Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Choosing Brit Shalom Over Brit Milah


By NATALIE BIVAS


Twenty-five years ago my husband and I did something few Jewish parents had. We held a brit shalom ceremony for our son as opposed to a brit milah. We invited guests without saying there would be no circumcision. Dr. Dean Edell (who is Jewish and opposed to circumcision) sent a camera crew for our brit shalom and later used clips from it on different TV programs.

We had a friend who was a rabbi in education, but without a pulpit. It was novel for him to do a brit without mila, but he was willing to do it and risk it. There was also a rabbi in Marin County who was known to do a brit shalom. He was known as a hippie rabbi. He also was willing to do this for us. So we had two rabbis.

Looking back, though, I wish I’d done nothing. I felt I wasn’t fair to the guests because they were invited to something that might have offended them, and without warning.  I was so nervous about it that I had no pleasure in it. My parents were there and just happy to have a grandson. They were 75 and 79 at the time. My husband’s parents were in France.

We were afraid to bring up our decision to our families, all members having a strong Jewish identity. My husband’s sister is prominent in Jewish organizations at the national level. We wrote thoughtful letters to everyone. I don’t know what they really felt, but they didn’t reject us. We aren’t otherwise very rebellious. I must admit this was super scary and painful for me. 

Convincing My Husband Not to Circumcise

My husband is Jewish, from Egypt. He was not on board at first with the idea of not circumcising our son, but he also was uncomfortable because he and others in his family had fainted at brises. Pregnant, I would wake him in the middle of the night and ask him to imagine what it would have been like to have circumcised our then three year-old daughter. Female circumcision, after all, would have been practiced in his native Egypt. This thought was very difficult for him. 

Eventually my husband thought of how primitive his family viewed the tribal scarring practiced by the Sudanese and Nubians in Egypt. I would ask my husband, “So tell me the difference, please, between those people cutting themselves and our people cutting themselves?” He conceded that circumcision, if you could step back and consider it as an anthropologist would, was not different from tribal scarification. With these comparisons and my crying at three in the morning, he came around.

My pregnancy was spent in a constant distress. I sometimes feel angry and guilty because I must have surrounded my poor baby with stress hormones due to the decision not to circumcise him. I can’t help but wonder if there were long-term effects on my son as a result. I had anxiety and dry heaves through much of my pregnancy because I felt as if Judaism was forcing me to choose between not hurting my child and being seen as a heretic. I was angry about being in that position. And I was afraid everyone would argue with us and turn their backs on us. I did lose a friend over our decision. She said, “So in another holocaust, your son will be spared!” We don’t talk anymore, by the way.

I grew up in a steel-manufacturing town 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. My parents were first generation Jews in America. As a child I was always more religious than my parents and insisted we celebrate every holiday. My extended family called me the rebbetzin. Women were not rabbis then. If it had been possible to be a woman rabbi, I might have. We didn’t have bat mitzvahs in our shul, only bar mitzvahs. Eventually we added confirmation, and I had a confirmation at 15. My maternal grandfather was very observant, and I regarded him as one step down from God, so I understood kashrut and how to be observant.

Realizing the Harms of Circumcision

I’m not sure when I came to view circumcision as harmful. It was a process. When I was five, my parents explained circumcision as we were going to my cousin’s bris. I remember my parents saying the penis had a little something that didn’t belong there and had to be cut off. It was a bit like cutting fingernails, they explained, and it wasn’t painful. I was slightly uneasy about the idea of being born with something you didn’t need and with the idea that removing something from the penis wouldn’t be painful. When the bris started, my baby cousin screamed. He and the men were in another room. I sensed the anxiety of the women, and I also felt anxious because I knew I didn’t scream when I got my nails cut. Experts in memory say the events we remember well from childhood are often the scary, traumatic ones. This must have been scary for me because I remember it well.

I was in my early twenties when I was invited to a bris of my friend’s son. The women had quietly left the room before the cutting, and I hadn’t noticed. I found myself with a front row seat.  The baby was livid with shrieking. In the hallway, friends were supporting the mother from collapsing. It seemed horrible. The next day, I was back in the Hebrew school where I was teaching at the time, talking to my Israeli colleague. I said to her, “I think circumcision was created as one of those rites of passage that separated the weak from the strong. Probably many babies didn’t survive it in primitive times.” She said, “My baby brother died from his circumcision in 1939. He ended up with septicemia before there were antibiotics, and he died.” That was the beginning of my eyes being opened to the dangers of circumcision. It was clearly not the same as a fingernail trim. Years later, when I was pregnant, I learned from a friend of a boy she knew who was institutionalized because of his bris. He also had septicemia and was permanently brain damaged.

