living in the center of the city, about an hour away from the Jewish community and shul, so I needed to organize both a closer place to stay, and Shabbos meals.

I asked the parents where I should stay, and they gave me a list of local hotels.

I called the Hilton Hotel. “I would like to book a room for this Friday night.”

The receptionist responded incredulously: “This Friday night! Do you know what this Friday night is?” I didn’t. “This weekend is FA Cup semi-final weekend. The only room available is the bridal suite.”

I felt a bit strange asking the price for the bridal suite. Maybe they would give it to me for half price. I was, after all, traveling alone. They wouldn’t.

I tried the other hotels, but there was no availability. All the rooms had been booked weeks earlier, as soon as the teams had progressed to the semifinals. For the Blackburn Rovers, it was a rare excursion into the final stages of the competition, and it seemed as though the whole of Blackburn was going to spend the weekend in Cardiff and make the most of the occasion.

I nervously called the parents back. “Do you know what this Friday night is?” I explained about the football final and the paucity of hotel rooms in the city.

“Don’t worry,” they said, “we’ll pay whatever it costs. The baby needs a bris!”

Of course, they were right, but I was impressed all the same.

“What an amazing attitude, Israeli parents so disconnected from the local community, but so committed to having a bris at the right time despite the cost,” my wife Shanni said when I told her the story.

A little later, Shanni was on the phone repeating the story to her good friend Jo. Jo and Julian were like family. We had seen them through many important stages of their lives, as singles and then as a couple committed to Judaism, and now as a family with a few young children.

Frantically, Shanni called me back.

“Don’t book the hotel room, don’t order food. I’ve just been speaking with Jo, and you won’t believe it! Jo, Julian, and their kids are all going to be in the Cardiff Hilton this Shabbos [the same hotel that had offered the bridal suite]! Julian’s brother is getting married on Sunday in Cardiff, and the extended family had made a group booking in the Hilton. Jo and Julian have three adjacent rooms, and one of them is for the helper who’s only coming on Shabbos day, so they have a spare room on Friday night. Jo asked me if you wanted to use it. I said yes!”

I put the phone down in disbelief. What could have been a long, lonely Shabbos was going to be very different.

That Shabbos in Cardiff saw two celebrations. While the strains of our davening were gracing a private room in the hotel, there was chanting of another sort in the bar next door. While we were making Kiddush and remembering Hashem Who created the world and brought the Jewish People out of Egypt, they were revering their idols, who had brought them to the cusp of soccer glory. The Kiddush wine and catered Shabbos meal were being enjoyed by our wedding party, while beer and pies were being downed by our fellow revellers.

Two peoples and two religions. We pray and they pray, we sing and they sing, we commit and they commit. I often struggle to remember that soccer, despite its ability to evoke true emotions of elation and despair, is ultimately meaningless. I admit, I too have invested a lifetime honing my skills, following my team, and learning the stats. Yet I realize that the joyous high of a winning goal is merely an illusion. It is man giving meaning to something which is ultimately meaningless.

And of course, there was the bris. Julian and I went to the bris before joining up with the others as we all walked together to the shul in the north of Cardiff. We were an eclectic group — an excited groom, an expectant fan, a relieved mohel. There were blossoms on the pavement, and the sun was enjoying another special spring day.

Into the Wilderness

I wasn’t exactly relishing spending Erev Pesach in an isolated cottage in Cyprus, but what won’t you do for an old friend?

The Jews of England and the US are blessed to live in welcoming, fair-minded and tolerant societies, where the most major concern when arranging a bris is the catering — and even that can be sorted out with a phone call. The ease and convenience of our Judaism is a far cry from the religious persecutions of the past. But not everyone has it so easy.

To be fair, Nick had given me plenty of warning. About two months earlier, he had called me with a “save the date” request. “We’re expecting a baby just before Pesach. If it is a boy, would you come to Cyprus for the bris?”

I was already praying for a girl.

“Of course, Nick. It would be my pleasure. By the way, what on earth are you doing in Cyprus?”

I didn’t know much about Cyprus. I knew that it was a tourist destination for Israelis, and that it was one of only four countries that contains a single vowel, but was pretty sure that there was no significant Jewish community there. In fact, Cyprus was used by the British as a detention camp for Jews who’d escaped Europe and were trying to enter Palestine illegally.

“It’s a crazy story. I’ll tell you about it when I see you.” He sounded like he knew he was having a boy.

I had known Nick since our high school days. He was a good friend, always ready to put his arm around your shoulder if you needed some cheering up. He had his father’s Brazilian warmth and charisma coursing through him. He’d met his wife in Israel, and now, it seemed, they’d picked up and moved to Cyprus.

