Philip L. Sherman, Who Circumcised Thousands of Babies, Dies at 67
Armed with only a scalpel, a clamp and a metal probe, Philip L. Sherman would routinely carry out his surgical mission in about 15 seconds, leave in as little as 10 minutes and hotfoot it to his car, which was probably parked illegally but perhaps spared a ticket by the inspired placard on his windshield: “Mazel Tov! Bris in progress. Please don’t ticket.”
Mr. Sherman, whose website (as well as his vanity license plate) was emoil.com, claimed to have performed some 26,000 ritual circumcisions, mostly in the New York metropolitan area, during his 45-year career. He was trained in the Jewish religious practice of brit milah — a profession generally spelled “mohel” in English and pronounced “moil.”
His record, he said, was 11 in a single day, including two pairs of twins — a considerable scheduling feat, considering that the ritual is to be performed on the eighth day of the baby’s life and during daylight.
Mr. Sherman also performed ritual circumcisions on Muslim and Christian infant boys, as well as the son of a man he had circumcised as an infant and the grandsons of two Israeli prime ministers, and in all kinds of places, including Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and a bar on Third Avenue (for a family who lived upstairs).
He died on Aug. 9 at his home in Englewood, N.J. He was 67. His daughter, Nina Sherman Green, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Sherman performed his first circumcision when he was 21, in Brooklyn during a blizzard (prudently, he had stayed over nearby the night before). After his cancer diagnosis, he began what he called a sabbatical in June.
Sporting his signature bow tie, Mr. Sherman did his best to leaven a ceremony that is not for the fainthearted. For Mr. Sherman, it was a living — and, most important, it was the fulfillment of an enduring and sacred religious covenant, immortalized in the biblical verse “And Abraham circumcised Isaac his son.”
“I’m there to fulfill a Torah commandment, to educate, let them know what the significance is, briefly, appropriately, tastefully,” he told The New York Times in 2012.
He performed so many brises for Jewish families in New York that he became a boldface name and was written about like a celebrity.
His services did not come cheap. “You pay $800 for a steady hand and a good reputation,” Scott Stringer, the former New York City comptroller, told The Times after his son, who was born in December 2011, was circumcised by Mr. Sherman. “It’s not the kind of thing where you’re looking to save money.”
But Mr. Sherman said he did not turn away families who could not afford his fee.
Philip Lloyd Sherman was born on April 26, 1956, in Syracuse, N.Y. His mother, Malvina (Jacobs) Sherman, was an English teacher. His father, Paul Sherman, was a factory worker.
He was inspired to study brit milah by his grandfather Isadore Jacobs, who was a mohel and also a rabbi, a cantor, a dayan (a religious judge) and a shochet (a ritual slaughterer). After studying with Rabbi Yosef Hakohen Halperin, a renowned mohel, in Jerusalem, Mr. Sherman graduated in 1979 with degrees in music and Bible studies from a joint program run by Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He also served as a cantor at several synagogues in New York, including the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan from 1985 to 2019. He also occasionally worked as an actor.
He played a judge on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” and appeared in an episode of the Amazon Prime show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He was also cast in the 2011 Paul Rudd movie “Our Idiot Brother.”
“I played a mohel, but the scene was cut,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “How ironic.”
He described himself as the only motorcycle-riding rabbi in the Screen Actors Guild.
In the actual religious ceremonies over which Mr. Sherman presided, he not only starred; he also fed the supporting players their lines.
“Let me tell you my secret,” he routinely confided to new fathers, according to an interview with The New Yorker in 1999. “After it’s over, be sure to thank your wife for doing a great job and giving you such a perfect son.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Sherman is survived by two sons, Reuven and Elan Sherman, from his marriage to Naomi Freistat, which ended in divorce; his brothers, Steven and Martin Sherman; and six grandchildren. His marriage in 1994 to Andrea Raab ended in divorce in 2022.
Mr. Sherman performed the brises for his sons and his grandsons, pointing out that in addition to following the biblical injunction to Abraham (rather than deferring to a doctor and turning a religious ceremony into a strictly medical procedure), he had undergone a full year of training.
Yes, he acknowledged, of course the baby feels pain during it. But, he added, “when it’s done properly, only for a moment.”
And, yes, he said, it was also true that sometimes even just by imagining the removal of the baby’s foreskin, one of the parents or a guest might pass out. But, he suggested cheerfully, “usually at a bris, there’s no shortage of doctors or lawyers.”
When the actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg told him that she hated attending a bris, Mr. Sherman offered her a suggestion.
“The next time you go to one,” he advised, “do what I do: Close your eyes.”
Just kidding, he added.
Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. More about Sam Roberts
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