Erica Jong on Circumcision: What's Missing?


When it comes to Jewish circumcision, Erica Jong has a bad case of dysentery. You know, in the Woody Allen sense, where commentary and dissent merge? It’s a bug that Jong can’t seem to shake. 

For those too young to remember, Jong is best known for her 1973 breakout novel Fear of Flying. Back then, John Updike’s review in The New Yorker placed Fear of Flying alongside J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Over the past 40 years, Jong has written dozens of other books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
I’ve followed Jong ever since reading my mother’s copy of Fear of Flying as a pre-teen. It’s not young adult reading material, but in my house no book on the shelf was off limits. Jong understands the complexities of female sexuality, and writes about these from a distinctly Jewish perspective.

A few years ago, I had a hunch that Jong might have something to say about circumcision. After all, much of her writing has focused on the difficulties men and women face in the bedroom. So I did a quick Google search and—bingo! Up popped a Huffington Post essay she’d written in January of 2008—the day after her second grandson’s bris.

In the essay titled “Next Time, Boychick, We Take the Whole Thing” Jong writes:

Ever wonder why Jewish boys are so fucked up about sex? Ever wonder why they fall for mile-high models from Slovenia who wear those big cold crosses? Ever wonder why they like Chinese girls, Chinese-American girls, Blonde shiksa cheerleaders from Kansas? Or those cool black models who dance like Beyonce? It's because of the Covenant with Jahwah or G-d: I take this piece of your pecker, with your mother, father, grandfathers and grandmothers looking on, teary eyed. And you think of nothing but your pecker for the rest of your life! ….

Health reasons, my ass. It's the health of the old impotent grandpas they're thinking of, not you, little boy. You could learn to push the skin back and wash. We're not in the desert any more. We have Jacuzzis and steam showers and redwood hot tubs from Californicate. No, folks, it's the grandpas who love this ritual. The mothers usually run in the other room crying. But they get blamed for it anyway. And Jewish women bear the brunt ever after. Either they marry you and run around with Diana Ross or Beyonce or Naomi Campbell —or they marry Sandra Oh or Lucy Liu or Yoko Ono and she converts….

But whatever the old guys say, circumcision must hurt—even to a baby eight days old who then gets his first taste of wine—pain and alcoholism going hand in rubber glove.

It killed me to see my grandsons marked like this so future Nazis can identify them. What is wrong with the chosen people? Chosen for pain? All the psychological troubles of Jewish men — from Sigmund Freud to Lenny Bernstein to Philip Roth — must stem from this dubious ritual.

Now, in her new novel Fear of Dying, Jong engages in a five-page long diatribe (very similar to her Huffington Post piece)—although this time in the voice of her fictional protagonist, Vanessa Wonderman. (Vanessa is best friend to Fear of Flying protagonist Isadora Wing.) Vanessa reflects on the circumcision of her first grandson, asking: “But how can you ever forget the pain, the fear, the confusion of being eight days old and having your pecker snipped?”

I appreciate Jong’s bravery in tackling this thorny issue. Critics of male infant circumcision are frequently dismissed. In fact, an otherwise favorable New York Times review of Fear of Dying refers to Jong’s circumcision commentary as “disappointing shtick.” However, while I admire her willingness to go out on a limb, and also her wisdom to recognize a harm, I’m a bit surprised by what Jong, who can be so insightful, has left out.

Erica Jong speaks of circumcision harm only in the context of Jewish men. Yet Jong came of age in an America where nearly all males were circumcised regardless of their religion. (This is no longer so. Current estimates place the rate of newborn hospital circumcision around 56%). Moreover, the harm Jong describes is that Jewish men become obsessed with their penises, leading them to do crazy things—like intermarry and have affairs. It’s funny in a Jewish grandmotherly sense, but the discussion feels antiquated beyond Jong’s years, and narrow beyond her experience.

Isadora Wing (the protagonist in Fear of Flying), Vanessa Wonderman, and no doubt Jong herself (as her writing is autobiographical) have struggled to find tenderness in the sexual encounter. I would have liked to see Jong drawing a connection between this struggle and the circumcision of American men more generally. Circumcision is the enemy of tenderness. The newborn is taken from the loving arms of his mother for his first sexual experience: excruciating pain. When he becomes a sexually active adult, he does so with abnormal anatomy and greatly reduced sensitivity, which diminishes the sexual experience for both partners.

There is no doubt that Jong has tapped into the harm of circumcision—her intuition and Freudian roots are leading her in the right direction—but she may not realize the full extent of the damage or, if she does, she may be unwilling to venture far beyond the comic routine.


  1. This post is the first mention I've seen of Fear of Dying, so I say nothing about it here.
    Erica Jong grew up on Central Park West in a very secular household, and attended Manhattan's Ethical Culture School. It can be hard to tell when she is being sincere, and when she writes for comic effect.
    BTW, back in the day I skimmed Fear of Flying and another novel by Jong set in 17th century Venice. In those novels, she was no friend of the unaltered penis. Hence I was taken aback by her reservations about bris as expressed in the 2008 Huffngton Post op-ed. In that op-ed, she said that the brises of her grandsons bothered her because, she claimed, it put them at risk of anti-semitic violence from bigoted men should they use a public rest room. Writing in 2008, Jong apparently did not know that the vast majority of adult native born white gentile American men are circumcised, including the neoNazi bigots. Starting with the baby boomers, the bald penis ceased to be an unspoken status symbol, mute evidence of better origins. I conclude that Jong's sexual experience is quite limited, and that she can be weirdly provincial.
    For nearly 100 years, circumcision has been the norm for American middle class gentile men born in urban maternity wards. If Jong's vulgar Freudian outlook were on point, this mass circumcision of gentile men would have made them more like Jewish men. That certainly was not the case during my many years as university student, where 20-40% of my fellow students were Jewish. Penis resemblance did not result in mind resemblance.

    For a young secular Jewish woman's hunourous viewpoint re cut and uncut, humour that is more on point than Jong's, listen to Ruby in this video:

  2. In the late '60's, studies on PTSD from combat revealed links with schizophrenia, a psychotic side effect caused from sexual assault, trauma, and mutilation, of infants, girls and boys, causing catatonic shock, coma, and amnesia to the child's brain, stunting the development of the hippocampus and amygdala, and sometimes the amnesia/blocked traumatic memories, can resurface as a delayed onset PTSD after puberty, causing psysical and psychological sexual dysfunctions. The AAP changed their policy on infant circumcision in 1972 to not recommending it. Then circumcisers worked at reestablishing the ritual by using anesthesia to prevent some of the brain trauma/damage, but the anesthesia contained a preservative called thimerosal which was found to cause neurological disorders, so the rates of autism doubled for circumcised boys in the USA. The psychopathic tendencies of circumcised men are not confined to just the Jews, as many Christian and Muslim men have developed sadistic sexual habits, suicidal depression, and erectile dysfunction, too.

  3. According to the Global Survey of Circumcision Harm (, one of the many long-term adverse consequences identified by a significant proportion of the more than 1,000 (mostly American) respondents was a loss of penile sensitivity and one of the compensatory behaviors that a significant proportion of those men admitted to was a tendency to resort to 'quantity' of sexual encounters to compensate for their diminished 'quality' of sexual experiences. In other words, many men circumcised in infancy (Jewish or not) had a significant tendency toward sexual compulsivity, or to use a more judgmental term, promiscuity. This is certainly an aspect of harm that deserves greater attention from researchers.