How many Jewish men can remember their bris?
My Bris: A Recollection after Sixty-Five Years by David Margolis
Jews are prolific writers and there are thousands of memoirs about bar mitzvahs, weddings, parenthood and funerals, but despite careful research I have not come across an autobiographical account of the bris (the Jewish rite of circumcision), so I have decided to fill this obvious gap in Hebraic lore. My peregrination through the birth canal was unremarkable and I proceeded to breathe soon after the obstetrician slapped me on my butt. I began bottle feeding immediately, (breast feeding was not popular then) and I pooped and peed soon after arrival. Everything seemed to be going well until my dad appeared from the father’s waiting room (they weren’t present at the birthing in the 1940’s), and told me that he hoped that I would be a good Jewish boy. Gee, this was a Catholic hospital and there were nuns all over the place so I assumed that I was a Christian although I hadn’t ruled out Buddhism because I was bald and a little yellow, but being a Jew never crossed my mind. Now I was saddled with a five thousand year history of misfortunes, not to mention the guilt.
Suddenly my parents were discussing cutting some skin around my penis to prove that I was from the chosen people. Hey! Everything is working well, and if it ain’t broke why fix it? I can embrace Judaism, maybe not my first choice, but isn’t this unnecessary surgery? Evidently I wasn’t to have any input in the matter and I thought to myself, “let’s get this over with today.” But no, there is a seven or eight day waiting period depending if you were born before or after sunset, and nobody seems to know exactly why, something about taking that length of time to get the body and soul together, long before the Beatles tune “Eight Days a Week.” Then I found out that Abraham wasn’t circumcised until he was ninety-nine so could we put this off indefinitely? I guess not.
The next day my dad returned with a list of prospective circumcisers (mohels) in the area. He had narrowed it down to three men (there were no women in the business). A local butcher, I. M. Fleisher, seemed to have the most experience and he had excellent references, but because of his expertise, he charged fifty bucks for the ritual which in 1947 was a lot of money plus he was not a kosher butcher and my father worried that the job might be tainted if there was some pork remnants on the man’s hands, even though that seemed unlikely. The second individual was Max Goldgraber who owned a deli but had an abrasive personality and was somewhat of a chiseler. He insisted on a package deal where the family would need to buy his bagels for the post bris meal. The third fellow, Noah Klutznick was a novice in his twenties but had just finished his apprenticeship in Brooklyn with a famous mohel who was the Babe Ruth of the profession. In order to make a living, Klutznick continued to work in the family business of making brooms. He was the cheapest of the lot, charging only twenty-five dollars while trying to build up his clientele. Thus, the candidates included a butcher, a baker, and a broom handle maker. My parents went with the still green Klutznick ostensibly for his enthusiasm and modern training. Holy mohely! They would endanger my phallus to save a few bucks, but what choice did I have? I was a long way from eighteen.
Because of my jaundice, the doctor kept me in the hospital until the day of the ritual. That morning, a perky blond nurse in a starched white uniform with matching cap, gave me a bath with a thorough scrubbing of my private parts as they would shortly be on display. She wheeled me to a small conference room where the icons of Christ had been tastefully removed from the walls. A throng of people had gathered, mostly relatives whom I had never met and if I knew then what I know now about them, I would have started crying immediately. They placed me in the lap of my grandfather who insisted on telling some Yiddish jokes to the gentile attendants. Next to us was the chair of Elijah, which of course was empty. He evidently is the same prophet who never shows up on Passover to drink his wine. Klutznick had already arrived looking handsome in a new suit with a fedora perched on his head, Frank Sinatra wearing a tallis. He started the ceremony with the Kiddush and sprinkled some sacramental vino on my lips to get me drunk so I wouldn’t feel the pain. To this day I have an aversion to Manischewitz wine and much prefer a pinot noir or a cabernet. The mohel put a little helmet on my penis so it looked like a soldier and with a clamp and a knife he trimmed away the foreskin. Klutznick was flawless in his performance. I was somewhat tipsy from the wine but was still able to shriek at the top of my lungs. Soon it was over and my father and grandfather were congratulating the rookie slicer on a job well done. Afterwards, my relations did what most Jews do, and that was to eat the bagels (not from Goldgraber), lox, and cream cheese, along with knishes supplied by my grandmother, and then they all went home including me.
My bris was over and I took my place in line as a Jew although I couldn’t start to complain until I was able to talk. I don’t want to go into embarrassing detail about the function of the mohel’s handiwork, but suffice it to say, I was able to produce two children and my aim at the toilet bowl has for the most part been on target. More recently, because of an enlarging prostate, I have made more trips to the commode to empty my bladder, but this has given me more time to look down and marvel at Klutznick’s masterpiece. Last week, I was honored to be present at my grandson’s bris, and discovered that this quirky custom had not changed since my ordeal in the first half of the previous century. The only modification in protocol was the mohel’s announcement at the beginning of the ceremony: he instructed all in attendance to turn off their cell phones.