Raising My Intact Son

My son was around eight when he learned about circumcision and the fact he is intact. One day he asked why he was on TV now and then. (Recall Dean Edell and the bris.)  I explained to him what circumcision is, and that it was novel that he was Jewish and not circumcised because we opposed it. I don’t think he minded not being circumcised. I think he was appalled that anyone would have considered cutting off part of his penis.

Being intact hasn’t stopped my son from being involved with Judaism. He had a bar mitzvah and did the whole service except for Shachrit, including a dvar Torah. He went as a volunteer in the Israeli army with me when he was in high school. He went to Hillel for every Shabbat and for every holiday at Oberlin where he was an undergrad. In college, he went to Israel again with Aish HaTorah to learn how to become an advocate for Israel. He did a Kohn internship here when he was an undergrad, working for Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA). He did a year of modern Hebrew at college (that is all they offered). He currently goes to Hillel or to a local synagogue every Shabbat in Ann Arbor where he is a grad student. When he’s home he is eager to go to Torah study with us on Saturday mornings at the Reform congregation. For someone his age who was not raised as an Orthodox Jew, he is very knowledgeable about Judaism and very interested.

Being a Jew Opposing Circumcision

Choosing to leave our boy intact hasn’t diminished our Jewish involvement. My husband and I belong to two congregations in Palo Alto, California. We’ve belonged to the Conservative synagogue for at least 25 years and are associate members of the Reform temple where we attend Torah study. I am a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council. My husband, who was exiled from Egypt, is an active member of JIMENA and does presentations about Jews exiled from Arab countries. I am an advocate for Israel and have twice volunteered on supply bases with Sar-El. I have had many pro-Israel letters published in newspapers and magazines.

I think circumcision is wrong, is mutilation, and parents have no right to mutilate their child’s body. I would advise parents who are on the fence about this decision to have the strength of their convictions because others have gone before them. These days Jewish identity is so weak, and intermarriage among Jews so high, that no parent should think circumcision is the act upon which their child will identify. Parents who are concerned about fostering their child’s Jewish identity would be better off focusing on other aspects of Judaism. So, in short, I’d say, “stand your ground.”

Natalie Bivas is a reading and ESL specialist for the Palo Alto School District where she has worked for eighteen years. Prior to this she taught in two Jewish days schools in Montreal after finishing a teaching credential at McGill University where she earned her B.A. She is also the former reading specialist for the Jewish Coalition for Literacy.

12 comments:

  1. Natalie,

    You are such a wonderful woman for heeding your convictions, and protecting your son from circumcision, instead of going along with the crowd.

    Just as other religions would have no right to brand, tattoo, or do any other permanently harmful rite to their children, Jewish children should be free from circumcision. Please continue sharing your story, so you can plant the seed that circumcision is something that should be abandoned in other Jewish parents hearts, and minds.

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  2. Beautifully written story, thank you.
    I, too am a Jew and my sons, now 27 and 13 are intact. Although I have never practiced my religion, my children identify themselves as Jews. Their heritage comes from their heart and soul, not their genitals.
    My mother always regretted my brothers' circumcisions and like you, learned from Dr. Dean Edell. She learned independently from me at about the same time my first son was born. Whenever a family member mentioned my son needing to be circumcised, my mother was there to back me up. It would have been difficult to fight them off on my own, but I would have. In hindsight, not circumcising my sons is one of the best decisions I ever made as a parent and I don't know how I would live with myself if I had done otherwise.
    Please read my thoughts on circumcision below on this site.
    Karen Goldis Isskenderov

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  3. Mostly what I have seen from Rabbi's is that a boy will be made to feel bad if he doesn't get a circumcision. It is already known that a boy born of a Jewish mother is Jewish, and circumcision doesn't affect that a bit. IF this is the reason given for why a Jewish boys need to undergo circumcision.....fitting in, then it seems like it should be the religion and families responsibility to make sure boys who are not circumcised are not treated any differently.

