Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 1998 / 6 Kislev, 5759

Eighth-day angst

By Marc Kornblatt

YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A JEWISH-MOTHER to get carried away with trying to protect your children. I'm a father, I should know.

On the day he was born, my Jacob broke his collarbone during the journey from his mother's womb. The doctor said there was nothing we could do besides treat him gently and let time heal his injury.

As his eighth day of life approached, I could foresee even more pain coming his way. Even if I couldn't remember my own bris 33 years earlier, I could well imagine what it must have felt like, and I was troubled.

I tracked down a circumcision specialist at the local medical school.

"I don't think you can avoid the pain," he said.

What about using a topical anesthetic? I nudged.

"I don't recommend it. Some of the drug might get into the infant's blood system and cause problems."

I consulted the Bible for strength.

In Genesis 17, G-d declared that "every male eight days old should be circumcised throughout the generations ... thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact."

Spiritually, I understood that by circumcising my son, I would help him become another link in Jewry's everlasting covenant with the Creator; and I grasped all that the "sign" of the bris implies. Intellectually, I also knew that we've come a long way since Isaac's day, that now mohels use sterilized instruments and have to be professionally trained.

Existentially, though, I had an unsettling, albeit irrational, feeling that by cutting the flesh of my flesh, I was somehow cutting myself.

My wife, Judith, as sympathetic as she was, didn't share my anguish, just as I could never truly share her labor travails.

I was alone with my demons.

Despite my angst, I had decided to assume direct responsibility for my son's suffering by cutting his foreskin after the mohel had clamped it. The procedure itself was simple enough.

If Abraham could take a knife to his son's throat, why shouldn't I be able to slice a superfluous bit of flesh from my son's sex organ? In G-d's eyes it was a mitzvah, after all.

Sadly resolved that pain was unavoidable, the decision made me feel proud that I would be the one to symbolically usher my son into the Community of Israel. Considering my empathy, his bris would be a rite of passage for us both.

Jacob screamed as we unwrapped his diaper. I had a pit in my stomach, the shivers in my own groin.

As I lowered the scalpel, I expected my son's howls to freeze my hand; but to my surprise, he barely whimpered, my grip remained firm and I performed the ritual with ease.

Only now, almost a decade later, have I come to understand how a seeded plant that day has sprouted into an important lesson about parenting.

The revelation came when the school nurse phoned recently to report that Jacob had tripped and hit his head playing football.

"Is it serious?" I asked, calmly.

"He has a slight bump, but he seems fine."

"Tell him I'll examine it when he comes home," I said, "and that I'm pleased to hear he was playing football."

Then I thanked her for the call and hung up happy.

Happy? Me? The same guy who almost had a cow over his child's circumcision?

Yes, I was happy that Jacob was playing football again after having given it up after a dropped pass. As for his accident, I realized, finally, that I can't shield him from most pain.

The best I can do is prepare him well for those unfortunate moments, then treat him gently afterward --- just as we did when he broke his collarbone and eight days later, with my blessing, made his pact with the G-d of Abraham.

JWR contributor Marc Kornblatt is a writer, storyteller and Hebrew school teacher.


©1998, Marc Kornblatt