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Making the cut
Little did I know what my nephew’s bris-day honor would entail

I decided to bury it by a tree. Figured I should use a landmark so I could show the kid later — kind of an uncle/nephew bonding experience. As I crouched down by the sapling, digging up handfuls of fresh soil, I could clearly see the future Kodak moment in my mind’s eye.

It would be his high-school-graduation party. I’d walk him out back, leading him away from the doting relatives and friends he always eschewed for some quality time with his favorite uncle. My hand resting comfortably on his slouching shoulder, we’d pass our normal mano a mano spot on my sister’s patio and walk around the corner, to the now hulking maple. "Adam," I’d say, gazing up at the tree as he looked on expectantly, "here is where I buried your foreskin."

It would be a horribly awkward moment from which our relationship would never recover.

What the hell is wrong with me? Why would I show the poor kid where I buried his foreskin? I dusted off my hands, walked back into my sister’s living room, and swore that, however close my nephew and I become, I will never, ever bring up the subject of his foreskin.

I had been to only one bris before my nephew’s. It was for a friend’s son (not counting the one at which I was guest of honor, which I mercifully do not remember). I got there a bit late, stood in the back, noshed a little, had some wine, and went to work. All in all, not a bad way to start the day. If a baby I don’t know has to lose a little off the top so I can show up to work late with a nice buzz, I say, why don’t we all become Jews? Who’s with me?

But if you’re the one holding the baby when the blade comes out, it’s a whole different, er, ballgame.

For the uninitiated, I suppose I should back up a few thousand years. In Jewish tradition, the bris — or brit milah, if you want to get really snotty about it — is the ritual circumcision representing the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is also a great example of why Jews in America still use Yiddish or Hebrew to describe our traditions. "I already ate at my nephew’s ritual circumcision" sounds a bit callous, at best. But going to a "bris"? Hey, eat up, it’s a party.

The ceremony, which takes place on the eighth day after a male’s birth, is performed by someone in what has got to be the world’s most dubious profession: the mohel. A mohel is a man who circumcises babies. All the time. Not, like, as a side thing, on weekends. No. This is a full-time gig. The mohel at my nephew’s bris has done over 10,000 circumcisions. I know this because he had a brochure. One of those full-color, tri-folded kinds, with a photo on the front surrounded by clip art. He left them scattered all over my sister’s house, as if a mohel gets a lot of impulse business. "Ooh, look at this. Gosh, I haven’t been so happy with my circumcision; maybe I’ll get a little touch-up work done." "Hey, take this for Peter — didn’t he just convert?"

His questionable marketing strategy aside, this man was clearly in charge of the circumcision. I’ve never seen my brother-in-law so readily heed the instructions of another human being: "I need some more light over here." "Clear this table." "Move these chairs." "Bring me the boy."

Which is good. You want a take-charge type in a bris situation. I think the last thing you want to see your mohel do is shrug: "Eh, put ’em wherever." I don’t care how good a parent you are, no one is equipped to make decisions during one’s own child’s circumcision. Really, I think you’re just focused on not fainting, or resisting the urge to grab your son and run. So, a decision-making mohel is a good thing.

I sure as hell wasn’t any help. My job was to hold Adam during the circumcision. It’s a position of honor, called the sandak. To be honest, I hadn’t really given the task much thought. Of course, I was honored to have been chosen. But it wasn’t until the little guy was in my arms that the physical gravity of the situation became clear.

I was holding my nephew so a stranger could cut his penis.

You can sugarcoat the event with all the Hebrew words, ritual, and good deli platters you want, but when you get right down to it, the bris is brutal business. Ours is a fierce and jealous God. He’s not a spit-and-handshake kind of guy. A covenant with him is going to leave a mark.

The mohel placed what I can only describe as a circumcision board in my lap. At least, I hope that’s all it’s used for: a tiny plank with tiny straps to hold tiny legs and arms in place. He secured Adam onto the board. All I had to do was keep the plank steady and hold down his little bound feet. My dad and brother-in-law looked on helplessly behind me. At most family events, I’m usually the one given the least amount of responsibility, so this was a tremendous leap of faith for everyone involved. A crowd of family and friends hovered, their faces covered with a mixture of joy, anticipation, and cream cheese.

No anesthesia is used for a bris. Just a wine-soaked towel. My dad’s job was to administer the towel at key moments. As you might well imagine, wine is no match for the pain of having part of your penis cut off.

The initial scream was soul-crushing.

My advice to any future sandak: stay focused on the eyes. You do not need to see what’s going on down there. But I have to admit, the guy was good. One fluid motion and it was all over. I guess when you’ve done something 10,000 times, you become efficient.

As is often the case in Judaism, severe pain gave way to clapping, joy, and out-of-tune singing. Adam was whisked off into the jubilant crowd, contentedly suckling his wine towel. Before I could process the whole ordeal, the mohel slipped me a Ziploc bag holding unspeakable contents, and whispered, "Bury it out back." Then he added — probably in reaction to my expression — "Seriously."

Walking outside, removed from the melee in the living room, the honor of being sandak finally sank in. Adam had just given a piece of himself — a piece I’m sure he would have grown quite attached to. And it was my honor to return that piece to the earth, allowing him to become part of a greater whole, passing on to one more generation the traditions of Judaism, traditions like this one, great in part because they are open to a little creative interpretation.

Still, I think all Jewish sages would agree on one thing: there is never, ever a reason to show a kid where you buried his foreskin.

Sandak-for-hire Alan Olifson can be reached at alan@olifson.com

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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