Well, two months ago it had seemed quite unlikely that the baby would be born exactly nine days before Pesach — since when are first babies born on their due date? But this little fellow arrived on time, and the eighth day would be Erev Pesach.

“Okay, Nick, let’s speak in a few days’ time, just to check for any signs of jaundice.”

I had bought myself a few days to contemplate the trip and discuss plans with my wife Shanni. It would mean leaving her to finish the cleaning, checking for chometz, and managing our four young crumb-spreading boys. Plus, we were to be hosting a sheva brachos at home just a few days before Pesach. But with the typical strength of a Jewish woman, she simply said, “You must go.”

The irony of these words just before the Yom Tov of the Exodus was not lost on me.

I would need to fly the day before the bris — which would be first thing in the morning Erev Pesach — and then head back to make it in time for the Seder.

All that was needed was confirmation from Nick that the baby was fine. And if Hashem was going to make me go, I was sure He would get me back on time too.

“The baby’s ready, no jaundice,” Nick called to tell me. “Just one thing. Could you bring a loaf of bread with you for the seudah? We’ve put all our chometz things away.”

I flew out to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, which was the nearest airport to Askas, the village where Nick lived. He met me there, and together we went to visit an old Israeli in Nicosia who had a room in his house that was also a kosher food shop, so we stocked up on some last-minute Pesach supplies before driving back to the village. We headed in the direction of the setting sun, needing nerves of steel as we drove toward the Troodos Mountains on steep, narrow roads, deeper and deeper into rustic, wooded areas and further away from civilization.

The journey was just under two hours, which gave us plenty of time to catch up.

“There are no Jews where we live,” Nick told me. “In fact, there hasn’t been much of a Jewish community here in Cyprus for about 100 years, so we have no Jewish neighbors and no friends at all. We’re only here because my wife needs to finish her law degree, and she has just over one year left. You can imagine what happens here on Shabbos, when the nearest Jewish community is an hour’s drive away.”

Nick dreamed of returning to Israel with his family, but they could only realistically return if they got jobs in Israel. In the meantime, they were in the wilderness.

“I’m still in touch with one or two of the boys from school. They call me ‘Nick from Nicosia.’ ”

Nick told me of his hotline to our high school rebbi, the same rav who had first introduced me to learning Gemara. “He sees my number and he picks up the phone — simple really. I call him about everything. He keeps me Jewish.”

Nick told me about the difficulty of living as a frum Jew in Askas, how they have to travel every week to Nicosia for supplies, how they manage to maintain a family life with no communal infrastructure around them. He told me of the anti-Semitism he faces at work from his colleagues and managers, and how he and his wife aspire to live a normal Jewish life.

Eventually, we arrived at a simple cottage. Opening the front door to his house, I felt as though we had reached an oasis. This could be any Jewish pre-Pesach home, anywhere in the world. The surfaces were covered in aluminum foil, Jewish books adorned the proud shelves, and the smell of Yom Tov was wafting from the kitchen. How did they manage to maintain a lifestyle like this? It was outrageous, impossible, inspirational. This house was totally chometz-free, except for the loaf of bread in my bag.

The next morning, the day of the bris, Nick was all ready by the time I had finished davening. He had a cheeky grin.

“I just spoke with Rebbi this morning. I asked him who should be the sandek. He said it should be the person with the most Torah learning, so I reckon it should be you.”

I wasn’t expecting that. I had heard of mohelim who had also been sandek, but I thought such events were confined to bygone eras, where the town had one lulav and esrog on Succos.

“Okay, Nick, I’m very honored, but did you ask Rebbi who the mohel should be? Surely, it’s a mitzvah for the father — you should be the mohel.”

It would have been an unlikely role reversal, but Nick was not going to take the bait. As far as he was concerned, he had the perfect bris arrangement.

“This is a great opportunity for you to be the mohel and the sandek. The baby can be on your lap and I’ll hold him still.”

It wasn’t that difficult in the end, although it was the first time I had done a bris sitting down. We then sat down for the seudah on their small porch, where we were soon joined by two young Chabad yeshivah boys who had appeared out of nowhere. Apparently, they had come from Nicosia, and I was once again amazed at the ability of the Chabad rabbis and their disciples to reach even the most isolated Jews.

Eliyahu Hanavi was to pay two visits to that cottage in Cyprus that day. He had been there for the bris, and would be back to take part in the Seder. But for my part, I was ready to leave. As I boarded the airplane, I imagined myself on the wings of eagles, being taken back to my family in time for Pesach. I arrived in London with two hours to spare, and was greeted by my relieved wife and oblivious children.

