The smell of butter and onions from the omelette station drifts upstairs to the room where I am changing into my mother-in-law’s clothing. It is the day of my son Sam’s bris, and even though I gave birth eight days earlier, I still look like I’m five months pregnant. My stomach is loose and flabby and looks like a wrung-out piece of cheesecloth. My previously non-existent breasts have ballooned to C-cups. None of my own clothing fits me so my mother-in-law, Annette, who has arranged, paid for, and is hosting this party at her Long Island home, has lent me some of her clothes. I have never loved her more.
I look in the mirror and see nothing I recognize. Annette’s ivory-colored silk blouse and paisley-printed skirt, while elegant, do little to disguise the fact that I am a battlefield: exhausted, overwhelmed, leaky. No matter how much I had done to prepare for the birth of my first child—baby care classes at the hospital, multiple readings of “What to Expect”—I have been completely upended by the experience of motherhood, and it has only been eight days. In a few moments, my son will take part in the oldest rite in Judaism, linking him to a chain of tradition that began with Abraham’s covenant with God almost 4,000 years ago. All I have to do is show up.
READ: The Adventure That is My Family’s Conversion to Judaism
I am a recent link in that chain. I grew up in a mixed-faith family—my father was Jewish, my mother Christian—but it was really a no-faith family. My husband, Ken, was a moderately observant Jew who went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah, fasted on Yom Kippur and shunned hametz during Passover. When we got married, I converted to Judaism so that our family would have a tradition to build upon. Part of that tradition is the ritual circumcision of our sons.
I shuffle downstairs in a pair of flip-flops carrying my impossibly tiny son, who I am still terrified of dropping or hurting or starving or crushing. He is dressed in a long linen gown Annette bought for him and has a tiny yarmulke tied to his head. When I see the 40 or so people who have gathered here on a Monday afternoon in July to meet him, I burst into tears, and then I can’t believe I am crying in front of all these people. In every photo taken of me that day, my face is beet red and glossy.
I walk around the room and greet the guests, mostly friends of Ken’s parents, well-coiffed Long Island women and their husbands. They are the kind of people who show up for things and always bring gifts. Some of Ken’s friends are here, too, brought out by the importance of the occasion. I haven’t thought to invite any of my own friends, most of whom are not Jewish, not religious at all really. It felt weird to invite them, but now I’m sorry they are not here.
My father is hovering on the periphery. I’m not sure he’s ever been to a bris before. He finds my embrace of Jewish traditions unsettling, the same way he couldn’t understand why I wanted to move to Brooklyn after graduation. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here, and you want to move back?” He thought the whole idea of a bris was barbaric. “Just have the baby circumcised in the hospital, Daisy, by a doctor.”
The sole representative of my mother’s family is her sister, my aunt Marianne. With her traditionally Scandinavian features—fair skin, white blond hair, and watery blue eyes—she looks out of place. I can’t imagine what my mother, who didn’t live to see this day, would have thought of the whole affair. If I’m being honest, I’m kind of glad I don’t have to explain it to her, too.
The mohel is also an Orthodox rabbi. He is setting up a mini-O.R. in the front of the living room: rubber gloves, gauze pads, a container of baby wipes, rubbing alcohol, and a bottle of Manischewitz. He is wearing a short-sleeved white lab coat that zips up the front, black pants, and a black skullcap. His grey grizzled beard hangs down toward his chest. I don’t know where Annette found him, but he looks like the real deal.
The ceremony begins. Sam is taken from my arms and placed on a large white pillow. He is passed around the room like a teenager in a mosh pit. People struggle to get close to him, to see him, to wish him luck. He is awake now, and his dark eyes appear giant in his tiny olive face. He, of course, has no idea what is about to happen. In that way, we are the same.
“Circumcision marks the physical body irrevocably,” the mohel says. “In that way, it signifies our unbreakable connection to God. Our covenant with Him is forever etched into our flesh, immutable and permanent.”
Sam lands in the hands of my father-in-law, who has been designated the sandek; he will hold Sam during the circumcision. The mohel hands Ken and me a folded up piece of paper with Hebrew letters, the words of the prayer we are to recite. I follow along, my tongue tripping over the transliterated Hebrew. Then, in English, we welcome our son, offering prayers that we may find the strength to raise him to manhood, as a Jew. I can barely speak through my tears. I look over at my father and see he has tears in his eyes, too.
The rabbi positions himself at Sam’s feet. Then he looks over his shoulder at me and nods. That is my signal to leave the room, something I have been encouraged to do by every Jewish mother I know.
Donna, the wife of Ken’s oldest friend and mother of a boy herself, sweeps me out of the room for the “cut.” We sit together in the maid’s room, and I am surprisingly comforted by her presence. She strokes my hand and speaks softly to me, although I am not really listening to what she is saying. I am still thinking about Sam and how he was taken from me, still whole, still exactly the way I made him. When I see him again, he will be marked for God.
After a few minutes, a string of quiet sobs followed by silence lets me know it’s over. I walk back into the living room and find Sam in my father-in-law’s arms. His big brown eyes are closed now, and he is sucking hard on a long white dinner napkin that has been dipped in wine.
I take him back upstairs to nurse, and the sounds of the party are muffled behind the closed door. Then I hear someone knock. It’s Annette.
“The rabbi needs to see you. He has something for you to sign.”
The mohel is standing by the bar filling out a certificate that will document the ceremony. Sam has been given the Hebrew name Gershon after my father-in-law’s grandfather. In the space marked “Mother,” the rabbi has written my name and, next to it, “Mother Reform Convert (certificate attached).”
“Where’s your certificate of conversion?” he asks me.
I look blankly at him. I have no idea where it is. I look at Annette. Perhaps she will know what to say.
“Daisy, do you have it back in the apartment?” she asks.
“Yes, I think so,” I say.
The mohel seems eager to leave. He pauses slightly in his scribbling, trying to decide, I suppose, if he can certify the bris. I understand his dilemma: If I don’t have the proper certification, my status as a Jew is questionable. And because Jewish identity is passed down through the mother, if I’m not really a Jew, then neither is my son.
After a beat, he finishes filling out the form and starts to pack up. Annette hands him an envelope and thanks him for coming. But before he goes, he turns to me and says, “You need to find that paper. It’s important for your son.”
Guests kiss us goodbye and wish us mazel tov. They leave a stack of gifts for Sam in the maid’s room—blue receiving blankets, Ralph Lauren jumpsuits. I have no idea where we will put any of them.
After everyone has left, I walk into the powder room to splash cold water on my face. The bathroom is completely mirrored so when I look in one direction, my face is reflected back by the mirror opposite, on and on, a telescopic repetition of faces that has no end. I squint my dark almond-shaped eyes, the same eyes as my son and father, and try to see how far back I go.