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In This "Opt In, Opt Out" World, It's Hard to Remain a Jew

Reprinted with permission of j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit www.jewishsf.com.

January 27, 2006--When my son Aaron was born, he was perfect. Ten fingers, 10 toes, one foreskin. Perfect. Which is why I wasn't excited about his bris. At that time (22 years ago) I believed circumcision was an unnecessary relic of a time gone by.

Rabbi Chanan Feld would heartily disagree. The popular Berkeley mohel has circumcised thousands of Jewish males of all ages, including one 60-year-old man who fortified himself with a bottle of vodka before going under the knife.

"It's the covenant from God to Abraham and our fathers," Feld told me. "It's literally a linking up with other generations. Each baby is the culmination of all the generations that came before."

He's right, of course. But since I was uninvolved with Judaism back then, I saw no reason to put Aaron through the ordeal.

My wife (now ex-) felt otherwise. She thought circumcision would be a crucial physical link to Aaron's Jewish heritage.

I ultimately relented, but being that my wife had not yet converted to Judaism, no mohel would help us.* According to Jewish law, my son was no more Jewish than the Pope.

That made me mad, even though I understood the rationale, so we dropped the whole idea. And Aaron kept his foreskin.

For a long time, I wasn't sorry. Not to dwell on this, but his foreskin was cute. When he was small enough to fit in a Rubbermaid tub, I loved bathing him, which included retracting the foreskin and cleaning him. It was a small part of that vast parental instinct to love and care for one's baby, top to bottom.

Slowly, things changed. By the time Aaron was six, I had developed a strong interest in Judaism. We joined a synagogue, Aaron went to Hebrew school, and my wife converted. We were by all appearances a happy Jewish family.

But Aaron wasn't happy. As he grew older, he became increasingly self-conscious about his anatomy, not so much for halachic reasons but more because of gym class. He looked different from the other boys and he didn't like it.

This problem took a while to erupt into crisis mode, but when he turned 11, Aaron insisted we have him circumcised, even though he knew it would hurt.

Because my wife had not had an Orthodox conversion, we still couldn't get a mohel. But amazingly, our HMO agreed to pay for the procedure. And soon enough, Aaron was at the hospital in pre-op.

When he came to a few hours later, he looked up at me and smiled. Despite the pain (which wasn't so bad after all), he got what he wanted, and in the process he taught me something about determination.

"If the child wants it," noted Feld of older Jewish boys who choose circumcision, "it becomes a liberating experience. They recover quicker."

No, that in-patient procedure wasn't a real bris. There was no mohel cracking jokes to relieve the tension, no prayers to sanctify the moment, no lox-and-bagels afterwards. But that morning, my son still became part of the covenant.

Not long ago, I attended the bris of my friend's newborn son. As the godfather, I had the honor of holding little Eli on my lap. My friend and his wife sobbed with pride and nausea as the mohel intoned the prayers, deftly wielding his blade.

Rather than turn away, I looked intently at the child during his little moment of shock and pain, and the soothing wine pacifier to follow. I took it all in. And I wept tears of joy along with the family. Somehow, in the back of my mind, I claimed this moment as a surrogate bris for Aaron.

There's an old Yiddish saying: "Shver tsu zayn a Yid," or "It's hard to be a Jew." Not many generations ago, the notion that a male Jewish baby would go uncircumcised was unimaginable. But things are different--harder--today. Nothing is as clear as it was once upon a time. Even something as fundamental as brit milah is on the table.

Maybe the phrase should be modified: "Shver tsu bleibn a Yid." It's hard to remain a Jew, especially in an "opt in, opt out" world.

Thankfully, maybe even miraculously, my son chose to opt in. Though he took his own circumspect route to circumcision, I am glad he, too, is now every inch a Jew.

*Editor's note: Dan Pine's rejection by the mohel occurred 22 years ago, before the availability of Reform mohels who circumcise the children of Jewish fathers even if the mother is not Jewish.

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." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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.
Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. 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."
Dan Pine

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany, Calif. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.

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