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Before Jack was born, I thought I prepared as much as I could for his bris. With the help of my mother-in-law, Pennye, we compiled a list of invitees, researched kosher caterers, and created to-do lists. Pennye bought paper goods, readied the room with tables and folding chairs, and lots of gauze pads. She also explained the ceremony to my parents so they would know what to expect. (I also had to do some research myself, as I had never been to a bris before.)
Once Jack was born, we were able to set a date for the bris (which takes place on a baby’s eighth day), and she and Sam created the order of the ceremony, finalized the details with the mohel, and gathered RSVPs. Everything was prepared, except me. Nothing could have fully prepared me for that day.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to be one of the centers of attention just three days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth. My brain was mush after a week of not sleeping and trying to adjust to this new lifestyle. All I could think of was whatever Jack required at the moment. Why is he crying and how do I make him stop his crying? Is he hungry? Why is he not eating? Should I swaddle him? Rock him? Change his diaper? There was minimal spare room in my brain to make small talk with the 60+ guests during the bris.
I also wasn’t spiritually ready to hear the mohel (the Hebrew word for someone who performs a ritual circumcision) explain that our son was to be raised Jewish. Part of me knew that our son was to be raised Jewish. I had even said these words out loud. Sam and I had discussed this at length. We came to the conclusion that Jack was to be Jewish and I was comfortable with that decision. But, when the mohel started talking about how this ceremony physically marks Jack as a Jew, for first time it finally sunk in. Our child will not be Catholic; he will not be receiving the sacraments (baptism, first holy communion, etc.). He will not share my spiritual journey or that of my parents. Rather, Jack will be on a similar spiritual path as Sam, one that, despite many discussions and much private study, is still somewhat foreign to me.
Finally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear those painful screams of my first born, as the mohel performed the physical act of Jack’s circumcision. At that moment, I had escaped to the darkness of my bedroom, and was convulsing in tears, wanting it to end. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to hold him, feed him and tell him that I would protect him from all the harm and dangers in the world. I wanted to create a protective bubble around him, so that he would never ever get hurt again. Instead, the experience made me feel alone and helpless. My body felt like a wreck after the birth, my mind was mush, and now my heart was breaking.
After the mohel finished, Sam brought Jack to me so I could feed him. The three of us shared a quiet moment together before I wiped my tears away, mustered up a smile and brought Jack back to the party, where he was passed around and photographed like a prized possession. I spent the rest of the party making small talk with whatever space was left in my brain.
Looking back, the ceremony was beautiful. Sam’s extended family was there to celebrate, including Jack’s great grandmother, great grandfather and great-great aunt. Jack’s namesake’s daughter spoke wonderfully of her father and wished all of Uncle Jack’s best qualities to be passed on to little Jack. My parents and some of my siblings were in attendance, supporting our decision to raise Jack as a Jew. We even honored both sets of parents during the ceremony. It was wonderful to have everyone here upholding the oldest Jewish tradition, and I have no regrets about our decision to do so, though I wish I could have been more prepared.
When our second child, a boy, was born, my (Jewish) husband was adamant that he be circumcised. Everyone has their own baggage, and I’m far from exempt from that. I grew up without a dad; I was dead certain that I wanted my children to have an active, involved and dedicated father. I didn’t want them to have just one parent, so it was vital to me to respect him as a parent. This was his son as much as he was mine, and it was that absolute for him. He would be circumcised.
It’s one thing to blithely agree to something and then realize how incredibly hard it’s going to be. Like daycare – of course, my kids would go to daycare and I’d work full time, right up until I actually HAD a child and the thought of leaving them for eight to nine hours a day was devastating. It was the same situation with the circumcision. Yeah, sure, we can do that, right up until I’ve got this tiny little boy – AND YOU WANT TO CUT OFF HIS LITTLE PENIS?!?! And if I was struggling with the concept, explaining it to my non-Jewish family was even harder. The whole idea of having a party where we’d cut off the tip of his penis and then have bagels was beyond their comprehension.
But cut it off we did. I reminded myself over and over again that this was my husband’s child as much as mine. That I had to respect Marc’s traditions and his right to make decisions for our child if I truly wanted him to be an equal parent with me.
First let me back up. My son was a challenging baby. To this day, six years later, I know of no other child who was as miserable as my little baby was for the first several months. Colic and reflux were a part of it, but part of it was just who he was, he doesn’t like change – and the whole concept of starting his life here just made him furious. He cried all the livelong day, unless he was nursing. Or in the swing – he loved his swing. But mostly he cried and nursed. He only slept when I held him, and only stopped crying when he nursed. He was horrified if anyone other than me tried to hold him, screamed unmercifully if people looked at him for too long, and being the center of attention made him nuts.
So I was a wreck on the day he was going to be circumcised. To put it mildly. I was an experienced mom, he was my second baby, and I’d had literally decades of childcare behind me – but I was worn out, sleep deprived, and out of mind with confusion and frustration and this overwhelming love for this boy child. Voluntarily hurting him (and that’s the only way I could see this) was so hard. So incredibly hard. My mother, sister, stepfather and cousin had all come early to our house. We lived in a second floor apartment, and it was literally the hottest day of the summer so far that year. We had no air conditioner, and the apartment was wall to wall people. I couldn’t stop crying. The baby couldn’t stop crying (because the mohel didn’t want me to nurse for the two hours before the ceremony, and he was furious at the thought of a pacifier).
All of my husband’s female relatives assured me that I shouldn’t be there, the mothers never watch. But I couldn’t NOT be there. This was my child. This was my baby, and if I was going to allow this to happen to him, I couldn’t let him do it without me there to support him. So I sat in the room just off of the dining room, where everyone had gathered. My father-in-law held the baby, and my poor confused stepfather gave him little bits of a sweet wine and it was over super fast. They handed him back to me immediately, and he stopped crying the instant I touched him. He nursed gratefully and went immediately back to sleep.
The man who performed the circumcision passed away a few months ago. It wasn’t that I knew him well, I had never met him before and only saw him a few times since then. But he was there, on one of the most challenging and painful and ultimately rewarding days of my life. You know how sometimes you bond to your baby the first time you meet them, and sometimes it takes a bit? I loved my baby from the beginning, but on the day that he was circumcised, I knew absolutely and without question that I was his mother and he was my son, and that when he hurt, I felt it more than I could have imagined. It was the beginnings of a relationship that, to this day, continues to shock and amaze me, to teach me and stretch me and astound me. Rest in Peace, Stuart Jaffee, and thank you for your part in my son’s life.
That being said – when we found out that our next baby was a girl, the first thing I thought in the ultrasound room was thank God we don’t have to have her circumcised.
I was discussing my son’s Brit Milah (Bris, circumcusion) with my spiritual advisor/mentor. I was recalling my best friend asking about whether my in-laws, my son’s non-Jewish grandfather, aunts and uncles, would be coming to the ceremony. She asked whether they understood the importance of the ceremony. The answers to both questions were “no.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if I wanted them to come. I didn’t think they would understand. I wondered if they considered it mutilation. I wondered if it would start an argument.
My husband was changing our son’s diaper one morning when my father-in-law came to visit. It was probably the first time my father in-law saw a circumcised boy. He asked in his Italian accent, “Are you sure they didn’t take off too much?”
The question seems funny enough, but already it seems obvious: my son doesn’t look normal in his eyes.
My husband, who isn’t circumcised, defended our son valiantly. “No Dad, he’s perfect and the circumcision was done properly.”