The strange story of my son's circumcision

I believe cutting a boy's foreskin is mutilation. So why am I standing here at my child's bris?


Taffy Brodesser-Akner
August 26, 2010 5:01AM (UTC)

My mother tells me the sweat that's beaded up on my forehead and neck and the wave of nausea and disgust that has come over me is just the result of postpartum hormones, but I know better. As I stand, tottering in heels and fancy dress at 7:45 a.m. in the rabbi's study at my synagogue, a mere eight days following the birth of my son, I know this feeling for the second time: It's not hormones. It's self-loathing.

I have done this before, handed my newborn over to a strange man who makes his business removing foreskins. Three years ago, when my older son was born, I'd had exactly the same feelings. Back then, they were surprising. I hadn't known this would be such a big deal. After all, I grew up in an Orthodox community. Every boy and man I had known had had this done; almost every mother I'd known had handed her child over in a similar fashion. I've been to many of these brises (ritual circumcisions), and there is a formula. The men cringe when they hear the cry. The women crowd around the mother, who is emotional. We shout "Mazel tov!" We eat bagels. But it all seemed like a play. Now I am the mother, and I am seized with desperation: Every morsel of my being, every maternal instinct I've earned in the last three years, says to run. How do women do this? I wonder.

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Looking down at my son, not even big enough to open his eyes and object, I am struck by the unfairness of it all. He has not chosen this; he is about to enter a covenant that he does not consent to. The reason we do goes like this: All those years ago, the founding Jew Abraham and his first son, Ishmael, took it upon themselves to do this to themselves. And so now, to commemorate their brises, their covenant with God, we submit our sons to a ritual circumcision. And each time you do it, each time you call the mohel to let him know where to be and when, it is a choice you're making. It is a choice I have made.

Now, before you get excited and skip to the comments section so that you can berate me for my choice to circumcise my son, don't miss the nuance here: To assume that this essay is about whether or not I should circumcise my son is to miss the chance to criticize me for the even uglier dilemma that this essay is actually about. See, there's no doubt I'm going to do this. I'm just trying to figure out why. This essay isn't about the bris; it's about why a woman -- who, like some of you, believes this is mutilation -- would choose to do something so brutal to her newborn son. It's about the fact that as I stand here, I'm still not sure why.

My relationship with religion is complicated. I was raised in a religious family and sent to a yeshiva, where I learned to confuse my hatred for school for a hatred for religion. I swore when I got out of there, there would be no more skirts, no more morning prayers, no more scripture learning, no more blessings before and after food, no more nonsensical rules governing how and when to talk to boys.

I wanted out, and so I got out. As I unpacked in my college dorm, I made a pledge to never get roped into a Shabbat dinner or Yom Kippur fast again. I did whatever I wanted to do on Friday nights, even though the sun was setting and my religious compadres over in Flatbush were lighting candles and settling in for the evening. I did not date one Jewish boy — couldn't risk it. I didn't eat pastrami once. That's the shame of a religious education, isn't it? We get so caught up in the method and persona of who is delivering the message that we forget that it is not they who control the information. It is just they who have first crack in your life at disseminating it. They are not messengers of God. They are merely messengers of your parents' tuition dollar.

But religion can always find you. For some of us, maybe some like me who lack imagination, the fact of religion, the fact of God, is so ingrained in us that by the time we are old enough to question the word of God or even the existence of God, it is too late. Some of us -- not all, surely, but some -- are no longer able to picture a world in which God is not the creator, the author, the determiner. Some of us can't even fathom a world in which God doesn't exist.

Perhaps this is why, no matter what, it was important to me to marry someone Jewish. Though I didn't celebrate my religion, I wasn't ready to sever my ties to it with so much finality as to marry out of it. And so, when I met the man I would eventually marry — a man whose disdain for the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church outshone my mere annoyance with Judaism — I told him I couldn't marry him because he wasn't Jewish. He began thinking about Judaism, and he began learning about it. Eventually, he fell in love with it, maybe even more than he fell in love with me, and became committed to converting. I don't remember the turning point when his conversion went from doing something he was doing for us to something he needed to do for himself, but I do remember a point where he told me that he was going to get a full circumcision (he had never been circumcised).

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One Thanksgiving morning, inexplicably in special-occasion wear, we arrived at a mohel's house. I was instructed to sit outside the mohel's study, which doubled as a surgical room for just these occasions. The mohel left a radio on for me, presumably so I wouldn't hear my husband if he cried out in pain. His wife made small talk with me. For the next three weeks, I nursed my husband through an incredible amount of pain. Pain, but never once regret. The regret, and the guilt, they were mine alone. After all, here I was, forcing the first of three men in my life (so far) to undergo a ritual for a religion I was only partially partial to.

