Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
21. ACHILLES’ KNEE
"I thought you were dead.”
The voice came at the end of an arm picking me up out of the gutter.
"Where are my glasses?” were my kind words of thanks as I stumbled back into traffic.
A car hit me. At least I think it was a car, all I remember seeing was a yellow blur followed by a blinding flash of white light. I was lying on the sidewalk. The last thing I recall was crossing the street. I was on the double-yellow line that divided the four lanes of traffic on East Fourteenth Street, dangerous, but there was not much traffic at that time of night. Something hit me, hard. I must have flown across the westbound lanes.
In the middle of the street I saw my undamaged sunglasses. I slipped them on. They were prescription, but I saw less wearing them. It was between closing time at the bars and breakfast time at the diners, too dark to be wearing sunglasses, but then I was too drunk to care about anything as inconsequential as vision. It was also too late for me to walk from the East Village to my Chelsea apartment, by myself, sloshed. I should have sprung for a cab, should have taken off my sunglasses, should have crossed "at the green and not in-between,” like a public service announcement prophetically warned me as a child.
"Are you all right?”
I put hand to head and it came back sticky with my blood. I was the victim of a hit and run. My eyes focused on the Good Samaritan. He looked concerned and insisted on taking me to the nearest hospital.
The sun colored the sky in streaks of red and purple, which I imagined nicely matched my lacerations. Beth Israel Hospital was only a couple of blocks east. My savior left me at the entrance to the emergency room. All I had to do was limp in and ask for help. I told the nurse behind the thick glass wall that a car had hit me. She seemed unimpressed and had me take a seat. I was tired, beaten up and my drunken high was fast souring into a hangover. I just wanted to go home and sleep. I ambled restlessly around the waiting area. Under the buzz of florescent lights a television set broadcast senseless babble. Patients dozed in uncomfortable plastic chairs. The admitting nurse looked like some maniacal frog, fat and still. I expected her mouth to suddenly open, shooting out a long viscous tongue, jerking back defenseless prey into her slobbering jaws before licking her chops. That would require a small amount of effort, far more than she was willing to exert.
"Anti-Semites!" I screamed to break the deafening silence. Marching around the room, ranting and raving, I accused Beth Israel Hospital of refusing to attend to my injuries because I was a Jew. Nobody paid attention to my tirade. I pushed my way out through the exit and into the still of Sunday morning.
Limping home I cursed and raised a rigid middle finger to my enemy, every car that dared cross my path. The next morning I couldn’t walk. My left knee was locked. A severe tear of the meniscus cartilage restricted movement and a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament left the regain unstable. I would never play competitive sports again, not that I never had. I was lucky to be alive, but I didn’t believe in luck.
Powers greater than myself worked in mysterious ways to prove that fortune, both good and bad, exist. Was it good fortune that I found myself back at Beth Israel Hospital decades later? I was a changed man, less stylish, less drunk and less sunglasses after dark, but more happy. I no longer saw anti-Semitic conspiracies at Beth Israel Hospital. I saved that paranoia for institutional Judaism and its design’s on Simon’s penis.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
Irrational and exuberance are two of my favorite words. Together they’re a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of a business climate, a profitable confection I dip my hand in and out it comes with a fistful of dollars. I eagerly join the hysteria, worshipping at the false idol of the Internet’s Golden Calf. Never have so many freelanced for so much. When a contract turned into a full-time offer, I jump at the opportunity to share in the economic bacchanal. It is a significant raise in salary, plus the added lure of stock options. I remembered my Grandfather’s bar wallpapered with old stocks and bonds from companies that ended up worthy only of novelty, unfortunately just like the one I have signed with.
