The day of my son’s bris was one of the worst of my life.
When I’ve told my parents this, they turn away—they don’t want to talk about it. They feel very differently, so we don’t talk about it.
I refused to be in the room where it was held: my parents’ living room. The mohel—the person who performs the ritual circumcision at a bris and presides over the ceremony—was a doctor whom I trust enormously. He gave my son, Gabe, a nerve block to numb him so that he wouldn’t feel it happening—the same nerve block I was given while delivering him eight days earlier. It worked beautifully on me—the pain came later. I trusted that the same would be true for him.
My husband—who is not Jewish or circumcised but has wholeheartedly accepted my family and my culture, learned all the prayers by rote and joins me for every holiday—held the baby while I cried upstairs. When it was done, my mother, her eyes wet, came up to tell me. I pushed past her and went downstairs to fetch my son. He was crying. It wasn’t a cry of pain—I would know if it had been—but one of fear.
The women were singing. I’m sure it was beautiful, but it sounded discordant to me. I looked at no one and spoke to no one. I took my child back upstairs to my childhood bedroom and closed the door.
Months earlier, when I found out that we were having a boy, my second thought was, Ugh, boy clothes are so boring. My third thought was, Oh no, what am I going to tell my daughter? My daughter, Mireille, almost three, wanted a sister more than anything in the world. But before any of these, my first thought was like a hammer to the heart: Oh, shit. There’s going to be a bris.
My husband, Erik, is tall, blond and Norwegian. We met while we were young and travelling. Soon after we got married, we decided that we would live in Canada. His English is perfect and my Norwegian is nearly non-existent. His family is nearly non-existent and mine is, if not perfect, large and fairly functional. And that’s how we ended up here, near my family, in good jobs with good pensions and a modest but lovely house in a good school district in a country where circumcision is endemic.
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), 32 percent of all Canadian newborn boys are circumcised—that’s almost one in three. This rate represents a reduction from previous numbers and continues to fall. The CPS doesn’t recommend the routine circumcision of newborn boys, though it doesn’t condemn the practice for ritual reasons. and says that the procedure is medically indicated in some circumstances and that there may be benefits to the routine circumcision of boys in some high-risk populations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics holds a stronger stance in favour of circumcision. Its policy is that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, though not significantly enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision.
In Norway, my husband’s home country, the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children recommends that circumcision be practised only where there is specific medical indication and that boys should decide for themselves when they are of age.
In the Canadian Jewish community, though, the circumcision rate is close to 100 percent. It’s such a foregone conclusion that it’s difficult to find specific data.
Growing up in a Jewish household, it certainly wasn’t presented as a “choice” to me; it was something we would just do.
While I was pregnant, I spoke to many circumcised men I knew: my brother, close friends, an ex-boyfriend or two. I asked if they felt that anything was missing, if they felt mutilated. All of them said no. In fact, my brother was offended by the suggestion. He was happy with his penis and his sex life, and he was circumcised because he was Jewish and that’s what we do.
This process calmed me. If every circumcised man I know was OK with having been circumcised, it meant that I could stop panicking. But the question remained: Even if circumcision is relatively harmless and doesn’t cause permanent suffering, does that mean I have to be OK with it for my own child?
One of the more powerful arguments I’ve seen in favour of the bris—the ceremony of Jewish ritual circumcision at eight days old—is from Elyse Goldstein, a rabbi in Toronto. She sees the ritual as a bulwark against patriarchal violence and a reminder to men that their bodies are holy and meant to be used to sanctify the world, not to profane it through sexual violence.
“In our society, male violence is still the norm, based on phallic authority and the fear that phallus can instill,” she writes in an essay published online. “Since we have seen how blood offers expiation throughout the Torah, can those few drops of covenantal blood be seen as atonement for male control and the cleansing of violence in a patriarchal world? Let men teach men, father to son, of vulnerability….”
But how does the violence of cutting without medical need, even when done with anaesthetic, beget non-violence? Circumcision isn’t the loss of a few drops of blood; it’s the removal of an organ. And for what must a newborn atone? As Jews, we don’t believe in original sin. Surely, the body of an infant represents the ultimate vulnerability: a phallus without fear, a body without violence.
It is scary to write this as a Jew: It feels like a betrayal. My family escaped pogroms in Russia to come to Canada just before the Second World War. We lost distant family to the Holocaust—I can’t think of an Ashkenazi Jewish family that didn’t—but we got out before Auschwitz and Birkenau. Our losses were earlier: an aunt killed by the Cossacks in the 1910s, a pregnancy lost from a beating in the 1920s just before my great-great-grandfather boarded the boat, my grandmother’s two-year-old sister dead of cholera on the voyage after her father sent for his wife and children to bring them to Canada, where they would be safe.
For thousands of years, we have been expelled and murdered for who we are—and the bris is who we are. It is one of Judaism’s most important rituals. It brings our men into covenant, not only with God but also with our ancestors, our people and our heritage. And yet I wish I hadn’t done it.
Gabe is now three years old. He is in nursery school. He is a sunny, happy, delightful little boy. He adores babies and animals and is the first to run to help another child who is crying. He has his father’s straight blond hair and bright blue eyes, and my pale skin and deviated septum (sorry, Gabe).
After his bris, he healed quickly and perfectly. He doesn’t seem to feel that anything is wrong with him or identify that anything is missing. As he grows up, I hope that he will be happy and satisfied with who he is.
Gabe is Jewish, by blood and by culture. We are raising him as a Jew, my agnostic husband and I, but with one caveat: He will always know that, if he chooses to have children and has a boy, we will not insist on a bris.
My husband’s first exposure to Jewish culture was the film Fiddler on the Roof, which he watched many times as a child. He can still sing more of “Tradition” than most Jews I know. We watched it again recently with our kids. I saw my children’s faces, bright and beautiful, and thought, Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers.
As we watched Hodel reject the man her father chose for her and marry the man she loves, I thought, Traditions change. And my children will always have my blessing to change them.
The author of this story has requested anonymity.