The unkindest cut

When our son was born, my wife decided circumcision was barbaric, but my parents insisted it was an essential Jewish tradition. Behold the sad tale of how one foreskin tore a family apart.

Topics: Children, Fatherhood,

The unkindest cut

A couple of weeks before my son, Elijah, was born, I was doing something very important on my computer when my wife, Regina, entered my office.

“I was curious about something,” she said.

“Sure.”

“I wanted to know if you had any feelings about circumcision.”

“Nope.”

“I was doing some research…”

With Regina, that’s always a dangerous clause.

“The American Pediatric Association doesn’t recommend circumcision anymore. It used to be medically recommended, but now they’re neutral.”

“I would say that I’m neutral on the topic as well.”

“They don’t use anesthetic, Neal. They cut off nerve endings and it decreases sexual sensitivity. In two words: It’s barbaric. I can’t do it to him. I just can’t.”

“You must leave me to think on this question for a while,” I said, and yes, I do talk like that sometimes.

I went to the usual source for village elders who are trying to solve a tough ethical problem: An article in Mothering magazine. Regina had helpfully supplied the link for me. It said that Western cultures, until the nineteenth century, had no tradition of circumcision. The Greeks and the Romans passed laws forbidding “sexual mutilation” after coming into contact with the cultures of the Middle East. It became more common during the anti-masturbation hysteria of the Victorian era. Doctors claimed that circumcision cured everything from epilepsy and tuberculosis to headaches, eczema, and bed-wetting. At this point, the article became truly interesting and relevant, if a bit didactic and terrifying. It called circumcision a “radical practice” that didn’t begin until the cold war era, “part of the same movement that pathologized and medicalized birth and actively discouraged breastfeeding.” Until the 1970s, hospitals didn’t even have to seek parental permission to perform the surgery.

The foreskin, the article continued, is a natural part of the human anatomy, and there’s no reason it should be removed. And then the kicker: “Parents should enjoy the arrival of a new child with as few worries as possible. The birth of a son in the US, however, is often fraught with anxiety and confusion. Most parents are pressured to hand their baby sons over to a stranger, who, behind closed doors, straps babies down and cuts their foreskins off…”

That was about enough. The article was actually shrill beyond measure. I knew there was a reason I hadn’t taken women’s studies classes in college. Still, I thought, maybe circumcision is wrong after all. Maybe everything I’d always thought about my penis, and, by extension, the world, is also wrong. For the first time in two decades, I’d been forced to stare my Judaism right between the ringlets. I’d arrived at my first Reb Tevye moment; I was no longer the tailor Motel Kamzoil.

On the one hand, I thought, Jewish men get circumcised. It’s what we do, or what gets done to us. I’ve been circumcised my whole life, and my dick works fine. Hell, I thought. It works better than fine.

On the other hand, maybe Regina was right. Maybe circumcision really did decrease sexual sensitivity. Was that something I wanted to deny my son? Wouldn’t his life be painful enough? Wait a second. My son wasn’t even born yet, and I was already thinking about the quality of his future orgasms. Something felt improper.

This was a very hard decision for me, so I did what any good Jewish boy would do in such a situation.

I called my mother.

“Hey, Mom,” I said.

“Neal! Honey! It’s wonderful to hear your voice! How are you?”

“OK.”

“And how’s Regina feeling?”

“She’s hanging in there.”

“Poor thing.”

“Yeah. Listen, Mom, I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Of course, honey.”

“Regina and I were thinking about not circumcising Elijah…”

It’s hard to describe exactly what my mother’s voice did at that moment, but “convulsed” is probably the closest word I can find.

“No, oh, no no no Neal. Don’t say that to me. We’re prepared to take anything. But you have to circumcise him.”

Prepared to take anything, I thought. What did that mean?

“Regina did this research. And…”

“I don’t care about Regina’s research. She’s not Jewish.”

“But we were thinking…”

My mother began to openly weep on the phone.

“Oh my God, Neal! I can’t believe you’re doing this to me! You have to circumcise! You have to!”

“My wife…”

“Your wife is immaterial here. You can’t betray six thousand years of Jewish tradition.”

Suddenly, my generation’s sin of intermarriage lay fully on my back. The fate of the entire diaspora rested on my decision. I saw a God I didn’t particularly believe in waving an angry finger at me. An innocent medical inquiry had turned into Sophie’s Choice.

“You can’t forsake your people,” my mother said. “Promise me.” I began to quiver.

“I promise, Mother,” I said.

