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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Measure of His Grief: An Interview with Lisa Braver Moss

Lisa Braver Moss is a writer specializing in health, parenting, family issues and humor pieces. Her essays have appeared in Tikkun, Parents, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her column, “I’m Not Impressed…” is published in the Piedmont Post and simultaneously on her blog, lisabravermoss.wordpress.com.

Lisa’s nonfiction book credits include Celebrating Family: Our Lifelong Bonds with Parents and Siblings (Wildcat Canyon Press, 1999), and, as co-author, The Mother’s Companion: A Comforting Guide to the Early Years of Motherhood (Council Oak Books, 2001).

Having written several articles questioning the practice of circumcision from a Jewish point of view, Lisa is making her first foray into fiction with a contemporary literary novel on that topic, The Measure of His Grief (Notim Press, November 2010). I was really excited to talk to her more about it.

Shelly Rachanow: This month marks the release of your first fiction book – congratulations. Tell us more about your book, The Measure of His Grief.

Lisa Braver Moss: It’s a literary novel about a Berkeley physician, Dr. Sandor (“Sandy”) Waldman, who wages a campaign against circumcision. But rather than becoming alienated from Judaism as he rails against this custom, Sandy finds himself feeling more deeply Jewish. The book is also about Sandy’s marriage, his grief over the death of his father, family secrets, and the price Sandy pays for his iconoclasm.

The Measure of His Grief is told from three alternating viewpoints—that of Sandy, his wife, Ruth, and their teenage daughter, Amy, whom Sandy and Ruth adopted at birth. Ruth is a nutritionist and cookbook author who had a painful childhood, and who starts to feel neglected and angry as Sandy lives and breathes the circumcision controversy. She winds up separating from him and carrying on a secret relationship. Amy spends a lot of the book in teen angst, struggling to figure out who she is and what to do with her life (oh, and why her parents are so stupid). She also has to tackle the looming question of whether to make contact with her birth family.

Shelly Rachanow: How did you become interested in the topic of circumcision?

Lisa Braver Moss: I started thinking about the issue in the late eighties, after the births of my sons, whom we had circumcised (we’re Jewish). Many women don’t find this custom difficult, but for some of us, the experience is harrowing. In my case, I felt I had to separate myself from my personal spirituality and my biologically-ingrained protective instinct toward my infants in order to ensure that they would be accepted into the community. What was this all about?

I became fascinated with the issue and especially how to talk about it. There was (and still is) a surfeit of shrill rhetoric, scholarly rabbinical works, anti-circumcision material with decidedly anti-Semitic undertones, medical information that was based on strange premises, and tasteless jokes. None of this addressed my own experience or, in my opinion, led to thoughtful dialogue or inquiry.

I decided to write articles that would tackle the circumcision issue with respect for Judaism and in a way that would give voice to my own experience. So I first approached this topic as a journalist and personal essayist.

I went on to write articles and books on other subjects, but remained interested in circumcision. I found it surprising that despite all its psychological, sexual, medical and religious complexities, no novelist had ever given it center stage. But it was a long time before it dawned on me to take up that challenge, because I thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.

Shelly Rachanow: As a woman and a first-time novelist, what made you decide to take on this very male topic?

Lisa Braver Moss: I did a lot of research into the circumcision tradition so as to be able to write in informed opposition to it, and I found myself feeling more Jewish in the process. I’d always thought this paradox would make for an interesting story, and that’s probably the single most autobiographical element of The Measure of His Grief (i.e., Sandy’s Jewish identity becoming stronger as he rails against circumcision).

I probably wouldn’t have thought of trying to create a male main character - it’s hard enough figuring out how to write a novel, let alone inhabiting a different gender. But I’d had conversations with various men about this topic, including a Jewish man who felt he had remembered his own circumcision trauma. I found myself asking “What if…?” That is, what if a Jewish man had some kind of flashback to his own circumcision, became obsessed with the issue, and surprisingly, began to feel more deeply committed to Judaism as a result?

