“Jesus’ life in Judaism opened with his berith, the ritual of circumcision mandated by the Torah for every male child of Israel.”
-Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus.
This is the beginning of a Jewish male. So it was for Jesus. And so it is for my boys, Sam and Paul. Seven days after Sam’s birth, I would experience my first bris, and that baby boy who was inside this Catholic uterus for the past nine months would now be a different religion than his mom.
A Mohel (a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah, the "covenant of circumcision") came to my husband’s childhood home, along with 35 other people, and gathered around a table. This was the same scene as 36 years prior, when my husband became a Chosen One under this very same Mohel’s hand. Still I said to myself, “I hope this guy hasn't lost his touch.”
I could barely stand up, having had a C-section after 24 hours of labor just a week prior. The last thing I wanted to do was get gussied up and pretend to be comfortable in a crowded house that wasn't my own. Even worse, I would soon have to watch my son endure his first bloody wound…from a knife, placed intentionally on the most sensitive area of his body.
The ancient Jews were smart; they figured out that a baby’s clotting time is optimal at 7 days, so that’s when a bris was performed. Everyone on earth that cared about this kid would be watching that man, making sure he did not fumble.
Well, almost everyone. My siblings lived many states away and we felt it would be best if they timed their visit after my recovery from surgery. My parents wanted to be there too, but just over a week prior, they learned Mom had breast cancer and would be having a radical mastectomy.
You might think a Catholic family like mine would go berserk to see their daughter cast aside her religion so easily. Not so. My parents each had lots of experience with the divisive nature of religion. Mom had converted to Catholicism from the Episcopalian faith to appease my stoic grandmother, and my mom’s parents were disowned from their respective British families for intermarrying between Episcopalian and Catholicism.
Also, they loved Ross. He was dedicated, loyal, humble and kind. Ross’ parents liked me, too. I allowed his mother into our lives, kept their son living close by, knew how to cook like her and was willing to raise our kids Jewish.
She was desperate for grandkids; she had been pushing their white poodle around the neighborhood in a fashionable carriage. Ross’ 90-year-old Bubbe was getting restless too; it was time for some next of kin.
If the family tree wasn’t already rich enough, Ross’ father Jon was born Catholic and was from the Southern Islands of the Philippines. A delightful, contented man with a penchant for salsa dancing, he met his wife on the unit. The odd couple, they were perfect together. “If they could do it, so could we!” I thought.
The man pried my baby from my chest, placed him on the dining room table, and wrapped a cloth tie around my son’s arms, tugging them gently behind his back. He dipped his finger in a glass of wine and placed it to my baby's tiny lips. He calmly narrated his every move, which added an additional layer of creepiness.
“And now I will place a light anesthetic on the child’s area which will prevent some of the pain he will feel.”
I wanted him to stop talking and focus on the task at hand. Speaking of hands, his seemed a bit shaky. I was anxiously trying to calculate his age as I bit my thumbnail. He held the medieval-looking torture device that I prayed was cleaned properly, and snipped the foreskin from his penis. I gasped as I looked away. The screams that came out of my newborn son cut threw me like a chainsaw and I felt the impulse to attack the perpetrator, like a female grizzly. The other women looked at me with knowing pity.
He applied gauze, lifted Sam up as he screamed in protest, and pronounced Sam's Jewish name: "Everyone, meet Mordochai." This was the same Jewish name as his great grandfather's.
Everyone applauded. I pushed through the crowd and snatched my screaming baby from the man, squirreling away into a back room to nurse him calm. It made me feel better to bless him with the cross, just in case. My Colombian Catholic cleaning lady had slipped me some holy water in a vial and I put that on him, too.
I had agreed to all this when my husband ever so politely asked if we could raise our kids Jewish. But now I felt dreadfully uncertain and alone -- my baby was different from me now, a chasm between us, and the act of nursing comforted me as much as it did him, unifying us in a symbiotic way.
This "becoming Jewish," which was just a concept before, was now actively happening. My proud mother-in-law prepared the scene of the crime (yes, the same table) with a spread of bagels, lox and cream cheese.
This whole scene was repeated again 16 months later with my dear son Paul. But this time I was prepared -- not that it made it any easier. His Jewish name was Avi.
I kept waiting for Ross to take charge of the whole "raising the kids Jewish" thing. This was his realm, but it felt up to me. How to begin?
I started by praying with the kids at night, mostly just telling them to look up to the sky and say "Thank you, God” after each day. Judaism and Christianity have God in common, so that was easy. The boys have been attempting to make sense of it all. "Mom, Heaven helps people get up when they get dead," said my spiritual 3-year-old, unprompted.
His pragmatic older brother replied, "No, it doesn't."
"What is Heaven, then, Sam?" I inquired.
"How am I supposed to know? I'm not dead yet." He retorted.
But soon we will have to make some real choices about their religious identity. There are several types of Judaism, from Orthodox to Conservative to the Reform movement, and we have been trying to find our place among them. Up until this point, we have been practicing "improvisational" Judaism, a category we created.
I’ve developed a relationship with the local rabbi and have been trying to assimilate. He took great interest in our family and invited us to a few events. He told me it was actually quite common for the woman to drive the religious growth of the family, even if the chosen religion was not her original one.
We were recently invited to the family Shabbat at the Conservative Temple. Ross was working late that day, so I took the kids alone. I couldn’t understand a thing they said, as it was all in Hebrew. And yet I liked the level of pious worship they practiced there. It felt sincere; familiar even.
We tried the Reform joint, but that was not for me. Although their rules are more relaxed, I felt a bit invisible there, excluded even, like I’d never be Jewish enough. And what they don’t tell you about becoming Jewish is that at some point you must join a community -- a synagogue -- which requires a significant financial commitment.
Catholics may require baptism to take the Eucharist, but they let you visit and worship with them, passing around a donation basket. Non-denominational Christian dogma welcomes all, despite your level of sin. Just state Jesus is your savior and you’re in! Eternal life. If you want to become a member of the temple, however, you have to PAY. Like, a lot. I'm talking a second mortgage. In check form all at once, upfront. It's a commitment!
I want my kids to be proud of their religious heritage. Who knows? I might even convert one day. The pressure is mounting.
We were recently at a Filipino Catholic family wedding. Sam heard the priest say the word Jesus. “Who’s Jesus, Mom?” he asked. I said, “He’s the son of God, honey.” My mother-in-law shot me a look. Oops.