“And please don’t tell your grandmother about this. She wouldn’t understand.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I sounded like Norman Bates, saying, “Yes, Mother” like that. When I hung up the phone, I went into the bedroom, where Regina had propped up her feet.

“Well?” she said.

“My mother says we’d betray six thousand years of Jewish tradition.”

Regina had been ready for that answer. “Oh, does she, now? We’ll just see about that! I will not circumcise my son! I will not put him through that pain! I can’t bear it!”

“Yes, dear.”

Now, just as my mother had five minutes earlier, my wife began to weep.

“You can’t make me do it, Neal! You can’t! Promise me!”

“Yes, dear.”

“Hold me.”

“I need some time to think.”

I went to the back of the house and closed the door. My parents had said some other strange things to me during the pregnancy. On one family visit, they’d been teasing me, saying that Elijah would probably end up being a “Republican engineer,” whatever that was. I said that I’d love him no matter what he became.

“Now you know how we feel,” said my mother.

Nice.

Regina pounded on the door.

“Neal! I’m furious with your mother! I’m not Jewish and she’s going to have to deal with that! We have to talk, now!”

At that moment, I wanted to buy a plane ticket to Uruguay and never come back. I’ve always wanted to go to Uruguay because I know that if it got boring, I could be in Brazil or Argentina by lunchtime. But there I was instead in Austin, Texas, and my rational brain had ceased functioning. Something deep, primal, and lizardy emerged. I clawed at my face and pounded my head against the door. What the fuck was wrong with these people?

I subsequently waged a subtle family campaign that mostly involved calling my sisters and saying, “You won’t believe what Mom said to me.” Regina told some friends, who were suitably appalled, but powerless. My parents were more systematic. They called every member of the family and all of their friends, no matter how distant, to tell them of my potential betrayal. Aunt Estelle e-mailed me to say something like: “We have no idea what’s going on with you and your parents. If it were up to us, we’d probably circumcise, but we support your decision either way.” That was sweet of her, but the message indicated that my parents were near hysteria. Regina’s family, meanwhile, was politic. My sister-in-law said that it would probably be good if Elijah “looked like Daddy,” but went no further than that. They were good Protestants and they stayed out of our affairs.

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A week went by. I couldn’t bear talking to my parents. My brain was a fetid goulash of guilt and resentment. Through a sister, I learned that my mother had said, “I guess I never thought about the fact that Regina wasn’t Jewish before.”

It’s not as though my parents are super-Jews themselves. They go to synagogue, but only occasionally. When they do, they usually complain that everyone there is old and that the dinner they went to with friends afterward was “just OK.” I was Bar Mitzvahed because that’s what Jews did, not because of some familial covenant with God, or so I thought. Regina’s mother, on the other hand, is a devout Sunday churchgoer who prays before dinner and plays in the church handbell choir. One afternoon before Regina and I were married, her mom blurted out poolside, “Neal, how Jewish are you?”

I said, “Um, ahm, I had a Bar Mitzvah and my family, um … we don’t go to temple all the time, but…”

Regina later explained to me that this was the wrong answer. I’d had my anti-Semitism antennae up, but her mother didn’t care what my religion was, as long as I was religious. For her, devotion trumped sect. She didn’t particularly want to see her daughter with a devout hedonist; the grandson of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, on the other hand, would probably have been fine.

Our wedding had been deliberately, almost absurdly secular. My mother said, “I will not set foot in a church,” to which I replied, “What are you, the Bride of Dracula?” But honestly, I didn’t want to get married in a church, either, so a lawyer friend of Regina’s family married us in her mother’s backyard. The ceremony featured a brief denomination-neutral Scripture reading, a testimonial by one of Regina’s bridesmaids that mentioned Kahlil Gibran in defiance of my wishes, a Roy Orbison song, and a recitation of The Owl and the Pussycat. Faith wasn’t part of our lives, and it was off the table at the wedding. But with Elijah’s birth pending, our secular chickens came home to their secular roost.

My father called. I was in no mood to hear from him.

“We’re very upset by this,” he said. “Your mother hasn’t slept.”

“Tough. I’ve got other problems.”

“You listen to me, young man!”

“No. You listen to me!”

“We’ve decided that if you don’t have him circumcised, he won’t be our grandson.”

There is no other hand!

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“We demand it.”

“You’re in no position to demand anything.”

“We haven’t said anything about you moving to Austin, of which we disapprove, or about that terrible house, or about the kid’s stupid name…”

That was it.

“Stupid name?” I said. “Fuck you … Bernard!”

