My Son's Circumcision

By Prudence Marks (1998)

I remember standing alone in the pantry at the back of the kitchen, shredding a wet tissue and staring at, but not seeing, rows of canned tomatoes as my baby cried in our bedroom. This was when the mohel, a specially trained, ritual circumciser in the Jewish faith, was separating the small tendons that connect the foreskin to the glans, a procedure done before the actual circumcision, or brit milah. When they were finished, I carried my baby and handed him to my friend who was acting as the kvatterin, and she handed him to her husband, the kvater, and he handed him to my husband, who handed him to the rabbi acting as the sandek, who held my baby while the mohel performed the actual cut.

Long before this moment, however, I backed into the dining room, where I couldn't see anything and tried my hardest not to hear by scrunching up every muscle and nerve I could find. Still carrying an extra adipose thirty pounds or so from being pregnant, I felt heavy with flesh and vaguely guilty, as if the circumcision was a just response to my excess. My baby screamed, but I don't remember hearing him, and then seconds later I was called back into the room and my baby, who was all swaddled (which I knew he didn't like) and sucking on a wine-soaked gauze bundle, was put into my arms. His face was mottled with the shock of what had been done and his eyes wet with the real tears he had only just started manufacturing a day or so ago. He looked back at me, his expression not so much accusatory as puzzled and pained. He cried weakly through a few lungfuls of air, but he was already falling into a long, fitful sleep, and I tried to position my hold so that we were both comfortable and the mohel, who was prodding me to hold my baby at a good burping angle, would be quieted. Only then did I become aware of the singing around me, and tried to smile a little bit because, after all, this was a simcha, a great celebration. As the song was in Hebrew, I could not sing along, but hummed awkwardly and then felt ashamed that after all this I was still trying to belong as if nothing was wrong.

Afterwards there were bagels, lox, cream cheese, challah, wine, coffee and small talk. The color white dominated--the white robe of the Rabbi, the white blanket wrapped around my baby, the white crocheted yarmulke on my husband's head (which I had never seen him wear before), the white lace tablecloth on the table where the circumcision took place, and the white winter sun which was beginning to break through the morning's fog. Everyone was relieved it was over. When the Rabbi said goodbye he was very nice, maybe even too nice, but when I shook the hand of the mohel we both sensed a certain hostility and made short work of our farewells. After everyone left I devoured two bagels with cream cheese and greedily opened all of the presents. I felt robbed; I needed to take something back.

I felt robbed, but it was not clear at first what had been stolen. After all, when everyone was gone and my husband returned to work, it was I who remained with my little baby, holding him when he cried, nursing him, changing his diapers (and now his bandage), wiping his many spit-ups and playing games during his widest-awake hour or two of the day. He was still mine, and I could see without a doubt that I was still his and very much in demand. But something between us, at least in my imagination, had changed. I had agreed to the circumcision primarily for my husband's sake and vaguely for the sake of a continuity with my own routinely circumcised male relatives. As a result, I was deeply surprised that it became, in retrospect, an act of such meaningfulness to me, who am not Jewish, religious, or particularly ritualistic.

It is with a strange sort of double vision that I review now the almost hokey artifacts of that day-the official certificate of circumcision signed by the mohel and two witnesses (one a stranger who drove some 30 miles to our house), the little crocheted yarmulke for the baby which we never did return to the synagogue, and the gauze bundle containing the foreskin which we were supposed to plant under a young tree whose mature branches would be cut one day for my son's wedding canopy.

The circumcision left scars on both my baby and me. At first I could only experience the aftereffects with negative emotions of loss, rage, and regret. I felt a dangerous breach in my feelings of love and connectedness with my son. My feelings of empathy and identification with my baby in his pain were so high-pitched and intense that my fuses blew. I simply could not afford to care so intensely for him, and so I instead became numb. For a few days, I am ashamed to say, he seemed almost a stranger to me. When my loving feelings returned, they were tempered differently. I was a little more detached, a state which I now realize would continue and deepen as my baby grew away from me and into the world.

