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Monday, 4 July 2011

A Little Brit Controversial

I’ve recently joined Twitter, in an attempt to re-connect with the outside world and get a moment’s break from my two small children. It seems I’m not the only one on a break, because a throw-away ‘tweet’ can spark a nation-wide outcry in a matter of minutes.

Take for example Hollywood star Russell Crowe, admitting to his 250,000 followers that he thought male circumcision was ‘barbaric and stupid.’ In 140 characters, he managed to make instant headlines and offend Jews and Muslims across the globe. D'oh!

I wasn't offended. Because if I’m honest, I kind of see where he’s coming from. I have to admit, I felt embarrassed telling my friends who aren’t Jewish that I was having my son circumcised, because in their position, I think I would probably frown on it too…

I didn’t officially know that I was pregnant with a boy. However, the 20 week scan photo left little to imagination and let’s just say, our unborn child’s gender was staring us and everyone else who saw the picture, right in the face. Poor sod, everyone had already seen his bits and he hadn’t even left the womb.

But that was nothing compared to what he exposed three weeks after his birth, when The Boy was guest of honour at his first Jew Do. Unbeknownst to him, this ‘welcome to the world party’ was actually his circumcision, otherwise known as a Brit. Before he’d had a chance to smell the smoked salmon bagels, my little boy was whisked away from me and ushered through a heaving crowd of relatives, to meet the deceptively friendly looking mohel. All comfy on a pillow on his grandfather’s lap and dosed up with kosher wine, my perfect and probably drunk son, was then clamped, sliced and deprived of the ‘unjewish’ part of his manhood, while upstairs, all I could do was listen out for the scream.

Ok, maybe I’m making it out to be more gruesome than it is. The actual circumcision is quick and relatively risk free. The mohel is usually a qualified doctor. Every day, people are circumcised the world over for either religious or health reasons. There are even health benefits that it can lower the risks of contracting HIV and penile cancer. But as a mother, when you’ve just given birth to a perfect baby and your natural instinct is to protect your child from harm, sitting back while your child is mutilated, with your full consent, is heart-breaking, devastating, fury-inducing and you feel like you’ve failed as a parent, before you’ve even begun.

I felt angry and cheated. I refused to speak to any of the guests that had packed out the downstairs of our house and stayed upstairs with The Boy until everyone had left. In my hormonal state, my family and closest friends had become a jeering crowd at an execution, rather than well-wishers at what is effectively a baby-naming ceremony - when the baby’s Hebrew name is revealed and his covenant with G-d sealed. To be honest, all that lovely traditional stuff was lost in my desire to snatch my son back and run for the hills…or the nearest hospital.

But you know what? He got over it. We got over it. Everything was fine…eventually. But why do it in the first place? For my husband and me at the time, it was just something that our parents expected. The question was not, “will your son be circumcised?” It was “when’s the Brit, because you know I need to order the Danish pastries?” Any worries and doubts I expressed to my dad, were quashed with “well it didn’t do me any harm,” which is a conversation you don’t really want to pursue..

Because no one seemed to question the ethics of circumcising their sons, I convinced myself and my husband that it must be ok, like losing a fingernail maybe (except less likely to grow back).

So I think the most shocking part came when the mohel first removed the bloody dressing, to reveal something that resembled a cocktail sausage dyed an unappetising shade of purple. We then had to check on the sausage every half an hour, dress it with a Vaseline soaked gauze and wrap it up in two nappies. In shock and not quite sure what to do with ourselves, or our son, we did what any new parent does when left alone with their newborn. We sat him next to a toy monkey, whipped out the camera and took some snaps of him with his wine-soaked finger, for the family album. Well it was done now, wasn’t it!

Because at the end of the day, if you make the decision to bring your son up as a Jew, you’ve just got to accept certain things – a) they’re probably going to be short and eventually balding, b) they’re going to aspire to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant and c) they’re expected to be circumcised.

After all, yes maybe it hurts for an instant, but that’s nothing compared to the teasing our son would receive from his Jewish friends for his extra packaging – how to make (an already ginger) child feel self-conscious! Then there’s how he’d feel if he took a nice Jewish girl upstairs one day (she’d be back downstairs in an instant.) And if he chooses to follow the religious route, we’d have let him down by not forging his physical bond with The Lord a bit sooner. Then if he chose to have the adult procedure, he’d probably need a little more than a sip of wine to numb the pain.

Yes, I wish the initiation into male Jewish life was simply a bottle of chicken soup and a scolding from their future mother-in-law, but then I didn’t’ make the rules.

Thankfully, our second child was a girl.

19 comments:

  1. Deborah Weinstein4 July 2011 21:10

    Hilarious! So original, you are such an amazing writer! Always knew you would be a great writer one day from all your birthday cards, thank you cards, letters etc. They were always witty and so funny.