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    1. Andrew S. KohlerMay 1, 2012 at 5:55 PM

      "IF this is the reason given for why a Jewish boys need to undergo circumcision.....fitting in, then it seems like it should be the religion and families responsibility to make sure boys who are not circumcised are not treated any differently."

      THANK YOU!!! Yes!!! Anyone who rejects a person because of what his or her genitals look like has a character deficiency, and it is that person's problem and not the child's. Those who say "he has to fit in" are no better than playground bullies, and only discredit themselves with such callous and immature thinking.

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  4. It takes very very great moral courage to be as religious as you are and yet to refuse to circumcise one's own son. Thank you for sharing this very intimate aspect of your life with us all.

    “So in another holocaust, your son will be spared!”

    Your friend's ugly sarcasm speaks so loudly to the envy, the dog in the manger posturing, the fear of ridicule and disdain -- base motives all -- that circumcision, routine as well as ritual, tends to attract. There are surely those who think silently that your decision at your son's birth will embarrass him acutely when he starts dating Jewish women seeking to get married.

    “My baby brother died from his circumcision in 1939. He ended up with septicemia before there were antibiotics, and he died.”
    "...of a boy she knew who was institutionalized because of his bris. He also had septicemia and was permanently brain damaged."

    Who will count the victims of brit milah? Thank you for speaking up for them.

    Tikkun olam. L'chaim!

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  5. Natalie, what a wonderful and loving person you are... and you showed all the respect and love that a parent should have for her child... This world is surely a better world with people like you around... Thank you.

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  6. Natalie:

    What a wonderful article. You are one of the leaders in the Brit Shalom movement. It was a conversation I had with you about twelve years ago that was my inspiration to start the Celebrants of Brit Shalom list on line. And yes, your hippie Rabbi was one of my very first celebrants. We now have more than 80 rabbis and lay leaders worldwide who will help families with covenantal ceremonies, without circumcision. Your son is a model for thousands of Jewish boys now growing up, who will follow his lead as intact Jewish males by having Bar Mitzvahs, and ultimately taking their place in the Jewish community.

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  7. I'm so glad to read this! I am a Hindu by religion and circumcision is forbidden in it for the exact same reasons you mentioned... Mainly if you are born with it.. It's meant to be there and mutilation. That said I was made to feel guilty right after my son's birth at my hospital when I was told about the" health risks" of not circumcising my son! I was brought to tears!! Thankfully, by the will of God we spoke to my mother in law and she absolutely forbade us to do it saying it was ridiculous to think that circumcision would help keep my son cleaner and healthier!!

    I'm grateful for that eye opening call I made in a weak moment... All for the love of my son!

    Your story is amazing and what you have done takes solid guts to do!! Keep up the good work and encouragement in your community

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  8. I loved reading your story, Natalie! I remember Ed Wallerstein asking me to call you because you were so upset during your pregnancy, distressed and vomiting. I thought, no woman should ever have to go through this and how many Jewish women pray for a girl so they won't have to endure the emotional pain that gripped you. Then, too, I remember the day of your son's beautiful brit shalom. After welcoming your son, one of the rabbis walked over to his wife, while the other rabbi played his guitar and sang a song at the place in the ceremony when your son would have been circumcised. The first rabbi said something to his wife about how easy the ceremony was without the circumcision. Several of us cried because the ceremony was so beautiful and welcoming and because your son was spared, but you, your husband, daughter, and your precious newborn son did not cry. You were all joyful! I felt honored to have been invited to the first brit shalom I ever attended. I knew it was groundbreaking then and, after reading your story all these years later, it seems all the more groundbreaking now. Congratulations for your courage, for trusting your mother heart, and for protecting your son! With love, Marilyn

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  9. “So in another holocaust, your son will be spared!”
    My immediate thought: Is that a bad thing?

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  10. Please help me understand better the harms of circumcision. I don't buy that babies remember it. And not having antibiotics in the 30's has no relevance today. I don't necessarily disagree with your views about it, but I haven't seen your case about its harms. Thank you.

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  11. Joan, your question into the harms of circumcision is an excellent one. It's often overlooked by those of us who are so familiar with the subject. I've just added a new section "Why Question Circumcision?" on the top bar of the site. Please have a look!

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