A Bris, tradition and community

10 years ago

Ok so about a week ago this gentile gal was crying her eyes out at a Bris. It was my first Bris, which is the ritual circumcision of a baby Jewish boy at age 8 days. It is also the occasion of his naming.

I don’t want this post to be a discussion of the relative merits or risks of circumcision, whether done by a doctor or a Mohel (pronounced MOYel). Or about why an act like this is done to only mark the boy. I’d rather we talked here about family and ritual and threads of continuity within community. I’m a gentile. I can only discuss so much with any integrity.

To begin, I should explain how I found myself in a synagogue on a rainy Thursday morning 200 miles from my home. J- and E- are two of my nearest and dearest friends. They are about 20 years older than I, and their sons are almost 20 years younger. I’ve known this remarkable family since 1982. Both sons are married, and the eldest son and his wife just had a baby boy. Over the years I have become something like an adopted aunt in this family. It always amazes me how much love this group has to share.

So, the darling baby was born and I was honored to be invited to the Bris as the only gentile and one of very few non-blood family members. And that is what brought me to Providence, Rhode Island on a rainy morning.

There are several sections of the ritual that can be “given” to those dear to the parents as what is called “an honor”. I was given such an honor and was asked to hold the child, place him in what is called “The Chair of Elijah” while prayers were said, and then to return him to his father’s waiting arms. Through this and the whole service, the Mohel patiently explained every step and why it was done, and how it kept a covenant between the Jewish people and G-d that goes back to Abraham. I found myself deeply moved, with tears streaming down my cheeks.

As I held this baby I thought of all the Jewish boys before him that had gone through a Bris. I remembered that in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s, circumcision was not frequent, and that the presence of a circumcision was often how a Jew was identified to the Nazis.

A bris meant taking on a mark that could cost a life for the sake of a larger promise. For the sake of identifying with a community through the centuries. For the sake of saying “this is who I am and to whom I belong.”

The mark says that this baby is who he is in inescapable ways. His parents honor what they understand as a promise from thousands of years ago. They set their son apart, even if it means his peril, because their belief in the value of their community extends beyond the immediate.

The mother took me aside and chatted for a while. She said that she had started to research the procedure and knew there were pluses and minuses. Finally she said, “I knew that there were things on both sides. But I also know that we are Jews, in a long line of Jews, and ultimately that we know how to keep our promises.”

I wondered about all of that on the long ride home. I wondered what mark any of us would be willing to take or to pass on that linked us with our heritage or our beliefs. Inexorably. I envied the tribal bond that this little boy had, like the scars given to aboriginal boys and girls in Australia or the tattoos given in other tribes when a certain age is reached.

I envied a visible mark that said “I am part of something larger and deeper than just myself. I am part of an ancient promise.”

This little moment that the baby experienced – without tears I might add – binds him with millions of other baby boys through the ages forever and ever to his tribe, to his people and to his G-d.

Mazeltov!

---Related Blogs ----

Barbara, Joshua’s mother, discusses her son’s happy Bris at her blog

Internal Critic speaks of her son’s Bris and says

I wasn't afraid, really, that anything would happen to him; I knew he'd be safe, and that it would heal. I'm not sure exactly why I was crying. Maybe it was just that he is so little, and I kept him safe inside me so long, and at that moment he was so vulnerable and so exposed. But he'll be fine. I'll have to learn to get used to him being in the world.

In Bris Day for JHL his Mommy tells us

As an experienced mother of another little boy, one would think that a second son's bris would be easier. Nope! It was so much worse. I was a mess the night before, just like last time. Once again I had thoughts of running away with the baby and saving him from this trauma. I didn't but was close at times.