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I am a pretty unobservant Jewish woman who didn’t hesitate to marry a non-Jewish man. We had a few token Jewish elements at our wedding, but otherwise our life together has been mostly faith-free. Now I am pregnant with a boy and feel very strongly about having him circumcised by a mohel in front of our family and friends. How do I bring this up with my husband who, I assume, is unaware of this practice of ours, without totally horrifying him? — Pregnant in Cleveland
LAUREL SNYDER: In general, when you aren’t certain why something matters to you, my advice is that you need to figure out the reason. I wonder what it is about a bris at home that feels so particularly critical?
Is it possible that your pregnancy has made Jewish ritual more important to you? (This would be totally reasonable, and might explain why you worry your husband will be confused.)
Is there a power dynamic in the marriage that you’re struggling with? So that this is a chance to make a strong (irreversible) stand? With witnesses?
Or is it possible that a hospital circumcision is complicated for you in other ways? When my son was born, so many of my friends who were having kids around the same time opted not to circumcise. I felt a certain amount of peer pressure from them, but deep inside I knew a bris was important to me, for a number of both religious and secular reasons. The home-bris, as a key Jewish ritual, kept me from having to engage in that conversation too much.
In any case, I’d try not to think of your son’s bris in words like “horrifying.” You’re undermining yourself, and maybe preparing for a battle.
Having kids is bound to open up decisions you haven’t thought about, and you want to begin as you mean to continue. I don’t mean to pass the buck, but I think this sounds like a good time to seek out a good counselor.
People tend to wait for an actual crisis, but my husband I saw a therapist before getting married, and it was clarifying. It laid the groundwork to talk about issues that would arise later, like how we could justify Hebrew school when it cost so much, and whether we believed in Santa.
(As it turns out, we don’t)
JAMES PONET: You are beginning to negotiate the next phase of your life: becoming a Jewish mother.
Consider first that your wedding, which contained “a few token Jewish elements” served, whether you realized it or not, as a celebration of your spiritual willingness to create a home where you and your husband might devote yourselves to the labor of bringing the next generation into reality. The Seven Blessings, recited at the traditional Jewish wedding, give exquisite poetic expression to this understanding of marital love.
You now look upon the imminent birth of your son as a fulfillment of your marriage and you find yourself, apparently to your own surprise, wanting not a baby naming with “a few token Jewish elements” but a traditional brit milah. I urge you to be kind to yourself and your husband. For at revolutionary life-junctures like the onset of parenthood a sudden desire to locate the birth of a new world within a stable multi-generational matrix may emerge from one’s spiritual depths. A brit milah can do just that.
But consider. Is your husband circumcised? Will he be able to experience the public surgery (probably the wildest Jewish tradition) performed on his son as part of a loving welcome to family and communal life? Will you? Much will depend on the mohel you select. The choice is growing and includes men and women, some trained as physicians, often connected to one of the movements of Judaism.
While the precise task of a brit milah is the public removal of your baby’s foreskin, its meaning resides in your articulated acceptance of parenthood, as the liturgy of the brit milah puts it, that you pledge to enable your little one to grow big into a life of learning, commitment, and loving deeds — torah, chuppah, umaasim tovim.
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 2 grandchildren.
JANE LARKIN: If your husband is circumcised, he may be less horrified than you think, but he may be confused by the idea that his usually ambivalent-about-Judaism-wife, feels strongly about engagement in a religious ritual.
Because generally you are faith-free, I’d think about why this ritual is important to you and why you want to introduce more religion into your home now. Why not have your son circumcised in the hospital? Does having a bris mean you want to raise your child as a Jew? Have you had that conversation with your husband? I’d have answers to these questions before I discussed having a Jewish circumcision ceremony.
As your pregnancy progresses, your obstetrician will probably ask you if you want him or her to perform a circumcision in the hospital a day or so after birth. Mine did. Since you need to give your doctor an answer, this is a perfect way to bringing up the subject of a bris with your husband. You can say, “I want to talk to you about circumcising our son. My doctor asked if we want him or her to perform the circumcision in the hospital.” Then you can explain why you want to have a bris.
If your husband is not circumcised, the conversation will probably be more complicated since you’ll have to sell circumcision and Jewish ritual. The American Academy of Pediatrics won’t be of any help. It recommends that parents make a decision on circumcision in consultation with their pediatrician and consider medical, religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions. And because Jews perform circumcision because we believe it is a religious obligation and sacred act, rather than for health purposes, you’ll still need to be able to answer those questions about why having a bris is important to you.
Jane Larkin writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com, a website that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. She is the author of the forthcoming book, From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity. She lives with her family in Dallas, TX.
JIM KEEN: Nothing screams, “Welcome to Intermarriage!” like a bris. I completely understand where you’re coming from, and it sounds like your husband may be in for a bit of a surprise if he’s never attended this rite of passage for Jewish newborns. I had this discussion with my wife before our kids were born (she is Jewish; I’m Christian). She said to me, “ You know, if we have a boy, we’re going to have a bris for him.”
“No probl…Wait. Isn’t that where they cut the…?”
Fortunately, we were able to attend a friend’s bris before we had kids, so I got to see what a beautiful ceremony it is. Perhaps finding one you can attend might also help your husband’s comfort level.
More importantly, though, I would recommend bringing up your desire to have a bris in the larger context of how exactly you and your husband are planning on raising your children. Don’t just focus on the bris itself, but what does the bris mean to you and your new family? Are you going to incorporate other Jewish elements for your son? Will you give him a Hebrew name? Will he become a bar mitzvah?
What will happen in December with Christmas and Chanukah? I don’t know your husband’s background, but assume that he may want to celebrate and pass on some of his own traditions.
The best thing that you and your husband can do is communicate. Talk about your needs. And after those needs are met, what will it all look like?
Jim Keen is the author of “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” He has been in an interfaith relationship for 28 years, and has been an active participant with his wife in raising their two Jewish daughters. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Jim teaches in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.