There was, however, one lingering concern — returning Nick and his family to the embrace of a Jewish community. Despite his unflagging commitment, the reality was that he now had a baby and he needed to plan his own exodus from Askas.

After Pesach, I returned to work in the ER. It’s remarkable that you can be away from the emergency department for two weeks, and it doesn’t really register on anyone’s radar. With most people working a shift pattern, it’s not unusual for someone to be off work for a few days running, so my return was underwhelming.

But one of the nurses asked, “Have you been away? Go anywhere interesting?”

I was still thinking about Nick and his family in Cyprus. Their Pesach must also have been surreal, celebrating the freedom from Egypt in a desert devoid of a Jewish community, with a new baby recovering from his bris.

“Actually I spent Passover at home.”

I discussed Nick’s unique situation with one of London’s leading askanim. Nick must have been davening hard that Seder night, because as I was describing Nick, this askan became more and more interested. A few weeks later, he offered Nick a job in London. His family eventually moved to Edgware, where we celebrated a much less eventful bris of his second son with the Edgware community a couple of years later.

Not a Moment Too Soon

A last-minute weigh-in and a scramble to sundown couldn’t deter a happy father who was thrilled to do it right

The ebb and flow of day and night is reflected throughout Judaism in many guises. Our prayers during the day espouse hope and kindness, at night they are shrouded in fear and faith. Night heralds a time of sleep, a microcosm of death, when our hands become impure, followed by the renaissance of morning.

The bris is not impervious to this pulse of time. The bris covenant is a daytime activity, where clarity, life, and excitement are harnessed. The bris, after all, is the deepest connection between Hashem and His people. Challenged by Avraham, Hashem chose the bris as the sign that the Jew will remain eternally under His scrutiny and guidance. As such, the ritual has to be performed at a time of clarity, from sunrise till sunset. A minute later and the bris is invalid.

Our neighbors in the Old City of Jerusalem had been blessed with their second child, a baby boy. The happy father, Rabbi Cohen, was a prominent maggid shiur in the local yeshivah, beloved by dozens of students. We shared a courtyard back then, and Shanni and Mrs. Cohen quickly became best friends, finding themselves in and out of each other’s apartments, talking about the urgent matters of the day, like baby clothes and sunscreen.

Meanwhile, the young yet venerable rav would be busy poring over a large Gemara tome — it was impressive what this man had achieved at such a young age. Belying his quiet demeanour at home, he was a fiery speaker and a demanding teacher, which gave him an air of awesomeness among his students. They loved him because of his passion and love of Torah.

The new arrival into the Cohen household had joined the world slightly prematurely, and weighed in at a mere five pounds. The minimum weight to perform a bris is usually between five and a half and six pounds, depending on the mohel. By all accounts, this baby would have to wait beyond his eighth day to enter his bris. Mrs. Cohen had an appointment to weigh the baby every few days, and soon enough, after the initial dip, his weight began to increase.

His next appointment was due on Sunday, which meant a well-earned quiet Shabbos before the likely mayhem of the ensuing week. It was Thursday afternoon when Mrs. Cohen came to our apartment. Our home was beginning to look and smell like Shabbos. There were vegetable peels piling on the kitchen counter and a bubbling soup pot on the stove.

Mrs. Cohen turned to me first. “I actually wanted to ask you a question. If I think he has put on some weight, should I get him weighed? My husband is in yeshivah, and I can’t interrupt him.”

There are some times in life when you wish the question was never asked. I was still a trainee mohel at the time and was not equipped to deal with the issues raised by the question. What if the baby has reached the right weight? Should they organize a bris before Shabbos? Before shkiah? Does one have an obligation to know the weight?

I took the diplomatic approach. “Where are you going to weigh him, in any case, at this time of day?”

Mrs Cohen shrugged her shoulders, but Shanni had heard my question. “Why don’t you weigh him at the vegetable store down the road? They have a set of scales that would fit the baby perfectly.”

And so it was, that on Thursday afternoon, Shanni and Mrs. Cohen entered the vegetable store in the Old City and asked if they could use the scales to weigh the baby. The store owner obliged, and pronounced that the baby had reached the grand weight of six pounds and one ounce. The other shoppers were slightly taken aback at the sight of a naked baby (with a pre-weighed diaper) on the scales.

But it was only at this point that it dawned on Mrs. Cohen that if the baby was ready for his bris, then it might need to take place right now, today, without delay. I was sent to the yeshivah to break the news to Rabbi Cohen.

Rabbi Cohen was deep in discussion with one of his students while I was frantically waving to gain his attention.