Scout Electromedia is the brainchild of a trio of Stanford graduates whose baby is a wireless technology that will deliver content to a small, beeper-like device. The plan is to create a city guide, with daily updated listings on bars, restaurants, theater, movies, music and fine arts. They call their spawn modo, note the e.e. cummings lowercase poetic pretense, an amorphous plastic doohickey that looks like a giant tooth a dentist might use to demonstrate where to fill a cavity. Helena is upset I don’t consult her before accepting the editorial position. I am no longer making decisions solely for myself. We are starting a family and discuss having her stay home with the baby, at least for the first couple of years, but the prospect of not writing about patchouli and leaving the dull grind of business journalism behind selfishly propels me. I promise Helena I will support our family. As it turns out, we will both end up as stay-at-home moms.
The absurdity of a startup venture is right up my Silicon Alley. I walk into the raw loft space on West Seventeenth Street, sit in the Aeron chair, behind an Ikea desk, boot up a new tangerine iMac and get to work. There are plans to install a deejay booth in one corner of the office, a lounge in another, and cover the walls in a revolving collection of fine art, turning our office into a gallery for off-hour parties. There are no off hours.
Simon Ezra Landau and modo share launch dates, September 2000, the twilight of a new millennium. Simon comes first and proves more resilient. Two weeks prior to Simon’s due date I am again working late, compiling and editing the massive listings for every hip and happening bar, restaurant, gallery, theater, movie house, musical venue, park and tourist attraction in New York City. Each review is written in shorthand to fit the perimeters of a device with a screen the size of a wooden nickel, read in hand while passing through subway turnstiles. It’s like getting an email encrypted by an illiterate friend with Attention Deficit Disorder.
I don’t get home until eleven o’clock and fall asleep before my head sinks to the bottom of the two fluffy pillows beneath it. An hour later Helena is tapping me awake. “I think my water broke,” she whispers.
"Uh-huh," I respond, not moving my lips or opening my eyes. I heard that before. Only a week ago Helena experienced a vaginal discharge. We misconstrued this as the wet starting shot of the birth race and rushed across the river to Beth Israel Hospital, but after a quick examination were returned home. “Go back to sleep,” I mumble.
The contractions wake Helena up a couple of hours later. I reluctantly get out of bed and reach for the stopwatch.
"Tell me when the contractions begin."
Helena is out of the bed, bent over and cradling her bulbous belly as she paces the bedroom. I press the start button on the digital stopwatch. The numerals speed forward on the gray display.
"Have they stopped?"
I stop the countdown, look at the number on the display and then back up at Helena. Her features are unclear in the predawn light, but I can see the furrowed brow cracked on her forehead like fault lines. She doesn’t look at me. She can’t look at me. She won’t speak to me. She cannot speak. She can only brace herself against the next internal quake.
"Do you want me to time the contractions?" I ask, looking down at the stopwatch in my hand.
I am Helena’s shadow for tense hours, the stopwatch hanging around my neck, slapping against my stomach, as I follow her around the room. The contractions are more frequent. I time them by the rate of Helena’s cursing.
When the raising sun begins to fill our bedroom I call the clinic. The doctor we like best, the one who equates her skills to scalpel-wielding monkeys, is on call at the hospital. She is about to go into the delivery room with another patient, but tells us to get over to the hospital.
We dress. I have our bag already packed and call a car service. The driver helps Helena into the leather seat of the Lincoln Town Car, puts soothing music on the radio and drives slow and carefully over streets paved with potholes to Manhattan.
The car service pulls up to the corner. Beth Israel Hospital looks unimposing, just another building on a city block, an unremarkable destination this remarkable morning. Helena is at my side, but far away, deep inside herself battling against her body’s violent revolt.
We are put in a room. A nurse comes in to measure Helena’s cervix. When she leaves we are alone. Besides the industrial green walls, the mechanical guts of the hospital bed and the colorfully bland artworks handing in white frames, we could have been back in Brooklyn. I have my stopwatch around my neck like a piece of jewelry. Helena is bent over on the bed tensely riding out the waves of her contractions. It’s a breeding standoff.
