It was part of Fred Goldberg's job to put a crowd at ease. His work was important, even sacred, and the occasion of his visits joyous and celebratory. But a few folks, especially young mothers, always got nervous when he came around for an official call. He knew how to make them relax.
Goldberg was a mohel. For an estimated 10,000 male Jewish babies in the Washington area, Goldberg appeared on the eighth day after their birth and performed the bris, the religious ritual of circumcision that dates back thousands of years, to the patriarch Abraham and his circumcising -- at God's commandment -- of his son Isaac.
Rabbi Michael Henesch, Goldberg's son-in-law and a mohel himself, calls the bris the "oldest continuous and continuing religious ritual in the world," signifying a covenant between God, the child and his parents. At a Jewish boy's bris, Henesch said, "his life spiritually begins."
For a half-century, until shortly before his death from prostate cancer Jan. 8 at 82, Fred Goldberg orchestrated these ceremonies, mostly in private homes, before gatherings of family and close friends. As an apprentice to a Philadelphia mohel shortly after World War II, he learned the technique of circumcision and the appropriate prayers and procedures. He was said to have had the know-how, stage presence and poise needed to preside over a bris with dignity and aplomb, and he had a gentle and reassuring manner to calm the most apprehensive of parents.
Often he mixed solemnity and humor. Holding a child high over his head, he would announce, "This is my best job yet!" or "Here he is, big boy!" He took the trouble to learn details about the life of an ancestor for whom the circumcised child was being named, and he would say something about the ancestor during the proceeding. "He made it more personal," said Anita Dekelbaum, whose son Larry was circumcised by Goldberg. "When we had Larry's bris, I was a young kid. I was petrified," said Dekelbaum, who helps operate a family business, Shalom Market in Wheaton. But there was a serenity about Goldberg, she said, that was contagious. "He was so much at ease. He knew what he was doing, and he explained what he was doing."
Especially in recent years, when many of the guests at a bris were likely to be non-Jews, Goldberg explained the intricacies of the relevant Jewish law and tradition. He wanted all the guests to feel included and welcome.
Fred Goldberg, a resident of Rockville, was born in Budapest. He grew up near one of the city's major synagogues, and he learned Hebrew as a child. In 1940, with Europe at war and the Nazis having overrun Hungary, he escaped to Greece and in Salonika boarded a cattle ship for Lisbon. From Lisbon, he found passage to New York aboard another cattle ship. He fought in the Army in North Africa during the war, then settled in the Washington area.
In his early years in Washington, he made a living as a teacher of Hebrew and a cantor at synagogues. He learned the kosher method of slaughtering chickens. One day, looking for a kosher butcher shop, he wandered into the Star Market on Georgia Avenue NW for a corned beef sandwich. There he met Anne Kurland, the daughter of the proprietor. She would be his wife for 53 years before her death in 1997. "He got more than he bargained for," said their son, Barry Goldberg.
As a young mohel, Goldberg was paid $75 a bris. (Over 50 years, the going rate would increase to $400 or $500). Sometimes he did as many as six or seven a day. But he had a habit of waiving his fee if he didn't think the family could afford it. His wife always chided him for that, reminding him that they had four daughters and a son to feed and educate. But he never changed his ways.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Goldberg did brises for children of employees and staff members of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Many of these were attended by then-Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, the future prime minister of Israel, who was assassinated in 1995.
For several months in 1984, Goldberg drove a Cadillac with the Virginia license plate "MOHEL," which his son obtained for him. It drew immediate attention. Other drivers started chasing after him in traffic, blowing their horns, waving at him out of their windows and shouting greetings. Overnight, his car became a traffic accident waiting to happen. He exchanged the MOHEL license plate for something less conspicuous.
For 20 years from the 1950s to the 1970s, Goldberg was cantor at Congregation Kesher Israel in Georgetown. He continued to teach and tutor Hebrew. He was a consultant to the State Department on Jewish dietary laws.
At the Goldberg home, it seemed as if the telephone was ringing all the time. Anyone who answered could take the message when someone called about a bris: Get the names. Get the address. Get the date. Get the time.
Usually the callers wanted to know what they needed to supply.
"A tube of Vaseline, four four-by-four sterile gauze pads, rubbing alcohol and a bottle of kosher wine," they were told. Fred Goldberg would take care of the rest.