Let me begin with a word of warning to those of you whose shiksa wives have just given birth at home, in a tub, to a beautiful baby boy, whose penis you now want to ritually scarify in order to satisfy a supposed covenant with God. Don’t wait until the last minute to spring the news! And don’t do this either: don’t act like it’s all taken for granted, like it’s all been decided upon. Don’t play dumb, is what I’m saying.
I can’t explain why I hadn’t mentioned it. I guess I had either assumed everything would be cool when it came to circumcising our boy Guthrie (Gus for short), or else I was in denial and knew all along she’d have a kanipshin, which ironically is a Yiddish word, as far as I’m aware. It sounds like one anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and say it is.
I never understood why us Jews are so all about getting rid of the foreskins in the first place. We must’ve thought it was a pretty big deal at some point since we went and came up with this whole Covenant spiel. I’m assuming there was some sort of a growth involved.
To put it bluntly, I’m guessing the guy that invented circumcision must’ve had one nasty, stinky, irritating crotch. I mean, to even think of cutting off a piece! Imagine, being the first one to think of it. There must have been an assload of bullshit going on with this guy’s dick. The thing must have been literally dripping with a disgusting, fetid mold. Lichen may have played a part. Or maybe it was fuzzy like those poisonous caterpillars, like an old loaf of bread. With hyphae shooting out all over the place.
Had to be, right? Because you’d think most people—back then especially—would look at a penis and go, Hey, nice looking penis. Let’s not fuck with it! I mean, consider this: back then, even if you got a little cut on your hand or whatever there was a petty decent chance you were going to die. That you would just get an infection and die. They didn’t have Neosporins back then. They couldn’t just go to CVS.
Okay. Now I’m starting to see a theory forming. I’m beginning to feel my way around the makings of a theory. So here’s what happened: so this one guy gets infected with this crazy fungus, like maybe at some point he gets real horny and he fucks a mushroom or whatever and wham. And then the guy goes home and screws his wife and then she goes and screws some other guy and now he’s got the fungus-dick! Or else maybe it wasn’t even that. I hate to pin this one on the ladies. So let’s say maybe the guy just jerked-off and then shook the other guy’s hand and then the other guy jerked-off, and there you go. Or maybe the first guy jerked-off the second guy. Maybe the first guy was secretly in the closet. Maybe he’d been stuck in an unhappy marriage all these years and his only remaining pleasure in life was to go out and jerk dudes off in a mushroom patch. Fine by me. Who am I to judge?
Anyway, what I’m saying is it spread. That’s the main thing. Like something out of a horror movie. Until before you know it everybody’s going around scratching his balls all the time and it’s literally driving them crazy. They don’t know what to do.
CUT IT OFF!!!!
Right? Wouldn’t you? A little flap of skin that didn’t seem to do much for anybody anymore except cause trouble?
Of course nowadays. Nowadays, we don’t have to cut things off. Because nowadays we have lotion.
And yet we still do.
I just thought of something. Maybe it wasn’t the men at all. Maybe it was the women. Maybe the men didn’t give a shit. It stank, it looked bad. It itched. Whatever. A lot of things did back then.
But maybe the first dude’s wife said Honey, let’s leave the oil lamp burning, just for tonight. And she gets ready to go down on the guy and the guy’s thinking this is his lucky night, that he’s about to get lucky (or else he’s thinking about the guy in the mushroom patch) and then she unzips his tunic and gets a good look and runs from the room shrieking and gasping for air.
“My God, Mordechai,” She says, “What’d you do, pork the porcini?”
CUT IT OFF!!!
And then maybe she did. Maybe she went and got a knife out of the drawer, or a sharp stone, whatever, and while her husband was sleeping she cut the thing off and then lo and behold, over time the infestation subsided.
“Okay,” I said, finally, “I found two people who will do it.”
“Great!” my wife said, impressed that I was able to find anyone to do anything, “Do what.”
“Do the thing,” I said.
“You know. The thing we’re supposed to do.”
“What, like take care of the lawn?”
“Like figure out how we’re going to pay for all the pre-school Gus and Noa are going to need?”
“Uh, no, not that either.”
“Because those would be good ones.”
“Right, I agree. They would be. Totally good ones. No. When I say, the thing we’re supposed to do, I guess I’m talking about the thing I’m supposed to do. The thing Jews are supposed to do. To our sons.”
“What are you…Oh, no.”
“What? Did you not think we weren’t going to do that?”
“Seriously, Steven? After everything I went through? The home-birth and everything?”
