As an infant, I was circumcised by my doctor. As an adult, I circumcised myself.
After 15 years of attending weekly services and actively participating in most every facet of synagogue life at Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, California, I finally took the leap of faith and decided to formally convert to Judaism. My rabbi spent a year meeting with me before it was finally time for me to go to mikvah and undergo a formal conversion to Judaism.
As my Rabbi explained it to me, a dunk in the mikvah was essential, but it would be extra special if there I had a bris (ritual circumcision), too. I explained to my rabbi that my doctor had already performed the secular procedure on me, and my rabbi explained that this is usually the case. All I had to do, he explained, was produce a drop of blood. He said that I could do this in private.
I excitedly told my Jewish friends about how I was going to the mikvah and going to give myself bris that only had to produce a drop of blood. My good friend Judy, a diabetic, said that the best way to draw a drop of blood was with one of the lancets she uses to measure her blood sugar, and she dug out one from her purse to give to me. As I examined it, she noticed the uncertainty in my face and she tried to reassure me. “It’s just a little prick.” I looked up at Judy and wondered what my wife had been telling her.
The time finally came for the three Jews on my bet din, my wife and I to drive from Pleasanton to Beth Jacob in Oakland, the closest synagogue with a mikvah that allowed Reform conversions. My bet din consisted of two rabbis and Steve, a good friend of mine, who is a Torah scholar and scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The bet din convened in a chapel adjacent to the mikvah. I was relatively at ease — after all, it wasn’t like I was defending my dissertation. After all, every member of the bet din had known me for years and years. After a brief conversation, it was time for me to go into the mikvah. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and what to do, but I wasn’t prepared for how white the room was. The shower, the area around the sink and the mikvah were all white tile. The bench was white, too. I showered and then immersed myself in the mikvah. My rabbi, who is a bit shy, opened the door to the mikvah just a crack and shouted in instructions about what to do next.
I performed the ritual dunk, got out of the mikvah and dried myself off. I was a new man, officially a Jew. But before I got dressed, there was one more thing left to do. I searched my pants pockets for the lancet that Judy gave me but knew, in my heart, that I had neglected to bring it with me. What to do?
There, next to the sink on a white hand towel, lay an assortment of personal care items. I examined them with an eye for my mission. There was a nail file (obviously no), tweezers (?), cuticle scissors (probably not), nail clippers (no, too scary), and a disposable razor (hell no).
I resigned myself to the cuticle scissors.
I took the scissors and a snow white towel over to the bench, spread out the towel, sat down and began to organize myself for the bris. I thought about Abraham and how he had performed his own bris, a real bris, not a drop-of-blood bris. Abraham has a reputation for doing most everything Hashem asked him to but, nevertheless, Hashem’s demand must have seemed rather odd. Not as odd as killing his only son, but still plenty odd. Abraham did it anyway, and then proceeded to do the procedure on his servants. Abraham wanted so much to be in the covenant with Hashem that he took out his knife (or whatever passed for a knife in those days) and whacked away. If that’s what Abraham was willing to do, how could I balk at just a drop of blood?
One hand made a fold of skin in the correct area and the other hand wielded the scissors. I positioned the scissors, closed my eyes and thought about Abraham. I started to close the scissors until I felt a pinch and then closed the scissors a bit more. Opening my eyes and pulling away the scissors, I inspected the site and found, much to my dismay, nothing. Not even a mark and certainly not a drop of blood. Fail.
I was determined and undeterred by my failure. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to pain, so it came as only a bit of a surprise that I choked at the first nibble from the cuticle scissors. I prepared for my second attempt and thought about who I would become following the bris. Hereafter, I would be called to Torah as David (my middle name), son of Abraham and Sarah (my mother’s name). I am becoming the son of Abraham. And just as Isaac didn’t flinch when his father Abraham raised the knife above him, I shouldn’t flinch at mere cuticle scissors nipping at me. I needed to be strong, like Abraham and Isaac. All I needed to do was draw a drop of blood.
Determined to re-double my effort, I grabbed a fold of skin, poised the cuticle scissors and started to close them with a more resolute purpose. I passed the threshold of discomfort of my first attempt and entered into another level of pain. Thinking that I had done the deed, I removed the scissors and opened my eyes to inspect the spot. Again nothing, just an angry red mark. No blood. Fail. Apparently becoming the son of Abraham is not easy, and that was the lesson of my second attempt.
Extremely discouraged, I thought about what I was going to do next. I could fake it and tell the bet din that I had drawn a drop of blood and no one would be any the wiser — except Hashem, of course. Hashem would know that I had failed the test and not entered into the covenant. I would forever have that on my conscience and I didn’t think I could live with that lie. I would need to make a third attempt.
