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Making the Cut

Reprinted from The Jewish Week with permission of the author. Visit www.thejewishweek.com.

In my family, boys are so rare as to be exotic.

I have one “full” sister, four half-sisters and a stepsister (I did have a stepbrother, but have not been in touch with him since his father and my mother divorced). So far, I have two nieces and, God willing, in a few weeks I will give birth to my second daughter--unless ultrasound technology has completely tricked us.

So it's not surprising that my brit milah experience is quite limited. And while I have no problem with brises, I'm relieved that my Catholic husband and I will likely never have to decide whether or not to host one. Joe, an animal-loving vegetarian who was traumatized when we neutered our pet cat years ago, can't stand the idea of hurting an infant, whereas I find the moment of pain minor compared to the risk of a Jewish boy growing up feeling he does not belong in the larger Jewish community--not to mention the prospect of having to undergo a far more painful circumcision later in life.

We're not alone in our disagreement. Circumcision is an emotional issue that often drives a wedge between spouses or at least reveals existing fissures. Many gentiles are mystified when Jewish relatives who ignore many other mitzvot suddenly become passionate and uncompromising defenders of this ancient ritual, one that can seem as primitive as animal sacrifice.

“We've had people call us and say, 'My husband agreed to raise the child Jewish, I'm due next week and when I talked to him about the brit, he said, What does circumcision have to do with raising the child Jewish?'” said Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization that seeks to help the Jewish community welcome and fully embrace all members of interfaith families into Jewish life. (Full disclosure: I'm on the women's advisory board.)

Laura Morris, a non-practicing Catholic, said she and her Jewish husband were taken aback two years ago when she was pregnant and her secular in-laws started talking about brit.

“They had never expressed any particular opinions about their religion,” she said. “We weren't married in a Jewish ceremony. But all of a sudden when it became clear that we were expecting a boy, they expressed the importance to them of having a brit. It came out of left field.”

For the Morrises, who had already been planning on circumcising their son, the brit was a surprise but a non-issue. The two read up on brit milah, decided they felt comfortable with it and easily found a willing mohel, even though many mohels refuse to perform a brit on the child of a gentile mother.

But for many other couples, the brit--if not the circumcision itself--becomes a battleground and one in which Jewish tradition emerges as the loser. Jessica, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, said her and her Greek Orthodox husband's decision two years ago not to have a brit for their son, “was the beginning of the end for me--in this phase of my life at least--in actively trying to have a Jewish family.”

Although her husband was comfortable with the circumcision, Jessica felt like a brit--with its message of Jewish covenant--would insult her in-laws, who were already troubled by the fact that their grandson would not be baptized.

“At the moment when your marriage is really the most a union--to say [the child is] not yours, it's mine, just seemed like not something to say,” she said. The couple did, however, have their son circumcised in the hospital.

“I tried to think appropriate thoughts [during the circumcision], but there are no appropriate thoughts when the ceremony is stripped from the operation,” Jessica said, a little sadly.

Another family I know, in which the father is Jewish and the mother is not, took the opposite approach: they skipped the circumcision altogether, but held a Jewish naming ceremony for their son, something they said “forced us out of mainstream Judaism” and which, unfortunately, led to tensions with the baby's Jewish grandmother.

However, among people I've spoken with, circumcision without a brit seems the more common route, a way to preserve the child's future Jewish options without it being a public affair. Of course this is not a possibility for those who object to all aspects of the foreskin removal, but it works for those who simply find it creepy to have a crowd watching or who fear a public Jewish ceremony will spur the other side of the family to demand a baptism.

But for JOI's Golin, the hospital circumcision can simply be a way of procrastinating on the decision of how to raise the children.

“A lot of interfaith couples are practicing conflict avoidance,” he said, adding that “for us in the Jewish community, that's kind of a sad loss because the kids get nothing in a lot of ways.”

Golin wonders if the Jewish community should be doing more to educate about the positive aspects of a brit, showing how it can be an opportunity. For example, he pointed out that if the parents want children with gentile mothers to be raised Jewish, a brit can be combined with a conversion--a simple procedure that enables families to sidestep “who is a Jew” difficulties and is much easier than undergoing a conversion later in life.

Although Laura Morris didn't convert her son to Judaism at the brit, she saw the ceremony as saying he “has an agreement to consider being Jewish.”

“I feel making that decision [to have a brit] has made me far more interested in raising our son Jewish,” she said.

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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet."
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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