When it came to my wife’s feelings on the matter, I really couldn’t complain. After all, she could have pushed for the whole baptism/communion nonsense, but she didn’t. She kept her cool. She stayed true to her convictions. The end result, of course, is that overall we missed out on a lot of gifts.
Days of negotiation ensued, during which I attempted to determine whether or not circumcision was even medically advisable. I’ll boil it down for you: maybe.
I talked to every doctor I knew, desperately seeking some info that would help me seal my case. According to most, the benefits outweighed the risks. My circumcised son, they assured me, would have a lower chance of catching a sexually transmitted disease (including HIV), reduced urinary tract infections, even a reduced chance of penile and prostate cancer. Besides which, according to one doc, about 15% of boys experience a problem that requires circumcision later in childhood anyway. And as if that weren’t enough, thanks to the trim job, Gus would forever experience a “dramatic enhancement” of sexual pleasure.
Meanwhile, an entire army of enraged hippies was shaking its fist at me over the internet and shouting out, in emboldened, all-caps fonts, stories of botched operations and their unfortunate disfiguring results. The “Jewish Circumcision Resource Center” (http://jewishcircumcision.org/) spoke at length of the “serious, unrecognized harm of circumcision,” of the “severe and overwhelming” level of pain experienced by the infant, of “impaired mother-infant bonding,” and of significantly diminished sexual pleasure.
But nothing was definitive.
To avoid complications, doctors recommend parents clean out their son’s foreskin. Granted, nobody wants to Q-tip smegma every day, but laziness alone was hardly justification for putting Guthrie, our newborn, under the knife.
Then there was this quaint yet peculiar idea that a boy’s genitals should match his father’s. I’m not sure how this one got started, but to me it just seems trivial and foolish. A last-ditch effort. In any case, it’s an argument that holds little water with me. Here’s why: first off, nobody wants a penis that looks like mine. This should be pretty obvious to anybody who’s read my earlier work. Besides which, our boy, Gus, is blue-eyed and blond-haired. Nothing of his looks like anything of mine. Frankly, I don’t think he would have even noticed the difference—that his johnson was wearing a turtleneck whereas mine was less concerned with the wind-chill.
But the fact remained, I still wanted to go ahead with it, though I still didn’t know why.
And then there’s my dad.
“An uncircumcised boy cannot be a Jew,” he said, “Period.”
“Are you sure about that?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said, “One-hundred percent. Now, let’s say you and Raegan get divorced—God forbid—and Raegan gets custody of the children. Who knows what could happen then.”
“What could happen?”
“Well, she could have the kids baptized retroactively, for instance.”
“They can do that?”
“I don’t think she’s the kind of person…”
“It’s a possibility,” dad said, “She gets pressured by her family…”
“But, dad,” I said, “technically, the kids aren’t even Jewish now.”
“They are according to the Nazis.”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying…”
“I’m saying, if you want to give the kid a fighting chance of ever being Jewish…”
“I thought it was all about the one-God thing.”
“Yes, of course, there’s that…”
“But dad, think of it this way. Let’s say the Nazis come back into power, or some other incarnation of anti-Semitism, whatever, and they decide they’re going to do a dick-check, and, bang: Gus got the hoodie. His mom’s not on the Jew list. Ergo, he lives. Isn’t that ultimately the better outcome?”
“Not if he dies with a cross around his neck!”
“I’m just saying. Rule number one. The circumcision does not make the Jew but to be Jewish one must be circumcised.”
I knew my mom probably didn’t care one way or the other. But I also knew she’d be taking care of our children a lot. As often as possible. And the thought of her having to clean-out my son’s foreskin after each bath…kind of, well, it kind of depressed me a little. Somewhere at the back of my mind I worried they might feel I’d somehow given up.
And then, before I could find good-enough cause to go ahead with the thing, Raegan suddenly and inexplicably relented.
“Fine,” She said. “You know what? Have it your way. Take a little off the top.”
“If it’s that important to you. If you’ve got some kind of ancient, mystical ritualistic Jewish-penis-connection you need to make with your son, then fine. Just remember, we’re not doing a bris or whatever. We’re not turning the mutilation of our son’s sex-organs into a big social function.”
“Right,” I said, “I would never do that.”
“Because that’s just gross.”
“Right,” I said, “Gross.”
[pause for effect]
“You do know you get a lot of gifts that way, right?”
“Forget gifts! Raegan said, “I can’t believe I married someone who cares more about gifts than he does about the safety of his own son’s genitals!”
“I think it’s a relatively simple procedure,” I said, “I mean, if they did it way back then…”
“Never mind safe. If we do this at all it’s going to be with a real doctor. Not some nutcase who cuts off penises for a living because he thinks he’s doing God a big favor!”