This time, I thought about that covenant with Hashem. If Hashem knew I made a Best Effort, then I couldn’t be blamed. I mean, who knew the skin of my privates was made from kevlar? And I didn’t have the right tool. And I really felt some pain from the last attempt. I mean, would Hashem forgive me if I put my all into making the effort one more time and failed? I think He would. But maybe I wouldn’t fail this time. Maybe I would draw that drop of blood and everything would be fine. So, one more time. I would know that I’d made that Best Effort, and then I could meet with the bet din with a clear conscience.
I pulled out the fold of skin and poised the scissors for the third time. I closed my eyes and the scissors for that third time. I crossed through the threshold of discomfort of the first time and then the pain of the second time. I made my Best Effort. This time, it really, really, really hurt and I was convinced that something had happened. I opened the scissors and my eyes and inspected my work. It was unimpressive. I mean, there was a what appeared to be a cut, but blood was not coming out. I thought I might have seen some pink flesh exposed beneath the white, but.. fail.
I was disappointed. Very disappointed, but I knew — and Hashem knew — that I had made my Best Effort and that was that.
Time to pack it in, get dressed and finish this up. And that’s what I did. I got dressed and just as I was knotting my tie in the mirror, I saw a dark spot on the fly of my pants, about the size of a nickel. “Well, that’s embarrassing,” I thought to myself. Had I wet my pants? Then I was seized with the possibility that this was instead the drop of blood I had been trying to draw. I opened my zipper and, sure enough, there was blood — and more than just a drop. I examined the wound and saw that, while there was a clean cut, there was also a ragged tear at both ends of the cut. I thought about my favorite line from Keanu Reeves’ movie, “The Replacements”: Pain fades, chicks dig scars and glory lasts forever.
I improvised a tourniquet from my handkerchief, but by the time I zipped by up, that nickel-sized spot was the size of a saucer and my white boxer shorts were ruined.
On the one hand, I was proud of myself. I had performed the mitzvah. I was now the son of Abraham. I was officially entered into the covenant with Hashem. On the other hand, I was just a little bit worried about the medical consequences of my improvised bris. Although I didn’t think anything was terribly wrong, I wondered if I would have to receive medical attention (stitches? superglue?) and the conversations I would then have to have with the medical professionals attending to me.
I checked for blood on the bench where I had been sitting and the floor beneath it, because blood and a mikvah is a very bad combination. Thankfully, the room was spotless — aside from me. I exited the mikvah and went back into the chapel with a towel wrapped around my waist to cover up my embarrassment. I walked over to the bet din and my wife asked why I was wearing a towel.
“You want to know why I’m wearing a towel? I’ll show you why I’m wearing a towel.”
I parted the towel.
My rabbis and my friend and my wife all gasped at what had become a dinner plate size stain on the front of my pants and a trickle down my left leg. My tourniquet was failing. My rabbi recoiled, as he subscribes to the belief that blood is a magical life force that has mystical properties. “Are you bleeding out?” he asked. His concern was endearing.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “But there is a problem.”
Rabbi Laura asked, “Is that from the bris?”
That question wasn’t as endearing. What I wanted to reply was, “Well it didn’t get it caught in the door.” Instead, I simply said, “Yes. It’s from the bris.”
Steve noticed the bulge beneath the fly of my pants. “Is there swelling, too?” I wasn’t sure what he meant by “swelling,” but I decided to take it at face value.
“No. There’s not swelling. That’s a tourniquet I made from my handkerchief.” The bet din wasn’t very impressed with my improvised first aid, and I’m sure images came to their minds about how a tourniquet would exactly work in a situation such as this, but they seemed to quickly put it behind them.
My wife was pondering what her role in all of this was going to be and whether her marriage vows covered this situation.
“Let’s conclude,” my rabbi said, breaking the spell, and so we did. I was pronounced a Jew. There is a certificate attesting to this. Afterwards, there were some rather awkward hugs and my bet din left for lunch at a new Chinese restaurant in Oakland. My wife loves nothing better than good Chinese food in the company of smart Jews, but was yoked to me instead.
Anyway, my wife and I went home and I threw out my pants, handkerchief and underwear and even my socks. The garbage can looked like a crime scene. I took a long shower. After the shower I applied some hydrogen peroxide (yikes!) and the bleeding seemed to abate. I wrapped the mark of the covenant with gauze and adhesive tape and reported back to my spouse that everything would be ok. She was skeptical, but I didn’t bleed out and die. So there.
Perhaps this is over sharing, but this experience was a big religious moment in my little life. I made the ancient covenant with Hashem and became Abraham’s son. I sincerely hope if someone reading this is thinking about conversion that this story doesn’t turn the tide of their enthusiasm. Just know that being a Jew can mean unexpected adventures, your best effort is probably enough and that having Hashem on your side can make all the difference in this world and beyond.
This story "I Circumcised Myself — And Lived To Tell The Tale" was written by Brian D. Johnson.