As soon as the ultrasound revealed that my wife, Abi, was pregnant with a boy, I started worrying about the bris. Not worrying about who would perform it, or where we would order the cold cuts from, but about the conversation I would inevitably have to have with Abi about the fact that I didn’t want our son to have one.
Being an accomplished catastrophist, I have a knack (and a formalized strategy) for making things seem worse than they actually are, and when it finally came time to have the dreaded summit with Abi about the dissection of my future son’s penis, it didn’t go anything like I had anticipated. It wasn’t stilted or awkward or painful, it wasn’t violent or even dramatic. I said, “Look—I don’t want Elijah to have a bris. It’s a medical procedure and it should be done in a hospital by a physician.”
She patted me on the shoulder and replied, “Gabe, I know you hate being Jewish; it’s OK. We’re having a bris and that’s it.”
It was all over before I even knew what happened. Just like a good bris should be.
Not only did Abi insist on a bris, her mother called us on the phone from Providence pretty much daily once our son was born to ask when the bris was going to happen. Because Elijah was only 5 pounds 5 ounces (his sister, Lou-Lou, rang in at a hale and hearty 5 pounds 12 ounces) we were reluctant to proceed with the procedure until he got stronger, and the mohel we eventually contacted agreed, urging us to wait. This, by the way, was the same mohel who had circumcised me over three decades ago. Abi liked the sentimentality of involving him in this endeavor.
“Are you sure you trust this guy to do this?” I asked in earnest. “He probably can’t even lace up his own shoes anymore.”
I was surprised, I have to say, when we arrived at my parent’s house on the morning of the event and parked behind a Mini Cooper convertible painted in British Racing Green with white stripes and checkered flag-patterned side mirrors.
“Whose car is that?” I asked Abi as I put our car into park.
“That’s the mohel’s, honey,” she said. “Catch the license plate?”
I thinned my lips, opened my door, and, doing my best impression of my demure mother, said, “That’s very nice.”
I know I’m supposed to say that my heart was warmed by the sight of this ancient man bent over my son, who was strapped down like a condemned murderer on top of my parents’ dining room table, but my cockles—wherever they are alleged to be located—weren’t exactly radiating.
As my wife’s rejoinder suggested, I’ve never been particularly interested in being Jewish—in fact, I’ve tried just about everything I know to get out of it, but it hasn’t worked. The only reason I liked going to synagogue as a child was that I got to put on a suit. As I grew older, my facial features grew more and more Semitic and I began to feel like a walking target. “You’ve got the map of Israel tattooed on your face,” someone remarked about me once, and I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying to hear than that. All the stereotypes—the neuroses, the post-nasal drip, the un-athleticism, the nihilistic sense-of-humor—they just infected me and made me angry. “I don’t WANT THAT,” I adamantly declared to my therapist. (OF COURSE I HAVE A THERAPIST!)
So, I started playing against type. Instead of “Fiddler on the Roof,” I starred onstage in “H. M. S. Pinafore;” instead of Jewish reggae rapper Mathisyahu, I listened to Canadian maritime singer-songwriter Stan Rogers. Instead of Sholem Aleichem, I read Mark Twain. I eat bacon, because I don’t believe there is a God who is going to tell me I can’t.
I suppose, in the end, it’s all about control. I didn’t have any control over being born Jewish, and I don’t have any control over my dark eyes and my copious, comb-able body hair, but I do have control over my cultural predilections, and I do have control over whether or not I choose to believe in God.
And so I guess maybe this puts my religious ambivalence in the proper context. The mediocre corned beef I could stomach. The prayers and the giving of thanks to God, not so much. I feel tremendously loved and cared for—I have always felt that way, from well before I knew what the word love meant—from my parents and my sisters and, later, my friends, teachers, colleagues, and last but not least, from my wife and children. But thankful? To God? These days I’m more thankful for custom-made orthotics and side-impact airbags.
Today, my son’s penis looks OK, and I’m thankful for that. And I’m thankful to the man who performed the ritual on my son and on me too, with a hand steady enough to drive a manual shift Mini Cooper and tie his own shoes. Of course, if that penis ends up functioning properly and my son decides to use it for procreation, and that results in a son, and he decides to ask the doctor at the hospital to throw in a circumcision before he and his wife pack up and go home, I’ll be thankful for that, too.