    I love the bit 'if you make the decision to bring your son up as a Jew you've got to expect certain things' and the send-off line, brilliant. More please!! xx

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  2. It's just there's billions of men in the world who don't bother with circumcision and don't get the infections folks rant about. They have lower rate of HIV than the USA does despite a 90% circumcision rate in the 80s when we first started hearing about HIV.
    You could be light about this, but, in the baby's perspective... I just don't know about this whole circumcision thing.

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  3. I can't get on board with the "it only hurts for an instant." Many horrible things are done in the name of religion and cultural tradition. Female Genital Mutilation has been banned worldwide and women from cultures that practice it can seek asylum. But men? No such chance. Judaism is a beautiful religion - one of tradition, culture and intellect but this barbaric practice eliminates the full range of the male sexual anatomy and has no place in modern society.

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  4. "And if he chooses to follow the religious route, we'd have let him down by not forging his physical bond with The Lord a bit sooner."

    Shouldn't it be his choice to forge his physical bond with a religion? After all it is no religious sacrifice or covenant for him if there is no choice involved. In fact it may be more of a religious sacrifice/covenant for you, the parents, as you watch your child being harmed- however is it really fair for you to sacrifice someone else's body for a covenant? Wouldn't it be more of a covenant if the person had a say, A CHOICE?

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  5. Some people will condemn you for allowing the circumcision and the way in which you have written about it, I would definitely ignore them.

    I do not hold with circumcision personally, but I saw no harm in your words. Indeed it was one of the most balanced pieces on the subject I've read, got right in to the simple heart of the matter, why it was done, honest and elementary, with the essential ingredient of humour, that is so important in the addressing of hard matter.

    One point, as a redhead, I wish your son luck - at least he'll only suffer ridicule sans trousers for one point of order, as the other point will be in order. x

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  6. "when’s the Brit, because you know I need to order the Danish pastries?" - brilliant!!!!
    Made me laugh so much - Thank you!!!!

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  7. Wow. This was compelling reading - though did it with tears in my eyes tbh. Thanks for the insight into something which, I'll be honest, does seem barbaric and bizarre to me, yet as you say is such a standard ritual in many cultures. V glad that it is not something I have had to think about.

    Out of interest, are there any sectors of the Jewish community who choose not to circumcise babies?

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  8. Funny, informative and thought provoking - all rolled (or should that be 'bageled') into one! Really enjoyed the sneak peek into your life, and very much look forward to hearing more. Soon. Please? Xxx

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  9. Sarah said, "Out of interest, are there any sectors of the Jewish community who choose not to circumcise babies?"

    ABSOLUTELY!!!
    BeyondTheBris.com
    JewsAgainstCircumcision.org
    Also Google Brit Shalom

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  10. :( So sad. I pray one day everyone can be fully educated on how much damage circumcision does not only for the boy but also the woman he will marry one day.

    http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/

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  11. Thank heavens for the Jews that are leading the fight to end this insidious childhood blood ritual.

    "The first and great commandment is, Don't let them scare you."
    -Elmer Davis

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  12. roger desmoulins5 July 2011 18:57

    @Sarah and SkinForce: quite a few unaffiliated and liberal Jewish families in Europe and Latin America quietly stopped circumcising sometime in the last century. Nelly Karsenty grew up in France in the 1950s and 60s, and never heard of a bris. Families that cross this bridge do not put this fact in the public domain. The notion that Jewish parents who do not circumcise their sons are self-hating and/or disloyal, is most felt in North America.

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  13. roger desmoulins5 July 2011 19:28

    There is no religious reason why a bris has to be performed in public. The reason is one of social psychology. If it is customary to perform brit in public, then declining to snip becomes public knowledge. Likewise, there is no religious reason why brit has to be painful. (In fact, there is a rich Jewish heritage of nonviolence and kindness to animals.) Yet few mohels begin with an injection of lidocaine.

    You are sufficiently irreligious that you did not mind doing it after 3 weeks, yet still sufficiently religious that you felt compelled to do it.


    Ok, maybe I’m making it out to be more gruesome than it is. The actual circumcision is quick and relatively risk free.
    ME. Bris is quicker than hospital circ. The risk to adult sexual pleasure and functioning have yet to be adequately researched. Rest assured that their grown men, including Jewish men, who are unhappy with their kosher penises.


    The mohel is usually a qualified doctor.
    ME. Doctors make occasional mistakes, even ghastly ones.

    Every day, people are circumcised the world over for either religious or health reasons. There are even health benefits that it can lower the risks of contracting HIV and penile cancer.
    ME. A simple comparison of North America with Europe and Japan reveals that in western societies where men shower daily and have access to condoms and sexual information, the health benefits are bogus. That circumcision "protects" lowers the risk of contracting HIV is especially misleading. The large number of North American gay men who have died of AIDS in the past 30 years were overwhelmingly circumcised.


    But as a mother, when you’ve just given birth to a perfect baby and your natural instinct is to protect your child from harm, sitting back while your child is mutilated, with your full consent, is heart-breaking, devastating, fury-inducing and you feel like you’ve failed as a parent, before you’ve even begun.