Unlike home, there is a detachable massaging shower-head in the bathroom. Helena aims it at her belly for the next half-hour. During that time my Mom, our birthing partner, arrives. Within hours she will relinquish the title of Mom to Helena and forever be known as Grandma.
The doctor joins us, unrecognizable in her shop clothes: gray-green surgical scrubs, a skullcap hiding her long hair. She has orange plastic bags over her shoes and a bandage on her left forefinger that makes it stick out at an awkward angle. It is the only irregularity in an otherwise textbook birth.
"I sprained my finger," she explains. "I won’t be delivering the baby, but I’ll be here to oversee everything. Don’t worry.”
I am not worried. All my attention is on taking care of Helena. How is she feeling? What does she need? May I rub her feet? Does she want me to talk to her? Would she prefer silence? I am not worried because in my mind we are already a family, the birth a mere technicality, which of course is easy for me to say.
Helena’s contractions are rolling one on top of the other. It is time for her to start pushing. But first we are alone for a moment. Helena looks up at me, her face not twisted, she doesn’t snarl curses and even her brow unfurls smoothly for the first time in months.
"I think I need drugs," she whispers, her eyes dim and pained.
"Let’s wait a few minutes," I say. One more peep from Helena and I’d harvest a field of poppies for her.
She says nothing. Helena glistens with sweat, her hair matted and tangled behind her ears. Naked except for a dull-colored hospital gown hiked up around her waist, Helena looks weary but determined to experience her delivery in all its unmasked and painful glory. She nods her head before being swept up in another powerful contraction. In a few minutes it is too late for the numbing wizardry of an epidural injection. She is pushing.
The doctor is standing by Helena’s feet conducting the delivery with the baton of her bandaged finger, her assistant is arm-deep between Helena’s legs, my Mom and I on either side of Helena as she pushes through the mighty contractions, the window for pain management shuttered. I hold Helena’s arm in one hand, while pulling her leg up to her chest with the other, cradling her through the contractions.
My behavior is exemplary. Not once do I speak to Helena in tones reserved for man’s best friend. Whatever she needs, I provide: I run through the hallways to get a nurse when Helena requests one, always have a cold compress in hand to press against her sweaty brow, hold her, there for her in every way, a rock. Peter means rock, as in the rock that the first Church of Christ was built upon. I hardly think of myself as a secure foundation for anything, my life is more gelatinous. But not today, not now; I am solidly at Helena’s side when she needs me most.
I even manage to arrest what Helena calls my Tourette Syndrome, the verbal diarrhea that spews from my mouth without censor. It’s a nervous tick of bad jokes, filthy versions of popular songs and various oddly idiotic behaviors — the residual poop-and pee shock humor of childhood. This is the true challenge of childbirth, to keep from venting stress with the tonic of forbidden words. That stop is pulled when Simon’s head crowns.
"He looks just like you!" I blabber, peeking between Helena’s legs, as the bloody drab mass of Simon’s head appears. It is peanut-shaped and sparsely covered with dark streaks of gooey wet hair.
"Do you want to see him?" the doctor asks Helena.
"No," she moans, "I just want to hold my baby."
Helena has pushed for about an hour. Her patience and endurance erode. The doctor foretold months ago that when a pregnant mother thinks she can’t take it anymore, wants to give up, shove the baby back inside and pack up all those ridiculous fantasies about raising a family, the mischievous child decides to spill out, crying. Beyond exhaustion, her body beaten up from the inside out, as she passes a seven-pound, sevenounce block of flesh and bone through an elastic but not unbreakable opening, Helena is unable to protest my puerile attention. Chained to propriety since midnight and diligently on the job as Helena’s advocate, my twelve-hour shift is over. The quitting bell rings with the squishy splurge that is Simon’s misshapen head plopping out from Helena’s vagina.
Simon’s nose is on his forehead, his mouth wraps around an ear, which rests on a slimy cheek, while his eyes settle on one side of his skull like a flounder.
"I want my baby!" Helena whines.
I’m not so sure she does.
