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Two Sons (One Circumcised and One Not), a Scottish Presbyterian Husband and Me (the Jewish Mother)

I hoped that I wouldn’t have a boy. A girl would be so much easier—no bris.

“But why circumcision?” asked my quiet, red-headed, polite, of-Scottish-descent—in other words, not Jewish—husband. As well he should, since we hadn’t circumcised our first son when he was born.

Me: “But I wasn’t involved in the Jewish community then. I’m in it now, we’re raising our kids to be Jewish, they attend Jewish schools, we celebrate the Jewish holidays.”

Him: “It’s unnecessary, cruel and barbaric. Judaism’s supposed to be so ethical, moral and civilized. Who’s going to check, anyway?”

Me: “It’s a way of welcoming a new male person into the tribe. It’s a communal thing. Jews have done it for thousands of years. They’re not any more violent or traumatized than anybody else.”

Him: “This tribal stuff, that’s the whole problem. It’s the cause of so much violence, religious persecution, war, torture, suffering, inquisitions. My tribe’s better than your tribe, so I’m going to kill you.”

I remember this conversation and many more in the months of my pregnancy. Sometimes, in a haze of hormones and mother love, I could barely consider circumcision either. Other times, I felt that elemental pull of tradition impelling me to adopt more Jewish rituals in my life. The tug on the soul that led me down this path was leading me into the primeval heart of my people.

I asked every Jewish mother I met about her experience with circumcision. Even the most unobservant circumcised their sons. It seemed unthinkable to them not to circumcise, even though they would never consider keeping kosher or going to a mikveh (ritual bath) or observing any of the other 613 mitzvot (commandments).

This is one mitzvah that most of us seem to have remembered with great clarity from that moment standing at Mt. Sinai.

“We wanted him to look like his dad, of course,” one friend said.

“It has to do with cleanliness,” said another.

“My parents insisted,” another friend explained.

But our older son never once mentioned that he looked different from his dad. After all, the obvious difference was size, not foreskin. He never once had a urinary tract infection. And my parents would never insist; they were simply happy that I was returning to Judaism. After my years of New Age searching, they didn’t really care what form my Judaism took. They, too, accepted circumcision unquestioningly, even though they were totally secular in every other way.

What was it about circumcision that forced us beyond science, beyond reason, to embrace this elemental, blood ritual that seemed to define us as a people throughout our history? It became hard for me to defend this aspect of my religion to my husband; as a woman, how could I know what he would or wouldn’t experience?

The complexities of Jewish law and communal practice were not what my husband bargained for 16 years ago when we were first married. I became observant fairly suddenly about a year after our first son was born, and changed all the rules on him after the game had already started. Not easy, but he could see how wonderful Judaism was for our older son; the holidays, the synagogue we belong to, the schools. But circumcision just seemed to be too much, too final, too Jewish.

Would I still be a good Jew if I didn’t circumcise my son? The circumcision of the infant is the father’s obligation. If there is no father or the father is unwilling, it is the obligation of the beit din (rabbinical court). And what if there is no beit din, but only a very tense, hysterical mother? I comforted myself with the idea that if I can’t do this one mitzvah, there are 612 others.

My internal dialogue became saturated with thoughts about brit milah (circumcision). Do we observe without questioning? Can we pick and choose which commandments we want to observe, take the easy ones and toss out the politically incorrect or difficult ones? What about kavannah (intention)? Some people choose to observe the ritual of circumcision without the actual cutting. But to me that felt like cheating.

There was something about Jewish ritual that commanded that you actually do it, not sanitize it or spiritualize it. Certainly one can think about commandments and study and pray and question, but the thing itself has to be done, whether it’s tzedakah (giving charity), lighting Shabbat candles or brit milah. In fact, brit milah really symbolized a quality that I craved in my spiritual searches—the bridging of the bitter and the sweet, heaven and earth, being and doing. It’s the charoset (Passover dish of apples and nuts) and the horseradish, the sweetness of birth and the pain of the brit milah.

What I began to realize was how Jewish my life had become. While married to a Presbyterian, I felt I was living as rich and full a Jewish life as I could. I was managing this incredible balancing act. Part of what helped was belonging to a wonderful, Modern Orthodox shul (synagogue). What also helped was that we did not live near my husband’s family (they were involved only peripherally in our lives, and they knew nothing of our dilemma).

“Everyone’s circumcised now, it’s not a symbol of being Jewish anymore,” my husband added in amazement and perplexity as it seemed that I would not compromise on this one.

“We’re living Jewish lives, this will make it easier for him as he grows up. I want this for him,” I answered.

As it turned out, the decision seemed to be made, somewhat mysteriously, through God’s grace, or our love for one another, or through sheer exhaustion. My husband acquiesced, not totally understanding, not knowing why, but I would have to attribute his decision to the strength of his love for me and our children and this sometimes strange entity that is our family.

So we have two sons, one circumcised, one not, a father who is not Jewish but is circumcised, and we are a Jewish family. Sometimes I relish this experiment that is our Jewish family, and sometimes I wish it could be easier.

Laura Abby Lipman

Laura Abby Lipman does medical transcription, lives in Berkeley, California with her family, and is a struggling artist at heart.