This Bris got off to a rocky start, and the truth is it didn’t get any easier quickly. When I did the preliminary check of the baby a few days before the Bris, the parents made it clear that they had strong allegiance to another Mohel in town. As it turns out he was away for the weekend and it seemed that I was only partially their savior. But this non-observant family taught me a valuable lesson about how a Brit Milah should be done.
When I arrived on Shabbat morning for the Brit Milah, tensions were high, as they always are before the event. As I was setting up my tools, the baby’s mother asked me, “This isn’t your first Bris, right?” This put me a bit on edge because in all humor there’s an element of truth. I assured her that it’s hard to work for almost ten years in a place like Jerusalem and never get a single call.
The Brit itself was almost uneventful, right up until the end, which is the exact opposite of the norm. Usually the cut is the time the baby cries most intensely. But in this instance, the bandaging bothered the child more than anything else.
When the ceremony was finished, I found the mother in a back room holding the baby who was crying miserably. She said he was not interested in nursing, which is the first attempt at calming the baby down. She asked if we could give him children’s tylenol, which is the second way to calm him down. When that wasn’t working, I asked if I could hold him. Not to toot my own horn, but I can usually calm babies down, sometimes to the point of sleeping. That worked for a moment, but it didn’t hold. By this time the father was in the back room with us. He asked to give it try. Honestly, I was skeptical. But I was way off.
When the father first attempted to rock him in his arms, the baby still continued to cry out intermittently, but he certainly calmed him down more than any of us could. We relocated to the courtyard but the baby was still quite fussy, and that might be an understatement. It was now coming up on 30 minutes of crying, which is a long time for a newborn. My fear was that the baby getting into a crying cycle which can be quite challenging to break.
At this point the father did something I’ve never seen a father do before: with the boy in his bassinet, he stood above him in a position that one would assume if he were going to do CPR, and he put his hands around the baby’s chest and arms and leaned in to apply pressure. It’s my assumption this was an attempt to do a physical swaddling of the child. The father did not move for a good 2-3 minutes. And just like that this little boy calmed down and fell asleep.
Now, what this father did was not the most amazing part. What was amazing was first that he seemed to instinctively know what his son needed and second that he was there to do it. I was honestly struck by his ability to connect with and calm his son down. He looked like a natural to me.
In most of my time as a Mohel, the roles that the parents assume during, and especially after the ceremony are very gender charged: the mother is the primary caregiver and the father is busy delivering the speech detailing the baby’s name. What was unique about this Bris was that since the couple was not observant they had less constraints with the formalities that traditional Jews feel obligated to at such events. And what resulted was inspiring. I think everyone could learn from this family. Yes, the guests and the speeches are important. But the primary focus need be on the baby and what he needs at that time. And that means for the father too. If worse comes to worst you’ll email the speech to everyone.
Come on, we all know they only come for the bagels anyway.
Hayim Leiter is a Mohel for the greater Jerusalem area and he also teaches at The Pardes Institute. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org