The Jewish “Circumcision Scandal” in Edwardian Britain

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In February 1895, the British medical periodical, The Lancet, reported "some interesting letters" in a recent edition of the New York Medical RecordThe correspondence related to an increase in the number of deaths of baby boys in New York after Jewish circumcision. Letter writers attributed this increase to the growth of the city's Jewish population and to the practices of unhy gienic and incompetent mohelim, Jewish ritual circumcisers. The Lancet observed "that in this country we seldom hear of such accidents." This state of affairs was not to continue and within a few years the London Jewish Chronicle was carrying readers' correspondence on the activities of mohelim in Britain under the caption "The Circumcision Scandal".

During 1902-5, a spate of news reports on inquests into deaths after cir cumcision created concern and embarrassment among British Jews. The reports provoked the British Jewish establishment, led by Dr Hermann Adler, the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue,2 to address the inadequacies of traditional mohelim by establishing an effective system of non-statutory regulation using existing communal institutions. In this project, British Jews were supported by secular officials. The story of the "Circumcision Scandal" has never been told, which is surprising, as it is a communal success story. That Jews were allowed to self-regulate on this issue was also a reflection of British attitudes at the time towards the country's Jewish minority and of a change in the climate of opinion among British Gentiles towards the practice of circumcision itself.

Britain, like the United States, was impacted by the great wave of westward migration of Eastern European Jews which took place in the nineteenth century and which accelerated after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. In 1914, London was exceeded by only New York and Chicago in the number of Eastern European Jewish immigrants it contained.3 Between 1881

1 The Lancet, 9 Feb. 1895,362. The contemporary spellings of moheland mohelim have been retained for this article.

2 Its then full title was The United Congregations of the British Empire.

3 Lloyd P. Gartner, The Jewish Immigrant in England i8yo-~igi4, 3rd ed. (London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2009), 16-17.

and 1900, London's Jewish population rose from 45,000 to 135,000 and by 1914 had reached 180,ooo.4 Most of these Jewish Londoners lived in the East End, the densely settled Jewish quarter that lay to the east of London's his toric centre. The influx of immigrants led to an increase in anti-Jewish feeling within the host community culminating in legislation to curb immigration, the Aliens Act 1905.5 It was against this backdrop that "the Circumcision Scandal" played out.

According to Jewish religious law, it is the duty of a Jewish father to ensure that his sons are circumcised.6 The purpose of this obligation is religious, although some Jewish sages maintained that there were other benefits.7 A father must carry out the circumcision himself or appoint a mohel to under take the task. The ritual, a brit milah, must take place on the eighth day after birth, even if that day is Yom Kippur,

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