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Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Jewish Perspective on Circumcision: SF Weekly Talks to Cut Director Eli Ungar-Sargon

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
  • Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
Eli Ungar-Sargon was raised in an Orthodox household, with rabbis in the family and a Talmudic scholar father. But Ungar-Sargon, who dropped out of medical school to pursue a film career, struggled to reconcile Jewish traditions and ethical questions, especially regarding ritual circumcision, or brit milah.

It was Ungar-Sargon's -- who believes circumcision should be banned -- own questions about the religious practice which eventually led him to make his first major documentary, Cut, in 2007. In the wake of San Francisco's controversial initiative to ban circumcision, Bay Area intactivists and The WHOLE Network, a grassroots organization dedicated to providing information on circumcision, are sponsoring a nationwide tour of the film.

Ungar-Sargon chatted with SF Weekly about his film, which will be featured in San Francisco on October 29 at Ninth Street Independent Film Center.

This is a film you made several years ago, but you're touring with it now. Why?

The film had a nice little life and very well received critically, but there wasn't a lot of interest in 2007. We held screenings in a number of places, but the issue didn't have as much traction then as it has gotten over the last year. There's been an intense media attention being paid to circumcision largely due to the ballot initiative in San Francisco. Film festivals started approaching us and asking to show it, and the WHOLE Network was interested in doing a tour.

It seems like your film is a personal story as well, in terms of how you were raised and your personal relationship to Judaism.

The experience that got me thinking about circumcision specifically was when I was a teenager and I was given the honor of being the sandek [person who holds the baby] at someone's bris. I remember holding the baby, the mohel said the blessing, made the cut, and he puts his head down and sucks the wound, comes back up and has blood on his beard.

I just felt there was something very wrong here; it was very disturbing to me. A few years later during medical school, I started to gain an appreciation for scientific perspective and continued my interest in circumcision by investigating some of the claimed health benefits. When I dropped out to be a filmmaker, I thought the subject was interesting and could also be a way of exploring the thing that I'd been struggling with since I was a teen: How do you come to terms with some of the more problematic elements in your religious tradition?

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