Which was ironic, her insisting on a doctor. Because like I said, we had just had our son Guthrie at home, in our kitchen, a large round birthing tub, with the help of a midwife, who was awesome. It went a whole lot smoother, in fact, than the birth of our first-born, our daughter, which happened in a local hospital and wound up in a c-section, just the way you hear about in the Ricki Lake movies.
Raegan went in with a birth plan and a doula and came out with an abdominal scar and a lingering fear our little girl was going to be forever affected by whatever medications they’d pumped into her over the last twelve hours — first the anti-biotic (because apparently vaginas can’t give birth without antibiotics anymore), and then the epinephrine to counteract her allergic reaction to the antibiotic, then Loratadine to counteract the epinephrine, and then Fentanyl when they finally decided to go ahead and make the cut and get the baby out of there because by this time the doctor was running pretty late for her golf game. I got to admit though, she did come out a good-looking baby. And so quiet and content, too. Gus on the other hand came out looking like a baseball glove and carrying on like someone just cut the end of his dick off.
But that’s neither here nor there.
If it hadn’t been covered by Blue Cross, things might have ended differently, so to speak. But there it was. After a quick Google search, I found a local mohel who was also a doctor and who even took insurance. The mere fact that it was covered at all set my mind at ease, making me think there must be some benefit to it. After all, Blue Cross to this day refuses to cover our home-birth, even in retrospect, when the cost was a tenth that of a hospital birth, and the perfect health of both mother and baby have been irrefutably confirmed.
His name is Dr. Reuveyn Fraser, MD and Certified Mohel, located online at Bostonmohel.com. At first glance, he seemed like a ringer. A sure thing. He had the beard. He had the yarmulke. He even had testimonials: “Never before have I seen such an artfully mutilated penis! Dr. Fraser is the best!! He has no equal!!!!”**
But as soon as I got him on the phone, I knew he wasn’t going to cut it, pun (tragically) intended. He spoke slowly and rabbinically, every phrase lilting upwards like a question. He was definitely your more traditional mohel, and I had difficulty hiding the fact the mother wasn’t interested in a bris, per se, because, frankly, I thought the concept was pretty barbaric, myself. Though don’t get me wrong. As I mentioned before, I was pretty psyched about the gifts.
It was quite a pitch he unleashed on me. He kept quoting the Old Testament and telling me over and over about the delegation of responsibilities and said how much everyone would appreciate the different duties I had bestowed. He went into considerable detail and by the end of the call I learned something about myself. I learned that if I’m ever invited to attend a bris, and everybody’s gathered around the baby—praying and fulfilling their prospective duties and whatnot—it’s a safe bet I’ll be in the bathroom, praying I don’t throw-up.
Dr. Fraser continued, “Duties include carrying the baby into the room, holding the baby during the Brit Milah (the biggest honor), keeping the wine-soaked cloth firmly in the baby’s mouth, and passing out the bagel-bites and mini-knishes.”
“Here’s the thing,” I said when he finally stopped talking, “We’re not so much about having a bris or anything. In the traditional sense, I mean. This is more about just getting the kid circumcised.”
“But surely there will be people gathered,” he said. “You’ll want a room full of people. Your immediate family at least. The baby’s grandparents. Surely they would want to be there.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s up for debate, actually.”
“You know, according to Scripture, the infant’s father is responsible for performing the service.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“As in, like, saying the prayers?”
“The praying, the cutting. The whole Megillah. Not that I want that getting around. I need all the work I can get.”
“Suddenly, I’m a little lightheaded. You mean, I’m supposed to…my own son’s…”
“The removing of the foreskin, yes.”
“That’s real? You’re not just fucking with me right now?”
“I swear to Hashem.”
“And what’s with the whole Hashem thing?” I said, “Since when did everybody switch over to Hashem? Whatever happened to Adonai? When I was a kid it was all about Adonai. What was wrong with that name? Too Jewish?”
“I’m not sure you should be talking this way.”
“The deal is, doctor, my wife isn’t Jewish. There. I said it. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not at all. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t marry Jews.”
“And Adam and Eve weren’t even Jewish, themselves.”
“Yeah, but that’s because Adam and Eve weren’t real.”
“Listen. Do you want to do this? I charge $600 direct to your health care provider.”
“Right, but the prayers and everything…”
“We can do a mini-service. Just a couple prayers. Your wife doesn’t even have to be in the room. She can be serving the rugelach. Give her enough Manischevitz, she won’t know what’s happening.”
“That may be so, but I’ll still have to run it by her.”