“Excuse me, Rabbi Cohen,” I said, feeling bad for interrupting him, “but I think we may have a halachic emergency.”

After brief rabbinic consultation, the decision was made to perform the bris straight away. With only an hour before sundown, there wasn’t much time to prepare, but luckily it was Thursday, and there were already pots on the stove…

The yeshivah went into action mode. The boys set out the tables and the chairs. They schlepped Shabbos food from various homes and bought drinks from the local makolet. The grandparents were summoned, and close friends were informed. Rabbi Cohen was beaming, even though the sun was giving its final few blinks of the day.

As sun fell, so did the knife, and the still evening sky was stirred up by a roaring rendition of mazel tov. The bris seudah was a real treat for the boys — home-made chicken soup, schnitzels, kugels and dips. Shanni felt a bit responsible for the last-minute scramble.

Rabbi Cohen couldn’t have been happier. His baby had his bris at the earliest time possible, without a moment’s delay.

“It’s what every Jew should wish for,” he said. “Doing what’s right, and doing it with joy. When you look forward to something, you want it to happen right away.”

Another person who was happy was the vegetable store owner, as new Shabbos meals were needed that week. And no need to panic — there was a whole day left to cook for Shabbos.

Greek or G-dly?

A gala event in Monte Carlo made me take stock of my own Chanukah miracle.

It had been a harsh, snow-swept few days, followed by a sudden plunge in temperature, and by now even the wintry icicles had icicles. The roads were treacherous but the schoolchildren were ecstatic, and this year we were having a white Chanukah, which made them even happier.

Less happy was a grandfather, who had been given the task of organizing a bris for his grandson in Monte Carlo. I was asked to be the mohel, and was due to be traveling on Thursday morning for the bris later in the day.

But looking at the December sky on Wednesday, I was beginning to doubt whether the airports would be running any scheduled flights. Every cloud, even an ominous gray snow cloud, has a silver lining, and missing this bris wouldn’t be terrible for me, as I had a bris scheduled for Friday at 12 noon back in London. But missing the bris wasn’t on the grandfather’s agenda.

On Wednesday afternoon, I got a phone call: “I need your passport details. Be ready tomorrow morning at seven. A car will come and pick you up.”

Surprisingly, I have never (yet) been in a James Bond film, but I imagine that it would feel a bit like the way I felt that Thursday morning. At 007, the black Audi arrived, and the chauffeur offered to take my bag.

“This way, sir.”

I sat in the backseat, and felt a bit awkward being called “sir.”

“It’s okay,” I said, “you can call me James.”

“Very well, Mr. James. There has been a change of plan. You will not be taking the scheduled flight. Alternative arrangements have been made.”

It all sounded very mysterious and exciting. As we approached the airport, we took a turn away from the main terminal and instead headed toward the private jets. At the terminal, which was really just a lounge, I met up with the rest of the party, which included Rabbi Shlomo Farhi, who had known the family for many years.

The grandfather was the last to arrive, and was relieved to see that we were all there. We put our bags through a small x-ray machine, and were led by the pilot to the nine-seater plane. The stewardess sat in the cabin with us, and was fascinated by the whole bris thing.

“So you’re the doctor,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the mother of the baby at this moment. She must be so anxious.”

“You mean anxious about her baby, or about the airplane?”

The stewardess laughed. “Oh, no, the airplane is quite safe. I do trips like this every day, and we would only take off if it was safe to do so. Safety first. I was more worried that she would be anxious about her baby going through the bris operation.”

I had often thought about the connection between the aviation industry and the medical field. There was so much to learn from the way they dealt with risk and their open approach to disasters or near misses. But the stewardess had inadvertently expressed my very thoughts about the bris.

“There is no real need for the mother to feel anxious about the bris,” I explained. “A mohel does this procedure every day, and will only proceed if it’s perfectly safe to do so.”

She wasn’t satisfied. “But there are always risks.”

“Oh, yes”, I said, “everything has risks, even flying. But if the baby is healthy, has a good weight and is clear of jaundice, then I would be happy to proceed.”

It was a clear day over France. We landed in a cold yet sunny Nice, and within five minutes we were in the car driving along the Cote d’Azure to Monaco.

Monte Carlo is built on a slope leading down to the Mediterranean Sea, and is a city where all the residents had been invited to live by the king and his cohorts. There are no steps to the sea; in Monte Carlo, escalators on the street take you to the next level. The casinos, hotels, and cafes are frequented by the rich and famous — and on that Thursday, by us. We were guests, intrigued by the allure of this place, humored by the thick veil of wealth that we imagined might even betray a deep sense of insecurity.

