One night over pitchers, my buddy Sean confessed that what he wanted most in life wasn’t to publish a novel or even to find a serious boyfriend. What he really wanted was a foreskin. “They took it without asking! My glans’ best friend,” he said. He was only half joking, and by the end of the night, I promised that if I ever had a son, I would leave his tool-kit intact. Then I met and married Ed, who, from the moment our baby boy-to-be flashed us his stuff on the sonogram monitor, began contacting every practicing Mohel in the greater Tri-State area. Recalling my no-cut pact with Sean, I said, “No way.””You don’t get it,” Ed said. “I’m Jewish. We’re talking five thousand years of tradition.”
It took awhile, but around the millionth time he said this, something in me clicked. Sure, I wanted to keep our baby uncut – I couldn’t imagine inflicting any unnecessary pain on my own child, and, as Sean had suggested, I did not want to rob my son of a potentially erogenous accessory. But there was something else at work, too: namely, my desire to be a crunchy, we’re-leaving-him-natural mommy, the kind whose long-haired progeny sport hemp ponchos and worship at the foot of redwood trees. Ed was talking serious cultural tradition, though, which made him feel deeply connected – and guilty over taking a gentile wife. Technically, our kids could never be Jewish. But with circumcision and a Hebrew name, our son – should he ever wish to – might pass. Then there was the whole look-like-dad thing, which scores of parenting websites and magazines, along with several overly curious, well-meaning friends, claimed was key to countering any I’m-a-freak factor in young boys. These pro-cut arguments, along with my respect for Ed’s cultural identity,The eighth day coincided with the climax of my physical and metaphysical postpartum woes. eventually compelled me, after much rumination (and rightly determining this was the sole battle in my married life I would never win), to apologize in advance to Sean and tell Ed to plan the bris.
In order to demonstrate my support (and belie my lingering ambivalence about what I felt, at some level, was my having had to choose between Ed’s psychic welfare and our son’s), I vowed from the outset to participate in the affair, details about which, unfortunately or fortunately, I knew zero. Ed filled me in, explaining it was done in the home, that the godfather, or sandak, would hold the baby during the procedure, that many Mohels are practicing pediatricians (whew). Here is what he failed to mention: that the bris often occurs atop a dining room table, the same place we’d just carved our Thanksgiving turkey. That it falls eight days after a boy’s birth, symbolizing the metaphysical realm.
Whatever the significance, the eighth day, in my case, also happened to coincide precisely with the climax of my physical and metaphysical postpartum woes, including, but not limited to, Sybil-worthy hormonal swings; chronically molten down-under stitches; and my newborn’s toothless gums, which, when clamped around a nipple, felt uncannily like blades. I also did not know that a gaggle of relatives and distant friends would attend, all of whom I had no desire to have witness my post-birth maxi-pad shuffle. This flock happened to include a pair of second cousins from Long Island, engaged in hot debate over the virtues of hearing aids; a La Leche-obsessed aunt who constantly referred to my newfound ability to feed “any child, anywhere in the world – even Africa!”; and my father, fresh off the plane from northern California and who, like Sean, considered circumcision a “barbaric rite.” This in addition to an inappropriately giddy Westport, Connecticut, Mohel who, upon peering into Zev’s diaper, loudly proclaimed, “Good thing I brought the large-sized instruments!” I was ready to medicate.
Which is exactly what I did. After sneaking upstairs with Zev, whom I swaddled in a blue plaid receiving blanket and then tanked up with one final pre-op nursing, I popped a Vicodin and chased it with champagne, realizing I still wasn’t fully on board with this thing. If I were, I wouldn’t be weeping, or feeling as though an outmoded, patriarchal rite were about to disrupt, perhaps irrevocably, my fragile new maternal bond with Zev. For the past eight days, I had lovingly anticipated his every need, had scarcely allowed him away from my own skin, all the while knowing that I and my misguided husband conspired to present him to a knife-happy man in a multi-colored shawl. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered to Zev, now milk drunk and dozing, thankfully unaware his package was about to be permanently unwrapped.Since I’d issued him into the world, I had examined his every fat pucker and fold, down to his tucked-in penis, a veritable capped and shrouded acorn laid atop a tiny, wrinkled fig. It had seemed protected, as swaddled and safe as he was now. And in less than an hour, just as Ed had cut the cord connecting us, Zev himself would be cut and hence, issued into the world of men.
Ed walked in. “Time for the anesthetic,” he said – the one stipulation I’d dictated when granting the bris wish. He took Zev, who I wouldn’t hold again until after the deed had been done.
