A Mohel in Jerusalem

by Brian on November 4, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Last week our mohel, Rabbi Chanan Feld, passed away in Berkeley. I say “our” mohel – he presided over our now 18-year-old son Amir’s brit mila (ritual circumcision) in 1991 – but he really belonged to the entire northern half of California where he touched the lives of literally thousands of new parents and their offspring over a career that spanned some 20 years.

In accordance with his wishes, Feld was buried Monday on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery. Hundreds of ex-Berkeley-ites now living in Israel made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pay their last respects. Jody and I were among them.

Feld had trained and worked as an accountant before turning his hand to the life of a traveling mohel. It makes a certain sense: both jobs require a fine attention to detail. One slip up can have catastrophic repercussions. Before becoming religious himself, he was a champion college soccer player.

Feld wasn’t the only mohel in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he was the one with the longest beard. He co-founded the Berkeley Beit Midrash, a popular house of Jewish learning. The wedding of his son Dovid to Rivkie Ferris, a daughter of the local Chabad rabbi, was described in the local San Francisco Bay Area Jewish newspaper as the “merging of two dynasties.”
Feld had, on many of occasions, spent Shabbat away from his family in some far flung California community in order to perform a brit on the weekend.

I had a more personal encounter with Feld. Prior to our wedding in 1988, back in my frummier (more stringently religious) days, I decided I wanted to have a proper brit milah. You see, I had been circumcised in the hospital but without any kind of ceremony.

In the privacy of his home, Feld made a tiny cut (and yes, it did hurt!) then said the appropriate blessings. As I saw it, I was now kosher enough to get married. Apparently, Jody agreed.

The funeral in Jerusalem started at a meeting point opposite the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, ironically the institution which first started me on my journey to Judaism 25 years ago. The idea was that there would be a formal procession of vehicles through East Jerusalem to the cemetery.

In the U.S., cars on their way to a funeral switch on their lights and are given a general right of way. In Israel, though, it’s every man for himself. We all got stuck at an interminable light that only permitted 3-4 cars across at a time. Any sense of decorum was quickly lost…as were many of the drivers as we wound through East Jerusalem.

There is a reason the Mount of Olives has been so revered over the centuries as a final resting place. It is said that when the Messiah arrives and the dead are resurrected, those buried on the mount will be the first to arrive at the newly constructed Temple just a hop and a skip across the valley. For those of us with a less supernatural perspective, it’s still a stunning view.

The graveside scene was a bedlam of black, with hundreds of men crowding around Feld’s body, circling and chanting. I tried to get in close, to no avail. Jody and the women were relegated to the back.

And then, at the very moment the burial itself began, the heavens – which had been threatening rain all day – finally opened up. This was not a small drizzle but a drenching downpour. There was no shelter whatsoever. Some saw this as a sign. A torrent of sadness, “pouring rain and tears,” wrote one woman on an online bulletin board. I’d say it was just bad luck.

We will be visiting the shiva house later this week where we will undoubtedly hear more stories of the life of Rabbi Chanan Feld. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the Jewish world has lost one of its small pillars, a modest man who attended to the Jewish needs of so many newborns and whose untimely death has left communities on two continents mourning, while at the same time considering their own beginnings and endings: Feld was only 53.

An active online community has been coordinating help for the Feld family. You can join it at http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com.

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