I also learned about foreskin "restoration," in which circumcised men stretch their residual tissue over a period of months and years to mimic the function of the lost tissue. I was so astonished by this phenomenon that I couldn’t seem to shake free of it and its rich possibilities for exploration in fiction. I began to realize that if indeed I had a novel in me, I had a male main character.

Shelly Rachanow: How is male circumcision a women’s issue or even a feminist issue?

Lisa Braver Moss: Circumcision is an issue for women in terms of how it affects their bond with their newborns, and how it affects their self-assurance about the validity—even sanctity—of their primal urge to protect the infant.

Renowned anti-circumcision activist and writer Miriam Pollack put it this way in her brilliant paper "Circumcision: Gender and Power," presented at the Genital Autonomy 2010 conference: "Circumcision subverts... the life-giving principle of the feminine... by trivializing and implicitly forbidding [the new mother] to acknowledge, much less act upon, her deepest mammalian instincts to protect her newly birthed child.”

Not all mothers of newborns experience circumcision as a violation of the bond, or an undermining of their maternal self-confidence and efficacy. But many do, at least to some extent. I think that’s a feminist issue.

Shelly Rachanow: What should expectant mothers be aware of in considering the circumcision issue from a medical perspective?

Lisa Braver Moss: There’s a lot of information out there about circumcision; it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it. So in thinking about the health issues, I like to invoke simple medical precedent: surgery is a last resort. Only in rare individual instances should it be done to prevent a possible future outcome (such as a mastectomy being considered as a pre-emptive measure against breast cancer). And that is on a case-by-case basis, not as a routine matter.

There may be benefits to circumcision—and as with any surgery, these must be weighed against potential risks and drawbacks. The risks of circumcision appear to be low, but have never been accurately documented, so it’s hard to know what to think. For example, in those cases where a death has occurred, the mortality has generally been attributed to the secondary cause (such as hemorrhage or blood poisoning) instead of being tied to circumcision. Thus, the risk data is scanty and unreliable.

Regarding the drawbacks, very few doctors are aware of the relatively recent studies documenting the erogenous nature and the anatomical function of the foreskin. What that means is that even professionals don’t grasp the drawbacks of the procedure—so they don’t have enough information to weigh it against the potential benefits. In the absence of accurate risk and drawback information, doctors should not be recommending the surgery, certainly not routinely.

I would encourage mothers not to be intimidated by this issue, to really look into their hearts and step into their female power in all this. As I said, I think the disruption of the incipient mother-newborn bond is a major drawback of the procedure. To dismiss its impact is to deny the importance of women’s experience and the significance of their role. I think that’s not just sexist but perhaps even misogynistic.

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the 'If Women Ran the World Blog' question for everyone - What would you do if you ran the world?

Lisa Braver Moss: You mean, besides tackling climate change, ending war, famine, disease, torture, enslavement and oppression? Hmm…

Create an industry that would put people to work retrofitting existing vehicles into more energy-efficient ones; take all possible measures to counter the eco-hostile idea that everything has to be new.

Make cell phone manufacturers accountable for the health hazards, resource-wastefulness, and planned obsolescence of their products.

End the idiocy that compels some news outlets to present both sides of a story equally, even if one of the sides is uninformed, hate-based or insane.

Put mature, educated women in charge of designing car dashboards, computer operating systems and all other user interfaces. No more product designs by techno-geeks!

Oops, I almost forgot the most important thing: ban those horrible too-dark hair dye jobs on men.

But back to the topic at hand… I would work to ensure that women don’t feel they must deny their own female power, biology, or spirituality by giving their babies over to be circumcised.

To contact Lisa or for more information, visit:

Web site: http://www.lisabravermoss.com/

E-mail: lisa@lisabravermoss.com

Facebook page: The Measure of His Grief

You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxKjmGcV9w8

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