Baby-free and indefinitely unmoored from the rocker for the first time in a week, I waddled downstairs to find more champagne. Someone had spread a bright-blue wool tablecloth over our dinette in the eat-in kitchen, through whose windows I could see that a light snow had begun to fall – clearly a portent of the violence we were fixing to commit. My mother-in-law, Melanie, who was arranging lox, sliced tomatoes and clutches of dill on doilied serving trays, told me no one would mind if I hibernated until it was all over, that during Ed’s bris, she had sequestered herself upstairs in the master bedroom with a feather pillow over her head so she couldn’t hear him cry – by far the bris’ most chilling feature. I myself did not flee to the bedroom, though I did allow my own mom to refill my plastic champagne flute more than once, in hopes a buzz would mute Zev’s wailing, which began the moment Ed took him from me. Torture enough to hear one’s baby cry; horror show to know those cries would only escalate. I tried to remind myself: the entire occasion, from the bris itself to the naming ceremony, in which all of Zev’s family would play a role – holding him, reciting prayers, discussing the meaning of his name – beat having some harried, sleep-deprived intern whisk him off to the corner of an antiseptic-smelling nursery for an impersonal quickie slice. Mohels were experts, could even perform freehand. Besides, they rallied to give their patients a pacifier repeatedly dipped in Manischewitz.
A tradition I was especially grateful for when everyone gathered round the dinette, where the cheery Mohel laid screaming Zev, our howling wolf pup, into the hands of Ed’s father, then commenced to pray out loud. Ed, visibly discomfited when the Mohel then strapped down Zev’s chubby wrists and ankles with cloth restraints, squeezed my hand and quietly apologized to me for what was about to be done, just as I had to Zev.
I should probably mention here that after groveling for Sean’s forgiveness, I had gone ahead and asked him to attend the bris, mostly to monitor me for any signs I might snap and stampede like the spooked, hormonal milking cow I was certain I’d become. Stalwart friend that he is, he agreed to be present, and when the MohelWe stumbled over the transliterated Hebrew as a young pianist might hesitate over a tricky score. whipped out several petite tweezer-like instruments and began to stretch Zev’s foreskin taut, up and over the head of the penis, Sean turned green. The snow, big, pillowy flakes, had by then cloaked the backyard hollyhock skeletons in white, and, as Zev caterwauled, I felt like I deserved those grueling twenty-four hours of natural labor I’d recently endured. I scanned the room, seeking an anchor apart from Ed’s burning hand. The La Leche aunt was quietly crying in the kitchen, and had averted her gaze, as had the friendly rabbi who had just completed the naming ceremony. Next to the dinette stood my parents, whose eyes I dared not catch, lest they visually reprimand me for submitting so easily to the will of a man. My mother-in-law had long since vacated the premises, but Ed’s dad, an accomplished doctor and even better sandak, was frequently and generously refreshing Zev’s Nuk in wine, then gently placing it in that little pink mouth that, until then, had known only my breast and Ed’s pinky. I wanted to cry, but felt if I did, I would be betraying Ed and our decision to proceed.
As Zev continued to howl, we read some prayers about covenants and God, all of us stumbling over the transliterated Hebrew as a young pianist might hesitate over a tricky score. Then the flash of scissors: the cutting commenced, the blood began to flow. Sean, like the La Leche aunt, meditated on some point outside the window – a passing car, a cardinal. I forced myself to watch Zev, squeezing Ed’s hand harder and harder, feeling a wave of nausea rising in me: now Zev, like me, was bleeding down below. As the foreskin began to ablate, the curved tip of Zev’s penis showing through, I kept telling myself that, colicky as he was, he would be crying regardless. “Circumcision doesn’t hurt,” many had assured me. Of course, some folks had said the same thing about childbirth.
Then it was over. A smeary coil of A&D diaper ointment, another prayer, a thick tangle of gauze – a nod to the stacks of nursing pads and other myriad cotton goods our home had recently amassed: diapers and burp cloths, panty liners, witch hazel hemorrhoid pads. I did not ask where the Mohel disposed of the foreskin, though I have since learned that he probably buried it somewhere, most likely beneath a tree. And while I was only mildly consoled when my sister-in-law, a doctor who had herself performed many circumcisions, informed me the Mohel had fashioned Zev an aesthetically “gorgeous head,” I was recently profoundly relieved to hear that HIV rates are lower in circumcised men: reason enough for Zev to forgive me someday. Then I remembered back to the bris. How afterward, Ed held me and thanked me over and over, and said he loved me more than ever. How, when we got Zev back in our arms, the three of us slowly began to heal.