The bris itself was a luxury affair. The foyer of the Hotel de Paris was resplendent in enormous bouquets of pink roses, the string quintet was divine, the kosher cuisine exquisite. There were rabbis from all the neighboring cities — this was an important event, and I felt privileged to be there, but also concerned about how we were going to get back to England. This concern turned into real worry when the other two rabbis from our traveling party and I were summoned to a side room by the grandfather, who looked like he didn’t have such good news.

“The travel agent called,” he told us. “Because the original tickets were bought as a round-trip flight, missing the first part of the journey means that the return part of the ticket is canceled. I tried to rebook the same tickets, but the flight is now full, and the chartered plane has gone back to England, which leaves us with only two options: a return journey via Toulouse or via Frankfurt. Which one would you prefer?”

For some reason, the rabbis turned to me. I’m a mohel, not a travel agent, but on this occasion I had a very strong sense that we ought to take German efficiency over French je ne sais quoi. Frankfurt, for me, was the obvious choice. The others agreed. That night, I lit the menorah with a calmness that comes from knowing that all would end up the way G-d wanted it to end up — which was fine by me, and also hopefully fine by my wife.

That night I also got a call from the Friday bris family, asking me if we could postpone the bris by a couple of hours till 2 p.m.

“Sure,” I said, and smiled. Things were beginning to take shape.

We got to the Nice airport on Friday morning and checked the departures board. Our flight to Frankfurt was on time, but the original intended return flight to London had been canceled! What had sounded like bad news yesterday was today a big blessing. We were grateful to leave France behind on the first leg of our return journey.

The stopover in Frankfurt was brief and frenetic, but as we took our seats toward the back of the plane, I looked up to the sky and asked for one last miracle. It was Chanukah, after all. It was now 12 noon on Friday, and I was feeling nervous. I still had a bris to perform at 2 p.m. in London, before lighting the menorah.

As I was making my calculations, the pilot made an announcement. “Due to the weather in London, air traffic control has pushed us back. We hope to have a slot in about one hour, but it may be sooner.”

One hour! My heart sank. This was in fact a disaster — I wouldn’t get back in time for the bris. My focus quickly shifted; it was now all about Shabbos. I had to be home to light the menorah, and I also had to tell the parents of the other bris and give them time to make alternative arrangements. Most importantly, I had to speak to Shanni, who was no doubt closely checking my movements online.

I called her and relayed the message from the pilot.

She immediately said, “You have to call the other parents and tell them what’s happening.” She was right, of course.

“Let’s give it another few minutes,” I said. “After all, why worry them unnecessarily? We may get an earlier slot.”

They didn’t even know that I was abroad! And as the next few seconds ticked away and the remaining embers of hope for a perfect outcome were spluttering to their inevitable death, the pilot chirped up.

“Good news, we’ve got a slot now, seat belts on. Let’s go.”

Good news. Amazing news. This was my own little Chanukah miracle.

Could we really make it back to England in time? One rabbi had to be back for the bar mitzvah of a boy he had taught over the last year to read his Torah portion. The other rabbi was trying to get back to his young family. Their prayers had certainly helped lift us back into the sky.

It’s only a short flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, but enough time to try and take stock of the past 36 hours. The Ancient Greeks would have loved Monte Carlo with its majesty and beauty. They would have revelled in its finery and winery. The ancient Greeks loved their art and architecture, their sport and literature. They cherished the human form and marveled at the human mind.

The confusing thing is that Jews consider most of those things very noble pursuits. In fact, the Beis Hamikdash was the pinnacle of physical beauty and grandeur. The priests, the vessels, even the animal sacrifices, had to be perfect.

The one difference, of course, is keeping Hashem front and center. The Jew doesn’t worship the gold and silver, he simply uses it as a way to connect to Hashem. With that as his focus, the Jew can elevate the physicality of this world to its ultimate purpose.

I wondered what Hashem thought of the bris. Did we use the splendor of Monte Carlo to connect to Him, or for our own pleasure? Were we more Greek or more Jewish? I thought of the fine line between these two world views, and how we often struggle to keep onto our side of the divide.

My thoughts were interrupted by a bump as the plane hit the runway. We hadn’t even circled around Heathrow — I guess there must have been lots of canceled inbound flights. I said goodbye to the two rabbis; we had certainly shared more than a simple bris together.

At 2:05 p.m. I arrived at the Friday bris, where I was greeted enthusiastically.

“Good to see you. Glad you could make it with all the snow. It must have been quite a drive.”

I smiled. “Yes, you have no idea, but it is good to be here. Very good.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)

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