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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Pass the Bris

July 19, 2013

After my partner and I tentatively settled upon a name for our impending bundle of boy joy, we stared down our next major decision: whether to plan a brit milah, or bris (covenant of circumcision) for our son.

My partner made his opinions on circumcision quite clear throughout my first pregnancy. (“I’ll defer to you on almost everything,” he said, “but if you’re thinking about circumcision, you can forget it.”) Our first child, Talya, was a girl—so our bris-sue quickly and quietly transformed into a non-issue.

When we learned that our second child would be a boy, however, the question resurfaced.

“Well?” I said, half-hoping he’d forgotten his stance. “It is tradition.”

“No,” he said, “Absolutely not.”

“But it’s tradition!” I insisted.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “It may be a Jewish tradition, but it’s not a tradition I can live with.”

I knew where he stood on the matter. Whatever argument I offered, he’d never be on board with a bris. But could I live without it?

Baby Picture
Adina's son Samele
For several months, we debated the issue. He was staunchly opposed, and if I was honest, I was ambivalent about the ritual. Yet, every time the topic came up, I stood my ground for our family, and invoked my only argument: Tradition.

The more I thought about it, though, the more my argument broke down. Our son is the family’s first boy in three generations, so by virtue of chance, we haven’t had a bris in a very long time. While circumcision is a longstanding—and undeniably important—Jewish tradition, it is not really a personal one.

And I know, based on conversations with friends, that growing numbers of Jewish families are foregoing the ritual, for ethical or personal reasons. Since 2010, Rebecca Wald, a Florida-based attorney, has hosted Beyond the Bris, a website that offers news and editorial content related to this very topic. There is also a movement known as Jews Against Circumcision devoted to the same issue. While I do not agree with everything these websites suggest, I have my own concerns.

Yet, part of me is compelled by the tradition, which represents religious heritage, cultural legacy and Jewish birthright. Brit milah is traditional, and ties this baby to his lineage. Or as my grandmother bluntly put it, “If he’s not circumcised, how will we even know he’s Jewish?”

While the dilemma is largely metaphoric, its reality hits me hard.

In reflection, I realize: for me, it’s not the tradition itself, but what it signifies within the Jewish community. The fact of the bris brings the baby into the fold, offering a ready—if unseen—stamp to signify: I am of the tribe. I am here. I belong.

As Anita Diamant offers in the 1994 edition of her text, The New Jewish Baby Book:

“The simplest, most compelling answer to the question of why we do this to our sons is this: If we stop doing the brit milah we stop being Jews. And that is a decision that even the most ambivalent is loathe to make.”

I read this and panic. Maybe, in deciding to forego circumcision, I am making a terrible mistake.

For me, though, the question was this: Will a bris connect my son to a history or culture or tradition of Judaism he would otherwise lack? Ultimately, I think not.

Omitting this one ritual doesn’t override every Jewish tradition, custom and practice we’ve incorporated into our daily lives. We keep Shabbat. We read Jewish books. We belong to a synagogue, and this infant, years too young for Hebrew School, attends weekly Torah study.

Why, then, the anxiety?

There is a fear, I think, among Jews in interfaith families—a concern that our Jewishness is not quite enough. So part of me believed that I “had to” have the baby circumcised, to prove something. Ultimately, I realized that a decision to circumcise my son would relate more to my own anxiety than a belief in the tradition. And I couldn’t live with that. So I reevaluated my stance, and let the idea go.

Once I reconciled myself with my decision, I was able to sail through the late stages of pregnancy, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our son, now here.

And tonight, as I write these words, I watch him sleeping soundly from across a dimly lit bedroom. Who is this young person, and who will he become? In most respects, it’s too early to say. It is too soon to do more than project many happy wishes, hopes, and dreams upon him. And yet, I know this:

Bris is ritual, tradition, and cultural practice. It is a meaningful, if increasingly contested, component of Jewish religion and culture. But it is also a choice, and one that we have declined for our son. This alone does not determine his identity. We retain old traditions in our lives, but create new ones as well. This is part of being human and Jewish in our changing times.

Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Adina Giannelli

Adina Giannelli, trained as a lawyer, is a freelance writer and graduate student in public health. She is currently working on her master's thesis, her son's gestation and a manuscript about her daughter's life and death. You can find her online at todayfortalya.blogspot.com.

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