The features of Simon’s face begin a slow migration to their proper orientation after being rubbed awry on their journey out of Mommy’s womb. Then, all at once, Simon’s body washes out from Helena in a flood of fluids, as if cast from a fisherman’s net. His shapeless bulk quickly snaps into place.
"He’s got six fingers!"
That is my first joyous utterance as a proud Daddy.
"Don’t worry, we can tie off the extra one," the doctor consoles me. She reaches down to count Simon’s fingers and toes. There are five on each hand and foot. “It was a joke,” I say sheepishly, not elaborating on my disorder.
The doctor’s assistant holds Simon above Helena deflated belly, his umbilical cord sutured. I’m given scissors to cut it off. It’s a rite of passage for fathers, a tactile participation in the birth by removing the baby’s last physical tie to the mother. Do I look at Simon’s penis? It has been at the vanguard of so many battles during the pregnancy. I am cutting tissue only inches above the supposedly insignificant piece of flesh that will be ritualistically cut from Simon’s penis in eight days. How can I shun that symbol made flesh? But I don’t look. For once I am not thinking about penises.
Helena collapses into the hospital bed. The nurse brings the baby to her. Finally holding Simon for the first time, Helena is ecstatic. Riding the surge of childbirth energy, she comments, “I know how peasant women can give birth and then go right back to toil in the fields,” before passing out.
The nurse takes Simon from Helena and puts him in a small bassinet under a heat lamp. She stretches a thin cloth cap over his head and applies an ankle bracelet with a barcode that Simon shares with an armband on Helena’s wrist to insure we leave the hospital with the right baby. That’s unnecessary. I am not leaving my son’s side, ever.
Besides the nurse, I crane my neck above her broad shoulders, my eyes vigilantly on my baby. It is the first time I have left Helena’s side since her water broke. Simon’s face looks beautiful. He looks like a fish from the dark waters of the abyss whose features were nearly ripped off as it was yanked to the surface.
He is gorgeous, magnificent and perfect. My eyes remain glued on him. I stroke his cheek gently with my forefinger and speak quietly to sooth his rocking cries. The nurse takes Simon upstairs to wash. I follow her, abandoning Helena spent and alone in the damp tangle of her hospital gown.
I can’t take my eyes off of Simon. I don’t blink fearing I will somehow lose sight of him behind the glass observation window where the newly born infants are gathered, bundled in blankets and displayed like deli meat in rows of identical bassinets before the hungry eyes of all the proud papas.
Before Simon joins the other newborns he is manhandled by the nurse under a running facet of what I hope is warm water. I can’t hear his cries through the thick glass, but his mouth is wide and his eyes squeezed shut as the nurse scrubs my delicate angel.
She uses such force I am convinced this madwoman is trying to rub the unspoiled pelt off the bone to sell to some black-market furrier who will stitch it into couture for affluent Madison Avenue clients with wicked taste.
For the next hour and a half I watch Simon rest. Only his little red face visible between the cap, pulled down to his closed eyes, and the blanket swaddled up to his chin.
He has to stay under observation. It is procedure. I should be bored, tired on my feet, but I stand transfixed.
There’s a picture my Mom, now Grandma, takes of the three of us from later that day. Simon is back with Helena in the hospital room she has been transferred to. He is sleeping besides the bed in his bassinet. Helena and I are laying over the thin hospital covers asleep, laid out long and stiff like corpses. Our first family portrait looks like our last. We are exhausted, but it is only the beginning.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
19. IN GOD WE DISTRUST
Jean asked me to a seminar. We met at Parsons School of Design and I had been immediately attracted to her elfin quality, right down to the pointy curled-toe shoes she favored. I didn’t think she was exceptionally pretty, but appearances are transient. As we became friends I knew she was the most beautiful woman on earth.
Her parents had died, only months apart, after we graduated. Soon after she was introduced to EST. It changed her life. “I think it’d be really good for you,” she said, and invited me to an introductory meeting where some bigwig would be addressing an auditorium of the faithful via a satellite hookup from I assumed California, where bizarre philosophies flourished.
