As a Jewish man, like it or not, my identity within the Jewish community as both a man and a Jew is defined by the fact of my circumcision. Even though I am Jewish first because my mother is Jewish, at least according to the tradition accepted by most of the Jewish communities in the world, I entered God’s covenant with Abraham, became fully a member of my own people, only after my foreskin was removed, and for the first fifteen or so years of my life, I romanticized the moment of that cutting. Imagining a bloodless ceremony saturated with self-conscious majesty, I saw my boy’s body wrapped warmly and securely in a blanket, held peacefully at ease in the lap of my Uncle Max, smiling drunk on the wine-soaked cloth I’d been given to suck on to dull the (as it was explained to me by my grandmother) very small pain I would feel. Prayers were uttered over my flesh, and after the cutting was done, my membership in the covenant, not to mention into the community of Jewish manhood, was celebrated with food and drink. I pictured myself being passed lovingly among the guests, cuddled and coddled as they talked about the man I would grow up to be.
When I turned sixteen, however, I witnessed an actual brit milah, or circumcision ceremony. The house was full of people. I could see in the room beyond the room where I mingled with the other guests the feast that had been laid out for after the cutting. People were chatting, joking, shaking hands with old friends, and making new acquaintances, but when the mohel—the man who performs Jewish circumcisions—arrived, the atmosphere became immediately serious. As he shook hands with the boy’s father and with those other men who would participate in the ceremony, the women left and the room grew quiet. The boy, bundled tightly in a blanket, was brought in and placed in the hands of the man who had been chosen for the honor of holding the child while the preliminary prayers were recited. Then, the boy was given to the sandek, the man upon whom had been bestowed the privilege of holding the infant in his lap when the cutting was actually done. My view was blocked as the older men crowded around so they could see, but I knew when the cut came because that little boy howled. A full-throated protest against existence and the world, his scream filled my ears, the room, the entire house with his pain.
The men smiled and laughed as if they did not hear the child’s voice. Above his wailing, they shouted mazel tov!—congratulations!—and shook hands with each other and with those who had participated in the ceremony. Some of them even began to sing. The boy’s screaming did not stop. I was taken to meet the child’s father. He smiled at me proudly, gripping my hand and, as his still shrieking son was carried from the room, steered me into the dining area where people were beginning to eat. This was not the peaceful ceremony I had imagined. This was hypocrisy, the sanctification and celebration through denial of the pain of the boy who’d just been cut, and also of the pain I had felt, and of the pain of every man in that house. I felt mocked, betrayed, and tremendously angry, but I had no words to express what I was feeling. Even now, having rejected circumcision in my own family, it’s hard to dismiss the ritual merely as the patriarchal marking that, at its roots, it is. Because whatever else that ritual might be, the history of the oppression of the Jews has made it also a sign of defiance, a bodily affirmation of Jewish (male) identity and Jewish (male) worth in the face of enormous persecution.
I put the word male in parentheses in the last sentence because, while circumcision marks only men and is therefore problematic from the point of view of gender equality within the Jewish tradition, I do not want to deny the courage that it took for Jewish mothers to continue to allow their sons to be circumcised, or for Jewish women to continue to value circumcision as a religious ritual, a physical mark and as a metaphor for the relationship between the Jews and their god at times when forcing a man to pull down his pants was one way that anti-semites would identify appropriate targets for their hatred and violence. In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, for example, Yaffa Eliach tells a story that, whether it is completely true or only an embellished version of the truth, illustrates precisely what I mean. In the midst of a “children’s Aktion,” a massacre of Jewish children, the tale goes, a Jewish woman demanded of a Nazi soldier, “Give me [your] pocket knife!”
She bent down and picked up something…a bundle of rags on the ground near the sawdust. She unwrapped the bundle. Amidst the rags on a snow-white pillow was a newborn babe, asleep. With a steady hand she opened the pocket knife and circumcised the baby. In a clear, intense voice she recited the blessing of the circumcision. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by thy commandments and hast commanded us to perform the circumcision.”
She straightened her back, looked up to the heavens, and said, “God of the Universe, you have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a wholesome, kosher Jew.” She walked over to the German, gave him back his blood-stained knife, and handed him her baby on his snow-white pillow. (152)
I am that boy; that boy was me. Had I been alive during the time of the Nazis, they would have tried to kill me precisely for being “wholesome and kosher.” Yet while the violence that mother did to her son absolutely pales in comparison to the violence the Nazi intended to do to him, the story nonetheless omits the boy’s pain, glosses over the blood that must have stained the pillow, the mother’s hands and the German’s knife. It is that blood which haunts me, for my circumcision is my connection to that mother’s courage, to the courage of the men who circumcised and were circumcised at a time when a cut penis could have gotten them killed. Yet that blood is also about the making of men, and as long as the making of men requires such bloodshed, manhood will continue to require the spilling of blood as its proof.