Tonight, as the sun sets on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, I am going to come face to face with the woman who, according to some, stood by while I was attacked and mutilated as a helpless infant.
I’m looking forward to it. Mom makes really good soup.
I am the opposite of an observant Jew. I will not be fasting today on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I routinely eat all sorts of forbidden foods. I enter temples only for such occasions as weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. If there is a Supreme Being, we have reached an unspoken accord: He doesn’t bother me, and I don’t bother Him.
Yet I was brought up in a kosher home by parents who always belonged to a temple. As a youngster, I went to Hebrew school four days a week after public school classes ended, until my own bar mitzvah. The woman I married - in a synagogue - is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Our upbringings were so similar that we had the same childhood bedroom furniture, and our parents bought us the same sets of dishes (“stoneware” that was sold by A&P supermarkets in a long-ago promotion) for our respective first apartments after college.
I see my background as a cultural tradition rather than a theistic faith. My wife says I’m Jewish and I just don’t know it.
One more thing: Like most men born in Jewish households, I was circumcised in a religious ritual when I was eight days old.
Circumcision has become a topic of public discussion these days, thanks to efforts here and abroad to ban the practice when applied to boys who cannot give consent because of their age.
A district court in Cologne, Germany, ruled this summer that circumcision of young boys is a physical assault. A public prosecutor brought charges against a doctor who circumcised a 4-year-old Muslim boy (Muslims also observe circumcision as a religious requirement) after the boy was brought to a hospital for bleeding, which is a rare and usually minor complication of the procedure.
In California, activists tried last year to put initiatives on the ballots in San Francisco and Santa Monica to ban the practice in those cities. The Santa Monica petition was withdrawn after it attracted blatantly anti-Semitic support, while a court struck the San Francisco initiative from the ballot.
Commenting on the controversy, the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer opined that circumcision is “cruel, inhuman, shameful and medically unnecessary, and should be limited to those 18 years or older who have the reasoning ability to make the decision for themselves.”
Mom, how could you let them do this to me?
Anyone who has ever observed the men attending a Jewish circumcision ceremony, which is called a bris, knows that this ancient custom would die quickly if left up to the men themselves. We can’t even watch it being done to a baby without wanting to hide under a sofa.
Yet we don’t stop it, and we allow the custom to be practiced on our own sons. It isn’t because Jewish men have something against Jewish baby boys, or because misery loves company. We continue the custom, as our forebears have for thousands of years, for two reasons.
The first is simply that it is harmless. We don’t miss what we don’t know we ever had. Having the foreskin of the penis snipped away is a lot less traumatic at eight days old than at 18 years. Circumcision doesn’t interfere with sexual performance or pleasure. It doesn’t interfere with fertility. By some measures, it can have some benefit in reducing sexual transmission of disease. To those who assert that baby boys are perfect just the way they come into the world, my response is: absolutely. And they’re just as perfect when there is a little less of them.
But if modern legal systems can’t fathom how the removal of a piece of skin cannot be actionable, I suggest we take criminal courts out of the equation and let circumcised boys, upon reaching adulthood, sue their parents for the value of what was taken. They won’t get much. I have a wife and two daughters, so I have spent time in Coach stores. I know what expensive leather looks like. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
The second reason we continue the custom is that it binds us to generations that went before. Untold numbers of men have been killed because their circumcision marked them as different from their oppressors. Continuing the tradition honors their memory and triumphs over those who sought to stamp out their faith. It marks us as members of a club. We are the have-nots in a world dominated by haves.
It would have been immensely painful to my parents and, especially, to my in-laws, if we had turned our backs on this central tenet of their beliefs. The grandparents’ happiness could never justify genuinely harming a child, of course, but circumcision’s opponents are making something big out of something very small, while they overlook the magnitude of what they would take away.
So I find myself writing about circumcision not because I care deeply about keeping religious custom, but because I care deeply about maintaining cultural tolerance and respect that is critical in a complex, multiethnic society. We are, in fact, a much more tolerant society than in the past, but that tolerance must be constantly guarded against backsliding.
Circumcision is not the only arena in which a casual, perhaps unknowing, intolerance has shown itself recently. The political reaction against “Wall Street” has unacknowledged anti-Jewish overtones, at least to my ears.
Last week the Occupy Wall Street protesters took to the streets to mark their one-year anniversary, which happened to fall on the Jewish New Year. So, this year, they occupied Rosh Hashanah in the streets of Manhattan’s financial district.
The demonization of “bankers” and “Wall Street” and especially the name “Goldman Sachs” also had an ugly ring to it. Perhaps not everyone heard it, but certainly some did. A YouTube clip of CEO Lloyd Blankfein appearing before a Senate committee in 2010 brought out such observations as “Innocent in Israel, wanted in the top 10 in every other non-Jewish controlled nation.”
Not to give too much weight to the YouTube trolls, but when we cast people as “other,” whether because of their religious rituals, the amount of money they make or the industries in which they make it, this is typically the result.
My mother doesn’t owe me any apologies. If she wanted me to take one for the team, I’m happy I was able to oblige. She has paid me back with a lifetime of love and soup.