The power of the tribe

My wife Judy and I never thought much about circumcision until we discovered Ariel was on the way. When I was born in 1950, circumcision had long become a routine hospital procedure. And since my very secular parents did not even contemplate a religious ceremony, our pediatrician, off in the neonatal ward, surgically removed my foreskin before my parents took me home.

Once, when I was in summer camp, I noticed while in the shower how strange another camper looked. Only years later when I was old enough to understand, did it dawn on me that this young boy’s body was perfectly fine, and that it was I who had been altered.

Then came one day in February last year, five months before Judy was due. Judy had undergone amniocentesis and we were biting our nails for three weeks waiting to find out if we were carrying a healthy fetus. The lab results were late. I was at my job as a caption editor at a Hollywood studio when she called. “It’s a boy!” she said.

The joy and relief of that moment was quickly replace by a low-grade agony that lasted until Ariel’s eighth day of life, the day all Jewish boys are expected to have a brit milah. Not convinced of the medical reasons for circumcision, we suddenly felt the need for justification for what we perceived as a barbaric ritual we were expected to conduct on our not-yet-born son.

Here we were taking natural childbirth classes every week, studying relaxation techniques, and watching films of Brazilian women giving birth squatting on the floor. A bris seemed to be an unnecessary intervention, like much else in modem American obstetrics.

Still, Judy and I confronted one person after another who viewed circumcision favorably. The more traditional Jews we talked to thought we were being ridiculous to question such an important Jewish practice; other secular Jews cited the medical reasons some doctors and researchers still give for circumcision—that the foreskin is unclean, that it can cause penile and cervical cancer. My own sister’s reaction echoed a feeling expressed by some other women we talked to about circumcision. She simply thought the uncircumcised penis unattractive and unhygienic.

During our dilemma, Judy fell into a rare argument with one of her sisters who unequivocally believed in circumcision. An aunt, who saw all five of her sons circumcised, couldn’t understand why we were making such a big deal. A Reconstructionist rabbi persuasively argued that without a circumcision our son would feel very alienated from other Jewish boys.

Paving new ground proved lonely. We soon learned to keep our mouths shut, and at times, even between ourselves, since Judy was more traditional than I. Regardless, we probed and probed our feelings for four months.

Since we both recognized the importance of Jewish values and culture and hoped Ariel would feel the same, we were concerned about his reaction when he was old enough to recognize he was different from other Jewish boys. I could imagine how awful I’d have felt to be different, remembering that fellow camper in the shower. But by the time Ariel was old enough, many non-Jewish boys would be uncircumcised. A newspaper story I had recently read stated that up to 39% of all American baby boys escape circumcision.

I also learned that 90% of the world remains uncircumcised. Circumcision in America blossomed after the medical profession decided early in the century that it was healthier. The rest of the world never went along with it.

In the meantime, we got caught up in preparing for Ariel’s birth and my coaching. We actually provisionally prepared for a brit milah — though we told Rabbi Comess-Daniels of Congregation Shir Shalom in Los Angeles that it very well might be a “bloodless” bris.

Ariel was born early in the morning of July 21, 1990, after 21 hours of labor. It was a Saturday. His brit milah would be on the following Shabbat. Judy had been leaning more and more for circumcision in the previous weeks, and on the night before the brit, told me she wanted Ariel to have one. However, she was willing to let me make the final decision since I seemed to feel more strongly about it.

That proved to be our final discussion on the matter. I had made my decision as well, although, like Judy, I can’t give a rational explanation for it.

I don’t remember much about the afternoon of July 28,1990 in our apartment. I do remember my father criticizing me for wearing shorts on such a formal occasion. My attire was the last thing on my mind. I also remember my anger and grief as Judy and I watched the mohel prepare little Ariel for the Holy Covenant. Even after my decision, I did not succumb quietly to the Tribe’s demands. Dr. Sam Kunin is a respected Los Angeles urologist and part-time mohel, certified by the Brit Milah Board of Reform Judaism. But to me, Kunin represented The Enforcer of an abusive ritual.

Kunin is a big man, at least in my memory. And we watched as big bad Kunin took Ariel into the bathroom where the lights were bright and it was easier for him to work. He strapped our little baby to a plastic board, pulled back his foreskin, and cleaned his penis. He inserted a bell clamp under the foreskin.

My parents, sisters-in-law, father-in-law, and Rabbi Comess-Daniels waited in the living room where the ceremony was to take place, although one of Judy’s sisters and her father came back briefly to watch.

Ariel, too, of course, protested with waves of high-pitched screams that gripped me like a straight jacket. Unable to watch anymore, I stood outside the door with Judy. I clung to her as sobs racked my body. How dare this man and his tradition violate my family! My God! I cried. What will the long-lasting effects of this stupid ritual be on our baby?

We moved to the living room where Kunin placed Ariel, still strapped in and lying prone on the circumcision board, on our dining room table. Kunin began the ceremony. I remember he referred to the Bible prescribing the duty of all fathers to cut their sons’ foreskins. Thank God that since then someone at least had decided it was okay to hire out!

He reassured us that the worst was actually over. The cut wouldn’t hurt very much since Ariel’s foreskin was numb from the clamp. Ariel continued to cry, more from the constraint than anything else, if you believed Kunin. It was impossible to tell when the cut was made anyway since I wasn’t looking. All groggy from sucking on a wine-soaked cloth, Ariel fell asleep very quickly.

Today, when I think about the big deal we made, I still shake my head and wonder: Were we really able for a brief moment to see through a powerful and timeless myth? Or, were we simply overreacting, as many friends and relatives (themselves parents) suggested? After all, it’s only natural for first-time parents to be extremely overprotective. In fact, my memory of the ordeal gets fuzzier as the months pass and we concentrate on our beautiful and healthy little seventeen-month-old boy. I never asked to be in this Tribe. I was born into it. I questioned its powerful ritual and for one short period stood apart from my People. The place where I stood was utterly lonely and frightening.

I was very resentful about following a tradition merely because every Jew has. Jewish parents have obediently circumcised their male babies simply because all Jewish boys have had it done since the time of Sarah and Abraham. But, somehow, through our ordeal, that felt reason enough.

Actually, I’m glad we wrestled with Tradition. I don’t feel like we lost. I feel we got closer to the Tribe.

David Kotzen-Reich has been a newspaper reporter for the Ventura County Star—Free Press in California and the Enterprise in Beaumont, Texas. He is currently a full-time father and freelance writer living in Farmington Hills, Michigan.