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  14. roger desmoulins5 July 2011 19:31

    To be honest, all that lovely traditional stuff was lost in my desire to snatch my son back and run for the hills…or the nearest hospital.
    ME. Thank you for putting such blunt thoughts in the public domain. You are far from alone among Jewish mothers.


    But you know what? He got over it. We got over it.
    ME. Of course. We humans are a resilient lot.
    But that does not justify the rite.


    Everything was fine…eventually. But why do it?... Any worries and doubts I expressed to my dad, were quashed with “well it didn’t do me any harm,” which is a conversation you don’t really want to pursue..
    ME. Again, some men have been harmed, in ways that North American medicine has refused to confront honestly. Also, is it the prerogative of the grandparents to decide the fate of the tender moving parts on a grandson's genitalia?


    Because no one seemed to question the ethics of circumcising their sons, I convinced myself and my husband that it must be ok, like losing a fingernail maybe (except less likely to grow back).
    ME. So you are unaware of the warring on the internet about the future of American and Jewish penises...



    Because at the end of the day, if you make the decision to bring your son up as a Jew, you’ve just got to accept certain things – a) they’re probably going to be short and eventually balding, b) they’re going to aspire to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant and c) they’re expected to be circumcised.
    ME. So he won't blush scarlet at certain times in Sunday school. So he won't be stared at in the YMHA locker room. So he won't be taunted in summer camp in the Catskills. So that Jewish young women won't freak out when he starts dating. Fear of nonconformity is such a wonderful thing...


    After all, yes maybe it hurts for an instant, but that’s nothing compared to the teasing our son would receive from his Jewish friends for his extra packaging – how to make (an already ginger) child feel self-conscious!
    ME. The main reason why millions of American gentiles circumcise their sons.


    Then there’s how he’d feel if he took a nice Jewish girl upstairs one day (she’d be back downstairs in an instant.)
    ME. The internet reveals that there are Jewish girls who prefer that their men have all the factory installed moving parts.


    And if he chooses to follow the religious route, we’d have let him down by not forging his physical bond with The Lord a bit sooner.
    ME. This concern is overwrought. Especially given that when turns 18 or 21, he may prefer to remain intact. One can be intact and become an affiliated Jew as an adult; rabbis do not inspect penises before allowing men to join their temples.


    Then if he chose to have the adult procedure, he’d probably need a little more than a sip of wine to numb the pain.
    ME. Your newborn deserved a lot more than mere wine! Also, there is no evidence that it hurts more when done to an adult. Rather, adults can kvetch but newborns cannot.


    Yes, I wish the initiation into male Jewish life was simply a bottle of chicken soup and a scolding from their future mother-in-law, but then I didn’t’ make the rules.
    ME. But we all have the prerogative to choose the "rules" we follow in our family and personal lives.

    Bris is on a collision course with two powerful aspects of Judaism not emphasised by rabbis. One is feminism. Why should women be excluded from a defining rite of passage?

    The other aspect is sexual sophistication. Judaism embraces reproduction, marriage, and marital pleasure. There is a growing evidence that the natural penis facilitates foreplay and makes vaginal intercourse more pleasant for both partners. Jewish intellectuals have done much over the past 120 years to help all of us get beyond the traditional prudishness we inherited from our ancestors, and to make us more tolerant of homosexuals and other sexual minorities. Brit conflicts with this rich Jewish heritage of progressive sexual values.

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  15. I really enjoyed reading this, as a parent who hasn't had to make the circumcision decision about my son (I'm Christian) I related to the way it describes how you have to think much more about your personal religious beliefs and discuss them with others once you have children.
    It reminds me of making the decision of whether to have my son baptised or not, with all the influences of family and friends, even though the worst that can happen is perhaps a slight fear of water!!
    Brilliant writing! Can't wait for more!

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  16. I've read this with my legs firmly crossed. A great piece which really resonated. Keep ridding yourself of all that yiddisher guilt.
    From a bald lawyer and circumcised dad of a circumcised son.

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  17. I'm a bit squeamish but really enjoyed your post. I am christian and its something I've never thought off so its very interesting to read about circumcision from a Jewish Mother's prespective. I will be following :)

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  18. A quick note to thank you for this article - it's something I'm probably going to have to think about when I have children, so I appreciated your gentle and honest narrative.

    I certainly recognise (as you also mention) the cultural pressure that if I am to bring up a son as Jewish, his circumcision is part of that commitment from me and from him. However, I am now less certain about the morality of making this decision for him, and I'm doing some more reading on the subject. Thanks for inspiring the research - whatever decision I make in due course will be better informed.

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  19. I thought it was really interesting & funny - good for you for putting yourself out there, I'm really impressed, I'm still at the stage where getting everyone dressed, fed and bathed in a day is a triumph let alone writing a blog! Looking forward to the next post x

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