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.