“Fine. Here’s what you’ll need: two candles, a table, two chairs (the first for the Sandek and the second left empty to symbolize the presence of Eliyahu and the coming of the Messiah). The table should be 5 feet by 5 feet and sturdy. No folding card tables. A smaller table and two sturdy stands are also acceptable. You’ll need a tablecloth to cover the table. Three small dishes, one with olives symbolic of Israel, one with raisins and almonds symbolic of health and prosperity, and one with sand or dirt symbolic of the covenant. These are placed on the table along with a Kiddush cup, plus red wine and a vase with flowers. Also, you’ll need some diapers, some 4 by 4 inch gauze, a pacifier, and a nipple from a baby bottle. Plus a jar of Vaseline. Oh, and lastly, be sure to have plenty of food on hand for the big feast.”
I got off the phone. Raegan was feeding Guthrie. He was busy making happy slurping sounds at her mother’s warm, ample bosom. He clearly had no idea what was in store.
“Well, that guy sounded perfect!” I said.
“Are you sure?” Raegan asked, “Because it seemed like there…”
“Nope. He’s our man. And he takes Blue Cross.”
“Great! And he didn’t mind that I wasn’t Jewish?”
“Not at all. In fact, he said something about Abraham’s wife not being Jewish either, which I never realized.”
“Yeah. There’s just a few things we need. Nothing major. I wrote it all down: candles, flowers, a Kiddush cup, a pacifier, some vaseline…”
“What was that one in the middle?”
“Not that one.”
“Um, Kiddush cup?”
“Kiddush cup!? Steven! We said no bris!”
“It’s just a little bris. A mini-bris, he called it. A brittle.”
“No way. No bris!!”
“What can I tell you? That’s how he does it. He does a bris.”
“Then you need to find another mohel. One who doesn’t do brises!”
“What do you mean, a mohel who doesn’t do brises? That’s all they do. That’s their whole deal!! That’s like asking a chicken not to lay eggs. That may not be the best analogy, but you get what I’m saying.”
As though he’d been listening in on the conversation, Gus bit down on Raegan’s nipple.
“Ow!” Raegan said, “Hey, Gus. Come on. If you’re all done eating, just say so. You don’t have to get all testy about it.”
I loved to watch my wife breastfeed. Her nonchalance, when the whole thing is so freaking amazing. Particularly the fact he knows the food is in there to begin with. We each have our own clearly defined biological roles: she, the soft vessel of life, whose body is endowed with two giant pillows that magically provide nourishment as well as protection from disease; me, the guy with the sandpaper face who goes around cutting off foreskins.
“So are we good, then?” I asked, Can I call Dr. Fraser back and make the appointment?”
“Steven. No religious fanatic is touching our son’s penis.”
More Google searches and a lot of phone calls turned up nothing. My well had run dry. And then it suddenly occurred to me to call my cousin, Eric Levin, himself an incredible Jewish pediatrician. Turns out he knew a guy. And not just any guy.
“Klauber’s the best,” Eric said, “Apparently, he’s a mohel as well, or used to be a mohel. I don’t remember exactly. I think he’s over at the floating hospital downtown. Anyway, he’s a urologist, which means he majored in dicks, whereas the other guy you mentioned was an epidemiologist, a statistician. Which means he was all about the numbers and just did the dick thing on the side because apparently he was way into the idea of ridding the world of all these erroneous foreskins. You don’t want him.”
The waiting room in Tufts Medical Center was quiet and the chairs uncomfortable and there was a gentle humming in the air, the circulatory system, creating an unnatural breeze, a draft, a chill.
We kept our coats on.
We had talked to four different women in succession since parking in the underground lot: the Latino who took my credit card in the garage and showed us the way to the elevator, the black security guard in the lobby who smiled at the sight of our boy, the obese Caucasian desk clerk at registration who explained the confusing billing process in a confusing way, and the caustic Philippino on the 3rd floor who finally took my insurance card and told us to sit down. The doctor would be right with us.
The nurse called us in and asked us to undress Guthrie and then applied a little bandage to his penis. A little Lidocaine poultice to ease the pain, she said. And though she held her tongue throughout, she seemed pensive and depressed, as though the thought of what was about to happen saddened and disturbed her.
Then we went and sat back down and waited for the pain killer to kick in. Raegan and I looked down and studied our phones. Guthrie fell back to sleep.
Was there music, then?
Twenty minutes later, Dr. Klauber introduced himself. I liked him right away, though I can’t explain why. He seemed reverential somehow. Almost priestly. His manner was soft-spoken and his hand was warm when I shook it and his movements were careful and deliberate.