Of course, as irony would have it, my husband's love for Judaism only grew stronger after his conversion was complete. Our home is kosher; we attend synagogue. We are even Sabbath observant. My husband wears his yarmulke everywhere. With effort, I have allowed my current experience of Judaism — a rabbi I like, a community that sustains us — to rewrite the bad parts left over from high school, and I find that I'm somewhat relieved that this is how it ended up for me. In fact, I would even say that at some point, not very dramatically, but over a cumulative number of experiences, I chose Judaism right back. But why? To what extent is the acceptance of religion into my life at this point a way to reconcile the fear I face as I give birth to and raise children? To what extent is this acceptance an attempt to cling to something that can help me be brave when I am overwhelmed by the randomness of luck, the accident-proneness of the universe?

And so here I am, holding this child, wondering for the second time if my belief in God is a good enough reason to do this. Now in the sanctuary, I look out into the crowd. My family has flown in from New York. My friends are all here. They have woken up early, delayed an on-time arrival at work or camp, gotten their children here in time to celebrate with us, to meet our son, to learn what we have named him (in Orthodox tradition, a boy's name is not announced until his bris). I should feel warmly toward them. Yet all I can think of is how they seem like the bloodthirsty audience at a gladiator tournament in ancient Rome. First they will watch my son get mutilated, then they will cheer, then they will eat bagels. Though I have invited them here, though I have provided the bagels, I hate each of them for it.

I think of what brought me here. You light some candles on Friday night; eventually you go to synagogue. For your wedding, you find that you've registered for two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy, according to kosher law. All of a sudden, you're standing at your son's bris, not so sure if this is what you meant when you lit those first candles. No, it's not so much the momentum or velocity of religious practice that brought me here. It's more like the inertia of it: My practice of Judaism has tended to stay in motion since no force has slowed it down.

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I am surprised to learn, though, that it's not all inertia. Had my husband never converted, had I been destined to live a life with some other man — say, some born Jew as uninterested in religion as I had been — my sons would still have their brises. Why?

Becoming a parent is hard. When you glimpse how every piece of you is invested in your children, it is shocking and overwhelming. When I gave birth to my first son, I was struck by the fact that I had spent nine months worried about how he would come out — whether he'd be healthy, whether he'd survive the trip. As I held him in my arms, I realized that though he was born healthy, there were no guarantees. In fact, now that he was outside my body, he was less safe than before. I realized, suddenly and in a cold sweat, that I wouldn't know if this experiment — parenthood, child-rearing, child loving — would work out till I was on my deathbed and I could be assured my children were outliving me. Sure, there are other things that quantify success as a parent, and I hope to meet those goals, too. But I can't help but think that making sure they live long after I've passed is at the top of that list.

While I do know that I am not in control of certain things in my sons' future — peer pressure, meningitis, drunken drivers, Justin Bieber's effect on tweens, school shootings, cancer — I do know that I am sometimes overwhelmed, nearly driven mad, when I realize how much is out of my control, how much of their safety is not determined by my actions.

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In those times, when I am seized with that kind of desperation, I realize why I submit my sons to this ritual. When I do it, I am asking God to share the responsibility with me. To help me parent my children, for no parent would allow something awful to befall his children if he could help it, right? I am so out of control that I resort to a kind of superstition, a kind of magical thinking. I will give you this, God. I will hurt my sons for you, and you, in exchange, will keep us safe. Please give me peace. Give me my sons. Let them live. Let them be healthy. Let their lives be easy. Let me merit the chance to see my children outlive me.

When we begin to have children, we cling to those beliefs; we cling to the hope that the universe is not random so that we can function. For how can we function if we really knew that today could be the last day? Each new child, each new love, is a test of our luck, of the universe's love for us. Each child is like a dare. We are not guaranteed anything.

And so I do it. I hand my son over. After many excruciating minutes, say, five, it is done. The congregation has the gall to call out "Mazel tov!" I feel ugly. I feel relieved. I spend the rest of the day searching my son — Haskel is his name — for signs of forgiveness. He trusted me after this week we'd gotten to know each other, him falling asleep in my arms with the guileless, open face of one who'd never been startled awake by fear. I don't know if his mind is yet sophisticated enough to feel betrayal, but I know I'm testing it. People slap me on the shoulder and tell me that it doesn't hurt the way I imagine it does. Few of them have a relatively recently circumcised husband to dispute that.

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Ultimately, though, I am comforted by the feeling that I've secured something. I will do this excruciating and unthinkable thing, and God will, hopefully, protect my children. I'm not even stupid enough to think that I have any kind of guarantee that Haskel's life will be blessed because of this. I don't pretend I am wise enough or enlightened enough to know the ways of God. I even leave room for the idea that religion is a made-up superstition whose goal is to function in exactly the way I'm using it. But I have to do what I can. Whatever our magic is, whatever spells we can cast, whatever wishes we need to make, whatever deals we can broker, we need to do what can. Sometimes, being a parent is just too much to handle without at least some wishing, without just a little magic.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.


Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Self, Redbook, and other publications.

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