The seminar was on the West Side, near the river. It was nighttime and the lights of New Jersey looked like a confection across the Hudson. I entered a giant boxlike building that appeared hastily constructed out of corrugated metal. But inside it was wired with state-of-the-art electronics. At the end of a long hallway was a reception desk, beyond it several double doors leading to a large room with stadium seating facing a stage that held several large-screen television sets. The talk had already begun. The full house was focused on a talking head mirrored on the many screens, like a chorus. Standing by the open doors was a guard who, seeing me, closed the doors.
Reaching for the door, I was stopped by the receptionist. She was smiling, friendly but firm, only her eyes were chilly and scanned me with suspicion. “May I help you?” she chimed like a windup clock.
"I’m meeting a friend," I said, gesturing at the closed doors.
"You can’t go in there,” she said.
"You’re not a member."
"Fine," I sighed. "Sign me up."
"That’ll be $500."
"I don’t have $500," I replied.
"Not even to achieve your potential?" she asked.
And then she got me. Her pretty face droned on about the rewards on the other side of those closed doors if I was only willing to make the commitment, the financial commitment, to the program. It was really an insignificant sum considering the reward. “It’s only $500,” she noted, preparing to close the deal, smiling with something bordering on warmth. “That’s a small price to pay for happiness.”
Neither of us said anything for a while.
"Here’s what I’ll do for you,” I finally said. “If you’re so sure that this seminar will totally change my life, then let me in now, for free. If what you say is true, I will graciously hand over the money. What do you have to lose?”
The smile, frozen on her face since I walked in, melted around her chin in a loose frown.
"You’re not going to let me in," I stated. "Whatever is behind those doors, you don’t have faith in it, do you?" She repeated that I had to pay $500.
It comes down to faith. If you have to pay admission to get your prize, like some carnival ring-toss, well, then that’s commerce, or worse, a con.
I took an uncomfortable seat on a modern leather couch and waited for the amplified voice booming from within the auditorium to stop booming. So much for EST, and so much for Jean. She moved to Los Angeles. We lost touch.
A number of years later EST returned, now kinder and gentler in the guise of the Forum. Another friend had taken a weekend seminar and invited me to his graduation. It was an obvious recruitment ploy, but it meant a lot to him, so I said I’d be there.
This time they let me in without asking for a fee, just my name and contact information. The graduation was a group hug staged as a rally, with testimonials and a motivational speaker preaching to the choir. I politely applauded.
The speaker, a burly, animated man, thanked the friends and family of the graduates for attending. “They have something important to tell you,” he beamed. I braced myself.
"You’ve seen what this has done for me," my friend said. "I really think it’d be good for you." I looked back at my friend’s earnest face. "Thanks," I said, lifting a hand and placing it on his shoulder, a sign of my sincerity and to keep him at arm’s length.
I respect an individual’s freedom of religious expression, but I take issue with proselytizing. Conmen know the hard sell never works. Better to make the mark come to you. Religions could learn from this.
"I’m going to go now," I said slowly without a pause that could be filled with his sales pitch. Standing up, I thanked him again for inviting me, said I was pleased that he found happiness and quickly headed for the door. Around me the room was subdividing into smaller groups, each lead by a Forum team member. I got out just in time. Papers were being signed, money changing hands, business as usual.
I blame Santa Claus for my lifelong skepticism. Jolly Saint Nick was once my god and savior, only when he died there was no resurrection.
Each Christmas my family decorated a fragrant pine; it was kosher, I was told, because we topped our tree with a star and not an angel. “Didn’t the three wise men follow the Star of Bethlehem to the manger where Jesus was born?” I wanted to ask, the basic story was familiar from seasonal television specials, but Christmas was too miraculous a holiday to question such contradictions as Jews celebrating the birth of the Christian messiah.
