We’re hosting a swim party for four-year-olds in our backyard. At the sight of the giant wading pool, the young guests holler with glee and strip off their clothes. While the adults laugh at the profusion of squealing kids with bare butts galumphing through my kitchen, I’m stealing glances at the boys’ penises. I can’t help myself. It’s a habit I’ve acquired since my son was born. I’m checking to see which boys are circumcised, and which aren’t.
I’m not surprised when I see that all the tiny penises in my kitchen — even one Jewish kid’s — are covered in their original, droopy sheaths. In this crowd — my semi-bohemian, overeducated urban crowd — almost no one circumcises anymore. I gave birth to my second child, a son, Louis, a couple of years ago. As a practicing Jew, I never even considered not circumcising him. And now I wonder: Did I make the right decision?
“You sure you want a bris?” my husband Mitch asked me a couple of months before Louis was born.
“Yes, I do. Absolutely.”
“Why don’t we just do it in the hospital?” Mitch asked.
“That would be a circumcision, but it wouldn’t be a bris,” I argued. “There’s no medical reason to circumcise,” I told Mitch. “So if we’re going to do it for religious reasons — which is the only reason to do it — then we should just be straight about it. We should have a formal ceremony, and on the eighth day.” I even had a mohel [ritual circumciser] lined up. Dr. Tapper also happened to be our pediatrician. So I knew our boy would be in good hands.
Mitch shook his head. “It’s a barbaric custom,” he said. “It’s totally tribal.”
“I know,” I said. “I still want to do it.”
Both Mitch and I were born Jewish. Mitch was raised in an observant Jewish household, and was forced to go to synagogue and keep kosher long after he realized he’d rather be playing baseball and eating cheeseburgers on Saturday mornings. His father died when he was only eight, and his mother and sister used Jewish rules to keep him in line. In the process, they sucked a lot of the fun out of what remained of his childhood.
I, on the other hand, hungered for Jewish tradition for as long as I could remember. I was raised in a secular, atheistic household. My first year in college, I showed up for the High Holy Days services held on campus. I decided I was old enough to pray if I wanted to, even if my parents never had. But it wasn’t that simple. As I stood in the lecture hall, flanked on each side by rows of dark-haired, earnest students chanting and singing, turning the pages of their prayer books in unison, I realized I didn’t know a single word. I flipped through the book, trying to figure out what page everyone was on, feeling lost in more ways than one.
It took years of reading, taking classes, and inner wrestling to figure out where I belonged in the Jewish world. At 33, I finally learned to read Hebrew and recite all of the Saturday morning synagogue service. To honor my achievement, the rabbi at the “learner’s minyan” I attended held a naming ceremony for me. It felt wonderful.
I didn’t want my children to feel anchorless, as I had. I wanted them to own their blood, own their tradition, and not have to struggle to claim it. But was I going overboard with the bris?
I called Dr. Tapper. A tall, kindly, gray-haired man with Marcus Welby gravitas, he’s modern enough to quote statistics from recent Harvard nutrition studies, but there’s something solid and timeless about him, too. He wears a white coat and — much to my amazement — carries a little black bag. “So tell me again,” I said, “why you think a bris is so important.”
Dr. Tapper offered a parable about how a man arrives on the shore of a new country, holding some suitcases that members of his family had been carrying for 3,000 years. “Maybe he wants to forget about those suitcases so he doesn’t have to lug them around anymore,” the doctor said. “But does he just throw them in the ocean? Maybe, just maybe, there’s something valuable in those suitcases. It’s not right for him to throw them away.”
Three weeks before my due date, I was still plotting how to convince Mitchell to agree to the bris, and not let us be the first generation of Jews to dump 3,000 years of custom, when my water broke. “Can I please schedule the bris now?” I asked Mitch in the hospital a few hours later, as Louis lay on my chest. I was overwhelmed with tenderness for our new son. I no longer had strategy or fight in me to change my husband’s mind. All I had was my teary desire.
“Okay, schedule it,” Mitch said. Maybe Mitch felt my yearning for Jewish ritual trumped his resentment of it. Maybe with a son actually in his arms, the history cried out to him, too. I phoned Dr. Tapper, and told him we were on.
I love hosting traditional events. I spread the white tablecloth on my dining room table, set out Manischewitz wine, plus platters of bagels and cream cheese and whitefish salad, and candles and matches for the blessings. The house filled quickly with family and friends. I took coats and gave hugs and showed off the new baby and generally gushed with joy.
