|The author’s husband, James, and their son Etani.|
By JENNIFER MARGULIS
The baby, who had been so quiet, peaceful, and trusting just moments before, opened his mouth in shock, a look of utter bewilderment on his face, and then started to scream. He screamed shrilly, like a wounded animal.
Now that a band of erogenous tissue had been cut off his penis by a mohel, the baby was visibly in pain. As the Orthodox Jewish men danced, sang, and chanted in what was supposed to be joyful celebration, holding the baby high above their heads, Josiah continued screaming. His mother looked on nervously, a bewildered smile frozen on her face.
I dug my fingers into my 7-year-old’s shoulder as he stood next to me.
“Mom,” he said, shrugging away under my hand, “you’re hurting me.”
We wash our hands in lavender water before sundown on Friday nights. We share challah, sometimes homemade. We light candles and sing prayers in Hebrew. This summer my eldest will be a junior counselor at a Chabad summer camp and my two little ones will spend a week doing Jewish arts and crafts in our town’s Jewish Renewal temple. I hosted 21 people for an unorthodox but lively seder this year. We celebrate Hanukah with latkes and doughnuts, exchanging our favorite poems instead of gifts. We talk at dinner about the Holocaust, about Grandpa Willy who came penniless to New York City to escape pogroms in Russia and started his career at age 19 selling balloons in Central Park; about how Jews value education above almost anything else because no one can take it away from you. My mother’s father was a civil rights activist and a lawyer who worked tirelessly to found Israel. My grandfathers, my father, all my uncles, my three older brothers, every one of my male ancestors for thousands of years has been circumcised.
“I didn’t know you could be Jewish and not be circumcised,” my friend Noah, who lives in Boston, admitted when we talked about it one day. The doctors would not let him witness his son’s operation because it was against hospital policy. So Noah doesn’t know how the circumcision was performed, what device was used, or what kind of anesthesia, if any. But so much scar tissue has grown over his son’s circumcision site that every time his toddler gets an erection he cries out in pain. Skin bridges have formed on the shaft of his baby’s penis. When stretched, they bleed.
It is because of the Jewish value of education, the Jewish ability to adapt and to change, the Jewish thoughtfulness, and the Jewish desire to end suffering that my husband and I chose not to circumcise our son. There are many parts of the Torah that current Jewish traditions choose to ignore: Jews no longer practice polygamy, though it is mandated in Deuteronomy. We do not own slaves, though several Jewish texts detail how they should be governed. And we have agreed—as a religion and a people—that blood sacrifices have no place in modern Jewish life.
At nine years old, Etani (his name means “my strength” in Hebrew) adores playing Dungeons and Dragons. He’s an unstoppable midfielder in soccer. He’s writing a book with his older sister. He also likes to make bananas baked in phyllo dough slathered with maple syrup. His plan is to become an inventor and own the largest candy shop in the world.
“It’s a boy,” my husband said quietly as he lifted the baby onto my chest. I didn’t believe him. I sobbed with joy at the tiny baby in my arms who looked up at me curiously and didn’t cry. We left his penis the perfect way it was when he was born. If our son chooses to make God’s covenant and become circumcised as an adult, circumcision will be his choice, his sacrifice, his personal covenant, as it was for Abraham. Our covenant is with our son: to protect him, cherish him, educate him, and ultimately let him make his own decisions about his body.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute at Brandeis University and the author of the new book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, which includes a chapter on the business of circumcision.