And then I hung up. More face-clawing, head-pounding, floor-pounding, and Cro-Magnon yowling ensued. Meanwhile, Regina was already a week overdue, and going on about how the stress of Peeniegate would harm Elijah’s brain chemistry. That was baggage I wished she hadn’t carried on.

She and I lay in bed and talked seriously. What I felt toward my parents went far beyond anger, past resentment, veering toward something close to temporary hatred. This was our first major decision for our child, and my own mother and father were trying to completely take it out of our hands, based on arguments that we found superstitious and naove. But I also had a larger family to consider, aunts and uncles and cousins and sisters, and, beyond that, a generation of nieces and nephews and second cousins to come, not to mention “six thousand years of Jewish history.” If we decided not to circumcise, it might very well rip open a wound in my family life that would take decades to heal (though by writing the previous five pages, I may have just done that anyway).

“We have to,” I said.

“I know we do,” said Regina, and she began to cry.

That evening, I called home.

“We’ve decided to circumcise,” I said.

“Good,” my father said. “I feel like that will connect him to my father. And my grandfather before that. And down through the generations.”

He was sincere, and I almost found myself touched. But I must have missed that lesson in Hebrew school. Our traceable family goes back to rural Germany in the eighteenth century whether or not I let someone cut off the cover of my son’s glans. After the argument was settled, my mother sent me an e-mail that read, in part, “I hope you will always remember how you treated your parents.”

I chose not to reply.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

The earliest days of Elijah’s life were full of decisions, not as emotionally overwrought as those brought on by Peeniegate, but still difficult. I started to wonder when the “fun” part of fatherhood would kick in. That first night in the hospital, Regina was immobile on camel tranquilizers. I slept, or was supposed to sleep, on a mat on the windowsill of her room, which would have been the perfect size for me if I were Billy Barty. But there was to be no sleep. I spent most of the night trying to figure out how to clean up the steady stream of black tar-like poo that was oozing out of Elijah’s asshole. The nurses were sympathetic, since they deal with dozens of new dads every week who cry for help when the defecation starts. They’re used to seeing a wastebin full of goo-smeared paper towels.

To my parents’ infinite credit, they’d landed in Austin by ten a.m. the day after Elijah was born. I saw them out the window of our room. They had silly grins on their faces, and my dad was carrying an enormous mustard-colored teddy bear with a red bow around its neck. By the end of the day, the bear was on the windowsill, Regina was sitting up, and we were all taking turns holding this sweet-smelling sack of wheat on our shoulders. I took special pleasure in rocking in the chair the hospital had provided, singing a song of my own devising to Elijah. It went like this:

“He’s Elijahroo/He’s a piece of poo/Watcha gonna do?/Whoop-de-whoop-de-whoo!”

Elijah seemed to like that. He also liked it when we all sang his “theme song,” to the tune of the theme from Bonanza. It went: “Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dumElijah! (Ba-ba-ba-ba) Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum. Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dumElijah! (Ba-ba-ba!) Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum!” And so on.

Elijah began to wail for no discernible reason.

“Oh, Elijah,” I said. “Don’t be such a goddamn baby!”

For me, all was happy cell-phone calls and merry e-mail. I’ve always been fond of occasions that force people to talk to me nicely whether they want to or not. By those standards, this was the preeminent moment of my life. One e-mail, from someone with whom I hadn’t been in touch lately, said, “We love you and we love your baby!” Now that was how people should talk to me, I thought. I was a man now and I’d earned respect the hard way, so I definitely deserved a nap.

After forty-eight hours in the hospital, Regina was up and lurching about. Elijah hadn’t malfunctioned. I have no idea when it’s appropriate for the father to leave the hospital, but I knew that I’d be of much greater use to my family if I got a good night’s sleep in my own bed. Regina didn’t protest much. “I’d rather have you refreshed and helpful than grumpy and insane,” she said.

I picked Hercules up from the neighbor’s and let him give me a big long stinky slurp, while I said things like “You’ve got a new wittle baby brother, yes you do, yes you do…” The house was empty and quiet. I sat in my blue easy chair and reveled in my domain while watching Turner Classic Movies. I made myself a cup of peppermint tea. I took a bubble bath. I treated myself so well you’d think I’d just given birth. By ten p.m., I was in bed with the dog, fresh cotton sheets, and a genre novel. This would be the most peaceful night of my life.

At midnight, the phone rang.

“The nurses are in here,” Regina said.

“OK.”

“They say he’s lost weight.”

“That’s normal. He’s a huge baby.”

“They want to supplement with formula.”