But the white plastic board Dr. Tapper held under his arm when he showed up didn’t seem nearly so quaint as his little black-leather medical bag. “Oh my God,” I thought, as he laid it on the table. It was rectangular, the size of a dish-draining rack, and perhaps an inch and a half thick. The slab had been molded with a single well, an indentation, in the shape of baby: a place for the newborn boy to lie. Then there were black mesh straps, and buckles, so the baby could be restrained. Why did the kids have to be strapped down? Did the baby boys flail, and fight? They were so small and immobile at eight days; was the pain so bad that they jerked out of reflex? Though clearly scrubbed clean, the plastic board had rust stains and wear. I felt ill; I turned away as Dr. Tapper arrayed knives and clippers from his black bag on the white tablecloth.
My sick feeling passed as the ritual went on, and Dr. Tapper passed us the blessings to read. Our friends joked and laughed. I nestled against Mitch, my four-year-old daughter Claire leaned against me, and we all beamed in the glow of the candle I lit. “There is a new light in our hearts and our home,” Mitch and I recited together. “Fortunate are we as we celebrate the gift of life and hold eternity in our arms.” Still, I had to sit on the couch with my back turned during the actual proceedings.
That wasn’t the worst of it, though. The reckoning came late, late that night, as I sat up alone with the baby, in that dreamy 2:00 a.m. haze that all new mothers know. It is the time when a mother’s shushing drowns out the mewls of a hungry newborn, when she fumbles to uncover her breast and the baby whimpers and cries and then finally digs his face into the softness of skin, latching on to the nipple. Louis made those happy “mmmm” sounds; I watched his cheeks hollow as he gulped down milk. I stroked his wispy black hair. And then, like a passing driver who gapes to see blood at the scene of an accident, I unpeeled his diaper.
The sight of his red, raw penis made me gasp. A whole piece of skin was gone. The sweet sack of a penis, just one more perfect part of his perfect little self, had been hacked away. He screamed when I touched him there, his face turning red as the skin at his crotch. What had I been thinking?
I left Louis swaddled on the bed, and pulled my copy of The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears off my shelf. What I read confirmed the worst of my guilt. Of course Dr. Sears, god of attachment parenting — the loosey-goosey lovey-dovey style of mothering that many of my friends and I embrace — made exceptions for religious reasons. But in general, he termed circumcision “genital mutilation.” So this was it, I thought. I just subjected my son to a procedure no better than clitoridectomy in tribal Africa. I realized that I’d spent weeks blindly convincing my husband to go along with the ritual. I was so bent on calling him to my side that I never questioned my own stance. I held Louis to me protectively, feeling horrified and fraudulent. Here I was, trying to safeguard my new child, and the one he needed the most protection from was me.
A few days later, a friend helped me lower the volume on my inner melodrama. Eva, who’s not Jewish, and didn’t circumcise her son for all the reasons Dr. Sears gave, swore to me it was no big deal that I’d circumcised mine. “Jesus, Randi, it’ll heal,” she promised. And true to her words, the urgent redness under Louis’s diaper gradually faded, until his penis looked as healthy and jubilant as it had when he was born — only different.
And what am I to make of this now? I’ve been researching. Louis will, in fact, be physically unlike many of his peers. Four decades ago, when I was born, at the height of the circumcision craze, well over 90 percent of American boys were circumcised at birth. Now the numbers have dropped below 60 percent. And while there is some recent medical evidence in favor of the procedure — a 2005 study suggests that circumcision can slow the spread of H.I.V. — the American Academy of Pediatrics maintains its viewpoint that circumcision isn’t warranted for medical reasons. My guess is that the rate is far, far lower than 60 percent among today’s hippies and hipsters; most Whole-Foodsshopping, sling-wearing mothers eschew the knife. There’s even a movement, I learned, among liberal Jewish parents to hold a “brit shalom” instead of a “brit milah” on a boy’s eighth day. This “covenant of peace” ceremony involves all the prayers and blessings, the candles and wine, to welcome a new boy into the fold. But there’s no plastic tray, no restraints, no scalpel. I wish I’d known about that option before, wish I’d considered it.
But I’m split on the topic. Part of me wishes all the Jews of today would begin a serious examination of this issue, and leave behind circumcision the way our ancestors left behind animal sacrifice. But another part knows that even with more forethought, I would still have made the same decision. I’ve come to feel a bizarre sense of contentment when I view my son’s nakedness, in those moments when he lays on the changing table and chortles at me as I unfold a fresh diaper. His flesh sacrifice, now more obvious in a world of uncircumcised peers, bolsters me. He is Jewish, and therefore I am Jewish; my acceptance of this primitive rite sweeps away, finally, any doubt. And I suppose that’s what it’s always done: define the tribesmen, and their mothers, too.
Randi Glatzer has written for Self, Philadelphia Magazine, Glamour, The Village Voice, Vibe, and other publications. She lives and writes in Philadelphia.