Thursday, December 26, 2019
"Every male among you shall be circumcised."
The old folks usher the young folks in.
That's how it is, how it should be.
The parents do the heavy lifting: the nine-month gestation. The financial planning and free-floating worry. Decorate the nursery. Buy the special furniture. Gather the tiny clothes. Trade off the midnight feedings.
But for ceremonial welcome-to-the-world duties, we gray beards take the stage. The grandmas and the great aunts fuss in the kitchen.
To pass the chalice from our big veiny hands to their chubby little ones.
I went to a bris last Friday. The first ceremonial circumcision I had been to since my younger son's, 22 years ago.
We Jews don't follow many commandments anymore, at least not my variety. But we do follow this one, scrupulously. Any why not? God is quite clear about it, in Genesis 17:10: "This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised."
He says exactly when it should be done: eight days after the birth.
My wife's sister's daughter's son. Making me ... what? The great uncle. Some say "grand uncle" but that sounds weird. And he's my ... second cousin? Grand nephew? I think I'l stick with plain old nephew. Sounds better.
My role was limited to bringing the deli tray, a task my wife and I leapt to do, the cost happily shared, I should point out, by my brother-in-law Alan, above, and his wife Cookie. The tray courtesy of Kaufman's, of course, on Dempster Road in Skokie. Such whitefish. To. Die. For.
The ceremony spoke of tradition, of thousands of years, going back to Abraham. An unbroken chain to ancient times, something the world would view with awe if it weren't, you know, Jews doing it.
I asked if the mohel—a retired pediatric surgeon—if she minded if I use her name. She didn't. Though we discussed the intrusion of the online insane, the anti-circumcision crowd. Those who view the practice as an enormous wrong, in their lives if not the entire world. Or, as Thoreau put it, who “mistake their private ail for an infected atmosphere.” I told her I used to receive No-Circ News, a horror sheet of circumcision disasters (There's an echo of it online). For years. With that in mind, I made an editorial decision, and drew the veil around all concerned. The mohel knows who she is. The parents know who they are. The baby will know who he is. And I know who I am. We're Jews. We do Jewish stuff, more or less, to a greater or lesser degree, as suits our inclination.
Ancestors came to mind. My Grandpa Irwin. Almost 40 years dead. I only remember one thing, a single coherent thought, he ever said to me, but it is germane to the topic at hand:
"Who gets paid more," Grandpa Irv once asked, "a rabbi or a mohel?"
"Gosh grandpa," I said, smiling in anticipation "I don't know. Who gets paid more: the rabbi or the mohel?"
"The rabbi gets a better salary," he deadpanned, in his slight Polish accent. "But the mohel gets all the tips."
Not bad wordplay for whom English was a second language.
I also thought of Uncle Phil. My wife's father's uncle. He lived in CHA senior housing on Diversey—so much for rich Jews running the world—and it was our job to bring him to family holidays. Five foot tall, maybe. Sweater vests, well filled out. Thick, smudged glasses. A serious underbite. Ran a marginal lamp business for years. We visited it once, to pick out a lamp as a wedding present. A basement maze on a sketchy section of Lake Street. The setting for a Stephen King story. Piles of lamp parts, brass rods wrapped in 30-year-old newspapers. Dark and wet with square holes that seemed to plunge into subterranean pools. And a gaunt cat somehow down there. I thought of rescuing it on the spot, then decided to leave well enough alone.
His wife, Mary, a lovely school teacher, had passed away; his daughter and grandkids lived in other cities. So every Rosh Hashana, every Thanksgiving, every Hanukkah, every Passover, Uncle Phil was there, often because we would pick him up. Although I preferred he wait for us downstairs—once I went up to his apartment. A nest on par with the factory. The thought of ending up in a place like that ...
We'd drive Uncle Phil to Skokie. Once he got settled in the car, he'd begin the same speech. "Are you still writing for the Sun-Times?" he'd ask. "That miserable rag...!"
And off he'd go, the same tirade. I wish I remembered the rest, but I don't. Related to the paper's politics. Uncle Phil was something of a communist. I'm not sure he grasped that I worked there.
"One of these days," I'd tell my wife, afterward. "I'm going to pull over to the side of the highway, reach over, open his door, and push him out."
But I never did. And I don't want to sell him short. I'm sure, in his day, he was a sport, in a double-breasted suit, making a killing in the lamp trade. But I did not know him in his day. Which brings us to how Uncle Phil fit into the bris of this young man, now in his second week of life.
It was this thought:
I'm going to be his Uncle Phil.
Meaning, I'm going to be the old guy at the end of the table, tolerated but ignored, when possible, vigorously chewing my food, mouth open, delivering too loud opinions too often, shouting my unwelcome, self-referential observations through a spray of spittle, not perceiving the eye rolls. A supernumerary in the corner, filling out the family scene. Uncle Phil never gave up on that lamp factory, was ready to draw anybody into the lamp making business. I'll probably have my own version of that going on someday. "That will be a fine vignette for the book I'm working on!" Yes yes Uncle Neil, I'm sure it will...
The first three or four times that thought—"I'm Uncle Phil"—came to me, I batted it away with a cold shiver of dread. But now I've begun to accept it. Even embrace it. What choice is there?