“Ridiculous. Just tell them no.”

We’d done some reading that said formula, while containing all necessary nutrients, didn’t have the same disease-blocking attributes as mother’s milk. Regina was determined to make Elijah the world’s healthiest child.

“They’re going to do it unless our pediatrician tells them otherwise,” she said. “And he’s out of town.”

“Oh.”

“It’s gonna hurt his immune system,” she said.

“One dose of formula is going to hurt his immune system?”

“What should I do?”

This was a snap decision that required wisdom I didn’t possess. I tried to think of a smart Jewish man from history, like Solomon, and what he would advise. Let’s see. Offer to cut the baby in two, and the person who protested the loudest would … that one didn’t work.

“I’m not sure.”

Thus, Elijah got supplement he didn’t need, and we’d once again learned that the whole point of the world was to unintentionally conspire against its inhabitants. Everyone else, the postpartum nurses at St. David’s Memorial Hospital in particular, was trying to destroy our family. For that last twenty-four hours Regina was in the hospital, they became our enemy. First they made our healthy child eat out of a formula tube. Then they said they wouldn’t let us check out of the hospital unless we agreed to take him to the pediatrician the next day. After we agreed, they still wouldn’t let us check out, because we’d forgotten to record the last time Elijah had urinated.

Amazingly, he did pee, and the next morning, we drove to our pediatrician’s office. We’d chosen a nice guy named Rivas, who was about our age. It was sobering to realize that doctors were no longer older authority figures. Rivas bounced into the room.

“How are we all feeling?”

At that moment, I felt about as mentally sharp as a mushroom, but I said, “Fine.”

“He didn’t mean you,” Regina said.

“Right.”

We laid Elijah on a cushioned table. Rivas leaned over him.

“Why are you here again?”

“The nurses told us to come,” said Regina.

“This child is healthy. I’ll see you in three months.”

Now, with other health issues out of the way, circumcision loomed. More than two years later, we learned about a guy from Houston called “Max the Mohel,” a pediatrician from Houston who performs pretty much every bris in Texas. Since the vast majority of these ceremonies occur within three hours from his home, that’s not quite as big a challenge as it sounds. We didn’t learn about Max the Mohel in time, but we wouldn’t have used him even if we had. Strangely, my parents didn’t want a bris. All they cared about was the surgery. It’s not like we knew anyone in town to attend a bris anyway; we’d only been living there two months. Also, perhaps I mentioned earlier that Regina didn’t want it done at all.

Our pediatrician refused to perform the operation. He recommended a urologist to us. Eight days after Elijah was born, we went to the urologist’s office. This is how it works, he said. He would put Elijah on a board and strap down his hands and feet. Then he’d slide a metal ring over the top of the penis, which would cut off the circulation to the foreskin and gradually kill the nerve endings. Over the next week, the foreskin would gradually turn black, and then it would rot off, and then Elijah would be permanently connected to his ancestors.

When Regina called about the procedure, they told her that the doctor used topical anesthetic. That made her feel a little better. When we were actually in the doctor’s office, we asked him about that.

“Of course we don’t use topical anesthetic,” he said. “Everyone knows that stuff doesn’t work.”

We wouldn’t put our son through pain without anesthetic! But by then, it was too late. The doctor took our baby from us and told us to wait in the hall. A few minutes after the procedure, he said, he’d let Regina in to nurse. I went into the waiting room, sat with a six-month-old issue of Sports Illustrated, and tried to remember a time when I wasn’t an adult.

Regina and Elijah came out. He was screaming. She was bawling.

“Babe…”

“Let’s just go!”

And so I drove us home, which was strange enough considering that Regina usually does all the driving, but even stranger because my newborn son was in the backseat howling because someone had just lopped off the tip of his penis, and my wife was holding him, weeping as though her soul was being ripped from her body, and my heart and throat and face felt clogged with sorrow and grief and mucus and shame, and I could barely see the road through a film of tears and I thought, Oh, this is just fucking great.

About an hour later, my parents, who had since returned to Phoenix, called to see how Elijah was doing, both on the line at the same time.

“How’s Elijah?” my mother asked.

“He’s asleep. He cried a lot.”

“He’ll be fine. It didn’t hurt at all.”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

From the book: “Alternadad” by Neal Pollack. Copyright (c) 2007 by Neal Pollack. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, a division of Random House Inc.

Neal Pollack is the author of the literary satire "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," among other works of fiction and nonfiction. "His latest book, a novel called "Repeat," will be published by Amazon's Lake Union Press on March 24.

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