July 15, 2024
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July 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Looking Back on Orthodox Jewish Cantor And Actor Phil Sherman, z”l

Phil Sherman effortlessly flowed from giving a sermon about the meaning and history of our sacred rite of brit milah to telling a joke, to add a touch of levity and ease the minds of nervous onlookers. (Credit: Sherman family)

We lost a special soul recently. Cantor Phil Sherman was best known as the mohel to the stars, serving as the mohel for many famous families throughout his career. In addition, he was an accomplished chazan and even a member of the Screen Actors Guild, appearing in numerous television shows. But more than that, Phil was a dear friend.

My connection with Phil began as my career as a mohel was just getting started. My in-laws knew him and thought I might be interested in shadowing him for a day. At the time, I knew nothing about him but was eager to learn all that I could about my craft, so I happily agreed. My own apprenticeship in brit milah involved shadowing two different mohalim whose workload consisted of a few britot a week at best. So, when I agreed to go with Phil, I assumed I was joining him for a brit or two. Little did I know his daily record was 11 britot in one day, averaging five a day.

I don’t remember the entirety of the first day we spent together, but I remember feeling like I was caught in a whirlwind. His schedule felt packed tight, having multiple britot in different towns all around the greater New York area.

What I do remember most clearly was the first brit I saw him do. Phil had a technique that I had only heard of, which results in only a few drops of blood. At the first home we visited, when he finished the cut and proceeded to wrap up the baby, I remarked to him that he forgot to put on a bandage. He smiled and said, “It doesn’t need one. It’s not bleeding.” I had never seen anything like that before. Every brit I had ever seen or done myself required a bandage. It would be dangerous to do otherwise. But Phil truly was a master.

As those who had the privilege to have Phil Sherman as a mohel for their sons or grandsons (or even great-grandsons) know, he had a very distinctive style. He effortlessly flowed from giving a sermon about the meaning and history of our sacred rite to telling a joke, to both add a touch of levity and ease the minds of nervous onlookers.

As we continued from home to home, I assumed my presence must have been an imposition and expected him to find a way to drop me off, but he never did. In addition, he had the patience to answer all of my questions, and I had many. That patience and availability never faltered. From that point on, he always made himself available for questions throughout our close-to-15-year relationship. But what started as a collegial connection soon became a close friendship.

Throughout the years, Phil and I would be in contact a few times a month. Sometimes I’d initiate the call because I was questioning something in the realm of brit milah, while other times he’d send me a joke that he either came across online or wrote himself—both equally funny.

But about a year and a half ago, Phil’s call was of a much different nature. “I’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” he told me. A killer, as we all know. My heart stopped. “So, I’m taking a sabbatical from brit milah.” His primary request was that the jokes never stop. So I made sure to send him all that I could.

Our chats had a different tone after his announcement. There were always jokes and there was still lots of brit talk, but there were also health updates. Phil fought valiantly, rarely letting on how challenging it all must have been. But that was his nature.

Last Rosh Hashanah, one of the few in his life not leading a congregation in song, he showed a chink in his armor. Because of his health, Phil couldn’t plan his synagogue attendance so far in advance. Many different synagogues gave him seats for the high holidays on a moment’s notice. “I, much like those I surround myself with, are helpers,” he told me. “We dedicate ourselves to the service of others. I will never get used to people taking care of me.”

Not that long ago, Phil called and asked me for all my contact details. He said he was updating his website and wanted to recommend me to anyone in need of an international brit milah. I was honored. “It’s good to know the next generation is in good hands,” he said. Maybe it was because I was high on the thought of his recommendation or maybe it was because he had been doing so well for so long, but only in retrospect did I realize he may have known the end was near.

As I had done so many times before, I sent Phil a joke over WhatsApp. He didn’t always answer, so I didn’t make note of his lack of response. A week later: “Thanks so much for being in touch. Please keep our father in your prayers,” Nina, Phil’s daughter responded. “What’s going on?” I asked. “We’re keeping him comfortable,” she replied.

It just so happened that I was on vacation with my family in the States when Phil’s life came to an end. He was taken much too soon, being only 67 years old when he passed.

The messages that flooded in to inform me and honor him still continue to this day, even weeks after his passing. Not every mohel has an obituary in The New York Times, but Phil was not just any mohel. And I was so thankful for the piece because it reminded me of who I was blessed to know and learn from.

 

Sherman’s Reputation

As I said, I didn’t know Phil’s reputation before we first met and he wasn’t one to toot his own horn. Reading about his life and all that he accomplished—let’s just say some tooting was in order. But that’s just not who Phil was. He made whomever he was interacting with feel as I did—that they were on the same level, just sharing a few jokes.

I pray that the work I do, incorporating all that he taught me, will honor his memory. I miss you, my friend.


The writer is a rabbi, a wedding officiant and a mohel who performs britot and conversions across the world. Based in Efrat, he is the founder of Magen HaBrit, an organization protecting the practice of brit milah and the children who undergo it.

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