Monday, May 5, 2008

What an Obit!!!!

Performed thousands of circumcisions
Posted on Sat, Apr. 26, 2008

Scenes from the life of Cantor Abraham Seif

Cantor Abraham Seif, the ritual circumciser who probably separated more newborn Jewish boys from their foreskins than any other mohel in South Florida history, has died at 86.

Known far and wide as Seif the Knife -- or The Yankee Clipper -- the Polish-born Holocaust survivor learned the delicate procedure in Brooklyn after World War II.

By 1988, Seif estimated he'd done 10,000 circumcisions, yet he told The Miami Herald that he still recalled the first one.

''I fainted,'' he said. ``Everyone does.''

He died on April 21 in Hollywood, where he and Edith Seif, his wife of 57 years, lived with their daughter, Debbie, and son-in-law, Dr. Israel Wiznitzer. A funeral was held.

When he came to Miami Beach's Knesseth Israel synagogue in 1950, Seif was the only Orthodox mohel for hundreds of miles around.

By the time he put down his scalpel in the early 2000s -- having trained a son, Rabbi Howard Seif, and a son-in-law, Rabbi Yitzhak Selmar -- Seif had expanded his territory to all of Florida, Panama, Caribbean, and parts of the world where the locals wouldn't know a mohel from a mojito, like Idaho and Haiti.

Seif circumcised three generations of some families, both of his own sons -- Howard, and Alan Seif, an accountant -- and most of his grandsons.

When families could pay, they paid. When they couldn't, said his wife, he performed the rite anyway. She helped by giving his card to every pregnant woman she saw who might be Jewish.

''He was really considered a gem,'' said Rabbi David Lehrfield, who shared the pulpit with him at Knesseth Israel, 1415 Euclid Ave., for decades. ''He had a God-given voice and knew how to get along with people. The synagogue had 930 seats, and he was able to project beautifully without a microphone.'' Seif's chanting, said Lehrfield, ``had a real European flavor, and being a scholar, he knew what the words meant.''

Lehrfield left for Young Israel of Greater Miami in 1980, replaced by Seif's late son-in-law, Rabbi Yossi Heber, Debbie's first husband.

Though serious about the ritual aspects of a bris -- the circumcision rite -- Seif had a twinkly sense of humor and embraced his vocation's inherently comic elements.

''He's cutting into my business,'' he'd say of son Howard, whose e-mail is

Sometimes he'd declare, ``What I've done today will be proven to perfection when he gets married.''

His favorite mohel joke, according to Howard: A man who needs his watch repaired walks into a shop with a clock in the window. The shopkeeper says he doesn't fix clocks; he does circumcisions.

Customer: ``So why do you have a clock in your window?''

Shopkeeper: ``What do you want me to put in the window?''

''He always played dumb'' when someone told him a joke he'd heard 1,000 times, Howard said. Abraham Seif was born in the city once called Lemberg, now Lvov, and was conscripted into the WWII Russian army. The Nazis killed his parents and 14 siblings.

He sang in a religious choir ''from the time he was out of diapers, and knew the prayers by heart,'' Debbie said. ``He knew what day was Shabbos, and each time he marched in the training lines, my father was singing the melodies from the [prayer book]. Prior to going to bed, he used to stand by the wall and pray the [evening] service.''

In a very real sense, prayer may have saved his life.

'Before they sent his unit to the front lines, they wrote in his passbook that he's crazy: `He talks to himself and talks to walls,' and they refused to give him a gun,'' Debbie said.

He escaped from an asylum and spent much of the war on the run. When the war ended, Seif joined the Bricha -- an underground immigration movement that spirited Jews out of Eastern Europe into Palestine, which became the State of Israel in 1948.

''You'd never believe what he'd seen in his life,'' said longtime family friend Arlene Ditchek. ''He said, `I've got to live for all these people''' who didn't survive.

Seif arrived in Brooklyn in 1945 and became a cantor.His landlord, a snowbird, told him that a Miami Beach shul was looking for a cantor.

Grief had left him deeply depressed, Debbie said, 'but as soon as he saw the sun and the trees, he said, `I'm never leaving this paradise again, whether I get the job or not.' ''

He got the job, then met the former Edith Feldman, still a teenager, at a Passover seder -- on the exact Jewish calendar date that he died. They married in 1951.

Howard Seif doesn't know the origin of his father's nickname, which he inherited, but he recalls hearing it for the first time in 1972.

'I came home and said, `Dad! Do you know what they call you? Seif the Knife!' He said, 'I don't care what they call me, as long as they call.' ''

By the late 1970s, the bris business was so brisk that Seif, on staff at Mount Sinai Medical Center, brought in Howard, then an accountant and Los Angeles rabbi, and Selmar, married to daughter Susan.

He advised them to ''spend a lot of time with the parents and the baby, and not just arrive a minute beforehand,'' Howard Seif said. 'He said, `You'll be more a perfectionist if you take the time.' ''

He stressed the importance of ''being a mensch and being sensitive to people,'' of going back to check on the family after such an emotional event.

''The baby can be fine,'' he told his son, ``but the mother might have to see your face a couple more times.''

Despite the tragedy he'd endured, Seif was destined for more. In 1988, Heber, his intellectual and spiritual soulmate, was killed in a car wreck, leaving Debbie with five children and one on the way.

Her father, she said, ``became the father to my children. If it meant going to Walgreens six times a day because everyone had school projects, he did it.''

``My mother and father, when they were empty nesters, were raising my children as their own.''

In 1999, another daughter, Rochelle Seiff, died of cancer, leaving two children.

Their father, said Debbie, was once again heartbroken, ``but he never demonstrated outwardly how sad he really felt. His warm personality kept him going.''

By then, it was clear that his synagogue, too, was doomed -- by demographic changes in Miami Beach. But Seif fought for its life. He'd pick up the congregation's last few elderly men at home to make sure there was a prayer quorum, and walked them home after Sabbath services on Friday nights.

It was sold in 2003 as a luxury private residence.

About five years ago, his father decided to ''pass the baton,'' Howard said. ``He could no longer give it his undivided attention.

``But I never would have expected that day to come.''

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