He called us into his office and we sat, talking, at his desk.
So, how old is your boy, then? he asked.
He’s ten days old, we said.
It was your first available opening, I said.
That’s okay. That’s fine.
Then he got up and said we were ready to begin and we followed him down the hall into the operating room.
You can go and sit in the waiting room if you like, he said as Raegan handed Guthrie over to the nurse.
If it’s all the same, we said, we’d prefer to stay here.
Or you can stay in here with Gus, he said. That’s fine too. The nurse will be in here as well, just so you know.
Now, circumcision a very simple procedure, he began, and a relatively quick one. Your little boy should be completely healed in a couple of days, if not sooner. You’ll just put some vaseline on him and a little gauze pad and then everything’s fine. Complications are rare and generally mild. Some adhesion maybe. A little swelling or bleeding. Nothing that won’t resolve itself on its own.
Then he recited to the nurse a list of tools to go and gather.
On the operating table sat a large white tray that looked to be made of plastic and bore the imprint of a baby. There were velcro straps at the wrists and thighs and the large sticker on the side read Circumstraint. The doctor settled our naked boy into the device and wrapped the straps around his limbs. Guthrie was uncomfortable, fidgety. He began to whimper.
Stay close, the doctor said. Keep your hands on him.
Dr. Klauber handed Raegan a large eye-dropper and a small brown bottle full of glucose-syrup and told her that she should drip some into the boy’s mouth at regular intervals or if he seemed to be experiencing any discomfort.
Just to give him something to do, he said. To make things a little sweeter.
The nurse returned and laid a velvet bundle on the table beside the boy. The doctor unwrapped the package and the set of tools lay inside, sterile and gleaming.
Then the doctor manipulated Guthrie’s penis and placed a small pink plastic ring around him. Then he opened a small drawer in the side of the table and selected what looked like a narrow steel ring from a tray of rings, like a jeweler. Then he turned his attention back towards the boy and fit the small metal collar around the head of his penis.
Hm, he said, dissatisfied. Looks like we’re going to need a 4.
A 4? I asked.
A 4. Good-sized penis.
Not for long, my wife said.
Nurse, he said, Make a note we’ll be using an A4.
He pulled-out the larger sized ring and slid it down Gus’s penis and then retracted the foreskin down over it. Then he placed another, similar ring over the penis such that it met with the interior of the foreskin, and the foreskin was the only thing separating the two rings.
This eliminates any guesswork, the doctor explained, Creates a very definite path along which to cut.
Guthrie began to cry.
I’m not hurting him, Dr. Klauber told us, I’m just adjusting the collar.
Then he reached for the scalpel.
Just keep stroking him, he said to me, Keep talking to him. Reassuring him.
I told Guthrie what a good sweet little boy he was and the doctor cleaned his penis with a cloth dipped in reddish-brown Betadine.
Give him some more sugar drops, he said to Raegan. Don’t be stingy. Keep them coming.
The doctor touched the blade to Guthrie’s foreskin, and Guthrie let out a scream.
He can’t feel anything, he said, It’s probably cold. He’s probably just cold.
Though it felt like it lasted an hour or more, and Gus cried through the whole procedure, when it was over, I glanced up at the clock. Ten minutes had passed. I looked over at the nurse. Her eyes were wet. She was hiding her tears. She stepped from the room, uncomfortable.
Smiling, the doctor removed his rubber gloves and again shook my hand.
Everything went great, he said, proudly. Just perfect. I left him a little room to grow. I like to do that. I like to leave as much intact as possible.
He looked over at me.
It’s still…official, he said.
Then we wrapped him up in a heated blanket and he told Raegan to nurse him and within moments Guthrie was happy again.
Back in the lobby, as I was filling out the exiting paperwork, the clerk handed us a little pamphlet that explained some things, and the nurse approached my wife and looked down at our boy, sleeping now in her arms and set a gentle hand upon her shoulder.
I’m sorry, I overheard her say. I know from experience the baby can’t feel anything. I know that. That much is undeniable. But I still can’t stand to see them like that. All laid-out like that. The poor helpless creatures.
It’s now three years later, I just finished watching some uncircumcised internet porn— purely for research purposes, naturally. And I can hardly believe that in all my 43 years of life I never before witnessed the actual horror-show that is the uncircumcised adult penis. Why, it looks like one of those polypropylene gel-filled snakes you can’t grab a hold of. Like a tube of bathroom caulking. It utterly lacked all signs of a personality. It was a completely foreign object. My boy’s junk deserves better.
**Not an actual testimonial.