“Mutilation [is] the only honest name for this raw act that my wife and I have twice invited men with knives to come into our house and perform, in the presence of all our friends and family, with a nice buffet and Weekend Cake from Just Desserts…
“We have been through all of the standard arguments — hygiene, cancer prevention, psychological fitness, the Zero Mostel tradition . . . and found they are all debatable at best.”
For his sons, Chabon “shopped around the mohel market” for someone who’d use anesthetic, but that “did not really detract from the fundamental brutality of the business.”
Let’s face it: he’s right. Circumcision is brutal and raw. But not that brutal, and not that raw. In most cases, it’s a clip and a snip, the baby cries for a few seconds, and soon falls asleep in someone’s arms. It’s not mutilation, in the sense that the original organ continues to function as nature intended, and it’s not emotionally scarring, otherwise you’d have millions of men walking around with deep neuroses and unresolved anger (wait, let me amend that. Let’s just say it’s no more emotionally scarring than growing up in a Jewish home in the first place).
As for the nice buffet, he’s also got a point. Now most of the brisses I’ve been too are sweet and powerful affairs — there is something intensely emotional and tribal about this primal act being carried out in suburbia, this renewal of Jewish belonging even in otherwise assimilated homes, the air of solemnity and literally carnal joy in which a group of Jews welcomes another one of its own. I always weep (and for some reason flash back to Felix Unger’s cry of joy when his daughter Edna is born: “There’s a new Unger in the world!” I even got a bit weepy just now).
But, without going into details, let me say that I’ve been at a less fortunate bris, where the operation was a little more complicated and prolonged, and the guests were subjected not to a quick tribal rite but a rather lengthy episode of Nip/Tuck. It had me questioning the public nature of the rite, and the bizarre juxtaposition of blood and bagels.
So I understand the qualms of couples when it comes to bris, and it’s not up to me or anyone else to say whether they should go through with it, or do it in the hospital, or search for a mohel who delivers anesthetics. By the same token, just don’t judge me or my fellow Jews who maintain the practice, especially by exaggerating the violence of the rite or its long-term effects, or dismissing the health claims, or diminishing the power of the traditions that have kept it alive.
[By the way, I'm not sure what Chabon means by the "Zero Mostel tradition." I know a character in The Producers is named Roger de Bris, and Harry Belafonte plays a circumcised angel opposite Mostel in The Angel Levine. But is there something I'm missing? (Besides my foreskin?)]