The hardest part of my son’s birth wasn’t laboring at home for a day, or even delivering my child without medication after being stuck in transition for a few painful hours. Those things were hard, sure, but as a Jewish woman, the hardest moment came at what should have been a happy time–when I was finally cleaned up and holding my sweet child in my arms, and I asked a nurse whether someone could advise me on how to find a good mohel.
She didn’t blink. “Oh, sure,” she said. “Doctor X is the guy you want to talk to. A lot of Jewish women come to him. I’ll see if I can find him.”
But when Doctor X strode into the room, and I asked him my question, smiling with the expectation that he’d coo at my perfect son and congratulate me on my life-changing simcha, he only stared at me. As a doctor will, he examined me.
“You’re Jewish?” he asked at last.
Immediately, I felt nervous. But I took a deep breath and nodded.
“Yes,” I said. “I am. I am.”
Then he added, “And your mother is Jewish?”
“Oh,” I said.
Then, in an anxious rush of too many words, I began to recite the little speech I’ve grown accustomed to giving. “No. But I’m Jewish. I know I don’t look Jewish, because my mom is Irish Catholic, but my dad is Jewish and I was raised Jewish. And then I converted when I was 18.”
I clutched my baby, bewildered. It was hard to believe this was happening at this moment. Through my hormone rush and the buzz of a post-delivery Percocet, I felt sadness creeping into the happy room, like a chill, as though someone had left a door open down the hall. Suddenly I could feel the blood seeping into my maxi pad. I noticed that the lights in the room were ugly. Everything was ugly.
Doctor X folded his arms. He spoke slowly when he asked, “Your conversion—it was Orthodox?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Conservative.”
“Why not Orthodox?”
Really? Were we going to do this now?
“Well,” I said, “because I’m not Orthodox. I don’t keep kosher, and I’m not shomer shabbos, and I certainly wasn’t at 18.” I could have said a lot more about my own choices, and about Orthodoxy too, but it wasn’t the time for a debate on gay marriage or women rabbis.
Desperately, I wished I could go back in time and look up mohels on the Internet instead of ever meeting Doctor X. I only wanted him to leave my room, get away from my baby. But he didn’t. He had one more thing to say first.
“Well,” he said. “I am a mohel. But… I wouldn’t perform this bris.”
I’m pretty sure I whispered when I answered him, when I said, “Actually, I never asked you to.”
So he left, and I sat, alone in a room with my new amazing baby, and felt less Jewish than I’d ever felt in my life. I felt alone, despite the child in my arms.
And here’s the thing about this story—I don’t mind that Doctor X doesn’t think I’m a Jew. I’ve spent 36 years accepting the fact that a lot of smart people don’t think I’m a Jew. I respect them for their observance, and in moments, I imagine I might like to live that way too, with the clarity of halacha, Jewish law, surrounded by that wall of what I imagine to be added confidence and surety. I really like to learn with Orthodox rabbis. I don’t resent them, or their beliefs. As people say, some of my best friends are Orthodox.
When Kindness Counts
No, I didn’t mind Doctor X’s laws, or his inability to help me. What I minded was his tone. He was cold to me at one of my warmest moments. He said things he didn’t need to say. He didn’t smile once. Not even at my baby.
He could just as easily have said, “Oh! How nice! Mazel tov on the baby! I’m afraid I can’t perform the bris myself. But I’m sure there’s someone great out there who can help you!” But he didn’t. He—a doctor in a secular hospital—chose to exclude a woman trying to observe a mitzvah the best way she could.
Worst of all, he never looked down at my child. Not once. I don’t think any part of him ever considered my son. I don’t think he thought much about how his choice of words at that critical moment in time might lead me towards, or away from, observance myself. I was in a moment of change, of magic. My life had been altered forever and all things were possible in that instant when he entered my room. Who knows what he might have accomplished with kindness. I guess we’ll never know