The first time I saw an uncircumcised penis was during my freshman year at UC Berkeley.
On Sproul Plaza.
In broad daylight.
Let’s back up, shall we?
I was on my merry way to my 9:00 am Anthro lecture, and there it was: Looming larger than life, three feet of unfettered flesh emblazoned with the words “Foreskin Power!” on a giant cardboard sign carried proudly by two guys wearing shirts that read “For God’s Sake My penis Was Ruined.” And one of them wore a yarmulke.
Ah, free speech at its finest.
Now, up until that moment, it had never occurred to me that circumcision was remotely controversial — after all, I grew up in a world where even amongst gentiles, it was a given. You were born with a penis? You got snipped. Period. The end. And if you were Jewish, there were a few bagels and blessings involved, while the men stood around looking uncomfortable with their hands clasped in front of their genitals, and the women fussed over the weeping mother.
And this is how it has been for our people since…well…since we first became a people.
So, when I saw this openly self-identified member of the tribe disparaging a sacrosanct part of our Jewish tradition, I stopped to ask him what the deal was.
And for the next several minutes, he explained (in waaaaaay too much detail) how his brit had left him emotionally scarred. For life. Even though his penis looked just like every other circumcised penis on the planet, he felt that he had been mutilated. And apparently, there were others like him who felt this way as well.
Still, I’ll admit, after I walked on toward Anthro, I forgot all about him.
Until I saw my baby-to-be’s penis on an ultrasound monitor 10 years later.
Look, I kick ass at Googling. I know that while the medical community at large generally considers circumcision to be medically unnecessary, there are statistics that support the theory that this practice is actually quite healthy and sanitary, and may even help prevent the spread of some seriously scary STDs. I also know that while some argue that circumcised men experience less sexual pleasure than their uncircumcised counterparts, I have yet to hear one complain.
And, I know that beyond these facts and figures, I was raised to believe that the brit mila is a profound covenant with God. It’s a ritual that has existed for thousands of years, and I always felt that if I had a son, I would want him to take part in this time-honored tradition.
But this was how I felt before I saw my son’s penis and remembered the guy on Sproul Plaza.
And while we found the best mohel in the world (think Benihana chef with a yarmulke and get serious, people), I still had a lot of concerns:
I was scared the mohel would develop a palsy seconds before the blade met my baby’s foreskin. I was scared that my son would get one of those extremely rare infections, and that his penis would turn gangrenous and fall off, and I’d never have grandchildren – oy vey iz mir!
And I was scared that one day my son would grow up to resent our decision to have him circumcised.
Look. I love being Jewish. I wear my Magen David with some serious pride, yo. And while I do not, nor have I ever, taken the biblical narrative literally, I feel lucky to have been born into this incredibly nuanced culture and heritage. But still. I also believe that intrinsic to being Jewish — hell, to being a person – is to question long-held assumptions and beliefs, no matter what. And newsflash: I don’t have a penis. But my son does. So shouldn’t he decide what to do with it?
But, my then-husband — who also has a penis — felt differently. After all, he was circumcised on his eighth day of life, so why shouldn’t his son be too?
“I want him to be circumcised because my grandmother lost most of her family when she fled the Nazis, and I think it would break her heart if we didn’t circumcise her great grandson,” he explained. “Besides, this is a tradition, and I won’t be the one to break the link in the chain.”
Well, the Holocaust trumps any argument I could come up with. Awesome.
But still, I persisted: Why couldn’t we wait until our son was old enough to make the decision himself?
“Look, parents make choices for their children all the time,” my then-husband said. “We’re Jewish, and to deny the brit is to deny our people. So he’s getting circumcised.” Period.
WTF? The dude who never goes to synagogue, who eats pepperoni pizza on Passover, who can barely name the Five Books of Moses, had transformed into Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.“
And in the end, we made the cut. Because I know that a foreskin — or lack thereof — will not define the person my son becomes. Foreskin or not, he is raised by parents who are teaching him to embrace Jewish values like tikkun olam, gemilut hasadim, and tzedakah. Foreskin or not, he is growing up in a world where he is loved, nurtured, and honored, so that he, in turn, can love, nurture, and honor others.
This is the best I can do.
This is the best any of us can do.
And, if one day my son ends up wearing a shirt that reads “For God’s Sake My Penis Was Ruined,” I will pay his therapy bills.
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An older version of this piece (no pun intended) appeared on Kveller.com.