Nick’s Bris — A True Story

Nicholas was 7 months old when we adopted him in Siberia. Though he was born near Birobijan, the Jewish colony set up by Stalin, it only took one diaper change to see that he wasn’t a member of the tribe. “We must to do something about this,” I announced to my husband, Duke, who was still in shock over becoming a father and crossing 20 time zones.

Duke didn’t think circumcision was a high priority. “It’s not like we’re religious,” he argued, and I couldn’t disagree. But unlike my husband, who had to transcribe Hebrew phonetically to do his bar mitzvah and had haphazard religious training, I was raised in Baltimore, in a community so ghettoized that there were eight synagogues within a three-mile radius of my house. I was 18 before I realized that Rosh Hashanah was not a national holiday and as a veteran of 12 years of Reform education — granted, the bulk of the curriculum centered around Sandy Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur — an uncircumcised son was unthinkable. Besides, I wanted my son to look like every other man who was likely to take him to the men’s room during his formative years.

Being more computer savvy than religiously connected, I did a Web search to get information when we returned to the U.S. I typed in bris and mohel and came up with 39,762 matches. (Who knew Virtual Judaism was thriving?) My favorite site featured a spinning Star of David and a cyber-cantor who chanted when I double-clicked on an icon. By the time I signed off, I knew the ritual knife was called an izmail, sugar water was the safest anesthetic, and in the past, it was acceptable for a father to circumcise his own son. Duke passed.

Friends gave me the name of a local mohel whose claim to fame was that he did Michelle Pfeiffer’s son. (She’s Jewish?) I found it unsettling when I received an information packet that was longer on press clippings than pre-and-post bris instructions. After playing phone tag for a week, we finally connected and I learned that Nicholas was too old for the attentions of the Star Mohel; he had to be circumcised by a pediatric urologist, in a hospital under general anesthesia. I was referred to a specialist at UCLA.

It took three weeks to get an appointment. On the appointed day, I carried my less-than-enthusiastic baby into the examining room and removed his clothes. The specialist glanced at Nicholas’ penis and informed me the operation would set me back $12,000. “It’s not covered by insurance because it’s cosmetic,” he said, pulling off his gloves.

I was stunned. I had at most a few hundred dollars worth of religious convictions. “What about the bris?” I asked as I struggled to redress the indignant baby.

The specialist tapped his foot impatiently. “For that you need religious officials in the operating room. I’ll have to go to Cedars and that’s extra.”

I had more questions but the specialist dismissed me with a curt, “Call my secretary when you’ve made up your mind.” Total time elapsed: three minutes. I was subsequently billed $200. My insurance company paid half. I refused to pay the other half, sent a letter explaining that I had been treated shabbily, and received dunning letters for the next six months.

Another friend turned me on to an Orthodox rabbi, who was reputed to have “the best hands in town.” Rabbi Best Hands called me back from his car phone. He concurred that the operation needed to be done in a hospital, but not to worry, he knew a haimish urologist who would find a problem with the baby’s foreskin that would make the circumcision kosher with our insurance company. Only $7,500, not including his fee and that of his minyan. “I’ll give him a penis that he’ll be proud of all his life,” the rabbi promised me. “I’ll even throw in a touch up for your husband.”

Despite that sales incentive, we decided to put off the full anesthesia bris until Nicholas was 1 year old. He’d only been in the country for a month and it seemed cruel. But, as fate would have it, that same week, I got into a conversation with a Reform rabbi that I knew vaguely. He suggested that I call a retired urologist in the Valley who is a member of the mohalim. “How big is the baby?” Dr. Mohel asked. Nicholas was tiny. He weighed barely 13 pounds.

“Bring him over so I can judge his development,” he said. “I may be able to save you a lot of trouble and money.”

To our relief, when Dr. Mohel took the de rigeur diaper peek he announced that he could circumcise the baby at our house, under local anesthetic, if our pediatrician was willing to give the child a sedative. (She was.) “It will be a little tricky, but I think I can do it,” he said. Though Duke expressed concern that Dr. Mohel might have retired because of “a small slip of the hand with little Lenny Teitelbaum,” he didn’t fuss when the bris was scheduled for two days hence. He left it to me to lay out the supplies: Tylenol, gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, sweet kosher wine, kiddush cups, challah, and yarmulkes. Pagans that we are, I didn’t have any of the Jewish paraphernalia on hand, but I called my friend Billy, whose wife, Josette, is the most observant woman that I know. Not only did they supply the accouterments, they offered to attend. “It’s a mitzvah to attend a bris,” Josette informed me. I was grateful. It’s not that easy to round up a crowd on a Tuesday morning when none of your immediate family lives in the city, but my friend Debbie and Nick’s godfather, who goes by the sobriquet of Preacher because of his former status as a chaplain of a motorcycle gang, also promised to come.

That left me with the most difficult task: breaking the news to Lupe, Nicholas’ nanny and a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Lupe doesn’t speak much English and my Spanish, which I learned on audio cassettes, wasn’t up to an elaborate explanation about God’s covenant with Abraham. “Oh no, Mrs. Margo,” Lupe gasped in horror and then rattled off something in Spanish that sounded like “culto satanico.” Lupe not only declined to attend, but she refused to change the baby’s diaper until he healed, and for the next six months blamed every ear infection, teething pain and cold on the circumcision.

Nicholas was pretty spacey from his medication when Dr. Mohel knocked on the door. But the child was coherent enough to begin screaming as soon as Dr. Mohel unpacked a bag filled with what looked to be medieval torture devices. I took one look at the restraining board and the Mogen clamp and fled into the front yard. After all, according to the Web site, it was the father’s responsibility to see the child brought into the covenant. The mother just has to give advice on the preparations.

Josette and Debbie joined me outside where we could hear Nicholas howling with fury. I wanted to rush back in there and grab my little baby and get him out of there. Josette took my hand. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she said. “You’re doing what mothers for centuries have done.”

Wonderful? It was the only time I’ve ever thought Nicholas would have preferred to stay in Siberia.

Unbeknownst to me, my husband, who later said that he was afraid he was going to faint, kept resoaking the gauze pad with wine and placing it in Nicholas’ mouth. It was Billy who stayed calm and comforted the child. Preacher took pictures so graphic than when Lupe accidentally found them she threatened to quit.

It was blessedly over in 10 minutes though Nicholas, red-faced and furious, shrieked for hours until the drugs and wine kicked in and he fell asleep. When I returned to the house for the ceremony part, Duke scowled and threatened to leave for work. Dr. Mohel recited a bunch of blessings and gave Nicholas his Hebrew name. He presented Duke with the foreskin wrapped in tin foil, with instructions to bury it. (It’s still in my husband’s desk.) Afterward, we were supposed to eat. Who had an appetite after that?

Duke and I were later floored to learn that after all this, Nicholas was technically still not Jewish. For that he would have to go to a mikvah and be plunged underwater. When would he have to produce papers to prove his religious identity, I
wondered. But a few days ago, Duke suggested we go through with the conversion just to get it over with.

I’m looking for the Cyber Mikvah.

Margo Kaufman will read and sign copies of her latest book, “Clara: The Early Years” (Villard) at Small World Books (310/399-2360) on Oct. 23 from 6-8 pm.