I also felt robbed of status and glory in giving birth to my first baby. For in many ways the brit milah is like a second birth from and into the arms of the father and the Jewish community. As a mother I was being displaced, or perhaps more accurately, delimited. I had given physical birth to my baby, a time which had been celebrated in private between friends and family-but this second birth was one of more public pomp and circumstance. My labor, my giving birth was only secondary, something to be celebrated and enjoyed only conditionally, because after all, whom do we applaud, the earth for producing clay or the potter for making a pot? I produced a living infant, but he was not given a recognizable soul until he was "reborn" through circumcision. Before the ceremony, a candle is lit, which in some interpretations alludes to the spark of life, a new soul entering the community. After the circumcision, the baby is given a new, Jewish name. And how appropriate, too, that it was his body which was altered-because it is his body which came most directly from me, his mother. I could not help but feel hurt.

And I also felt rage. It was a rage that most of the time was scentless, invisible, bodiless-but that seduced me, every now and then, to fall deliciously, hysterically into its arms. I imagined taking the mohel and throwing him head first into a pond of ice water. I imagined writing a letter of subtly worded outrage and impeccable intelligence to the Rabbi that would cause him to rethink the wisdom of the whole procedure. I argued with my husband about how the circumcision was a horrible, inhuman, barbaric act and why hadn't we seriously discussed it beforehand--I even bordered on anti-Semitism, giving an ironic inflection to the word "Jewish" during our arguments in an attempt to threaten him with the exclusion and belittling I had felt during the ceremony. I did all these things and others even more undignified. But most of the time I was cheerful, both by temperament and by necessity, for I was a mother, and my baby needed my good cheer and love of life almost as much as he needed my milk.

Over a year has passed since the brit milah, and I still believe in a feminist interpretation of the brit as a sort of patriarchal appropriation of birth, testifying not only to the covenant between Abraham and his demanding God but also perhaps to the powerful threat of ancient maternal goddesses. Strangely, however, I find myself secretly agreeing to another brit if I should give birth to a second son. First of all, I would not want either son to feel excluded by the other. Secondly, I find that over the last year I have been making a new meaning for the brit even as I was raging against it. Performed eight days after birth, the brit marks an additional separation between mother and infant, a reminder that God is the ground and the medium in which all human relations take place. Any relationship between two individuals that is closed to God, no matter how pure or immaculate the love, is destined to deteriorate. Whether or not one believes in God, and I am not sure that I do, there is nonetheless a powerful meaning here: I gave birth to my son, but he is not mine. We are, I like to think, travelers in this strange and wondrous world together. I feel fortunate to share part of my journey with him, but every smile, every caress, every moment of joy is laced with our eventual separation. For my son to grow and to live his own life I must learn to love him not because he is mine, not because he comes from me, but because he is a unique expression of God, of the world, of nature, or of whatever is spiritually beyond our awareness. And the brit, with all of its primitive trappings-the necessary drop of blood, the ritual knife, the lack of anesthesia, the sacrificial echoes of Abraham on the rock, ready to slay his only son Isaac-is for me a reminder not to hold my son too close, to the point where I am blind or deaf to the truth of our relationship.

While I have made an uneasy peace with the symbolism of the ceremony, I remain unsure about the wisdom or necessity of the violence done to my baby's body. The feminist in me can only perceive it as an act which must perforce be dramatic, violent and absolute in order to vanquish the threat to a patriarchal society of identification between a boy and his mother. Otherwise, how would one explain why baby girls in the Jewish faith are not ritually circumcised or marked on their bodies? Leaving aside gender, the violence of the act creates meaning, whether for good or bad, and it also creates community, just as gangs often require a violent initiation. But must we always endure or create some sort of catastrophe before we can enjoy community? Must my baby be circumcised for me to realize that he is a person, a gender in his own right, apart from me? I do not know. I only know that this four-thousand-year-old ritual is effective, mercifully swift, and transformative.

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