On Christmas Eve we left a glass of milk and a plate of Fig Newtons for Santa to snack on. That Fig Newtons were my Dad’s favorite cookie didn’t seem the least bit irregular to me.
I love Christmas. I’m grateful that I come from a liberal, secular Jewish family that opened Christmas presents and then sat down to nosh on bagels and lox. Here comes the “but”: but believing in Santa Claus set me up early for a big fall.
My innocence ended like many before me on the sidewalks of New York. I was walking with a friend who memory has obscured save for the horrible knowledge he imparted to me on that cold afternoon. We were several paces behind our mothers, another wonderful Christmas just around the corner, but it would come dead on arrival.
"What are you getting from Santa?" I asked my pal innocuously.
"Ah, Christmas is for suckers," he spat. "Here’s the skinny: Santa Claus is nothing but a grift. I’m wise."
It’s unlikely my friend spoke like a heavy in a bad pulp novel. Still, I recall the exchange as if from a black-and-white film noir. This was as bleak and darkly realistic as life got for me at the time.
It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Streets powdered with snow, kids building snowmen. Shop windows flashing with strings of colorful lights, families bundled against the chill, astir with decorated gifts, erupting into spontaneous caroling. Even in our Jewish apartment the tree sparkled with tinsel. If we had a fireplace chestnuts would be roasting over it.
The flickering Christmas tree lit the living room in reds and greens that nauseatingly danced off the features of my Mom’s face. “Is it true?” I asked fearfully, looking up from her lap where I sat. “Is there no Santa Claus?”
Mom didn’t lie. She told me in a caring voice that sometimes people make up stories that while not factual are truthful and beautiful. Santa Claus was not a real person, but the world was a much better place believing in a Santa Claus.
Society had forged the falsehood of Santa Claus, hung like tinsel at the end of each year to dazzle us in service of illusion. The conspiracy went all the way up to the top, my parents. From that point on everything was suspect.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
18. HOW IS THIS PENIS DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHERS?
Alan Broadman meets me for lunch at Sammy’s Noodle House, a Chinese restaurant in the West Village. He’s a friend of a friend who I’ve known for many years, and he is a father. He met his wife at a Jewish singles mixer and is bringing up their son, Zachery, in the Jewish faith. A steaming plateful of Buddhist Delight, stir-friend vegetables and tofu in a fragrant brown sauce is set before him. He smiles at it beatifically.
Allen was raised a Jew in Brooklyn, but grew into a vegetarian more interested in Buddhism and meditation. He looks like his namesake: a broad man, large and tall, daunting even. He has a big belly and expansive face, a sparse beard and a receding hairline, with dark razor-cut hair, bristling over his scalp. Alan looks like the Buddha, but retains the air of a rabbinical student, though he never was one. He listens with serious intent, quiet in thought before making his grand and final pronouncement on a subject. It is just this sort of certitude that I seek.
"Circumcision is an ancient medical procedure that is done by cultures and religions other than Jewish, and you can discuss circumcision on its own merits, divorced from any Judaic issues," is Alan’s preamble. "As a health issue circumcision probably has some small benefits, in that it mostly eliminates smegma. But that is insignificant. Someone who still has their foreskin and keeps good hygiene won’t have any smegma problems, and someone who is filthy but has no foreskin is likely to get various infections. So really, personal behavior outweighs the health benefits of the circumcision, although it is easier to maintain penis hygiene when the foreskin has been removed. And again, this has nothing to do with Judaica."
I politely nod.
"Regarding Jewish practices, I maintain that there is little value in the circumcision as ritual, especially for the vast number of Jews who, like us, make little or no religious observance. That is, we do not keep the Sabbath, do not go to temple, do not wear a yarmulke, do not read Jewish scripture and so on. So saying that circumcision is an important Jewish ritual makes no sense to me unless you are an observant and religious person. If you don’t observe the precepts of the religion in your daily life, then what makes circumcision special? In my mind, nothing, with one major exception: the son ‘looking like’ the father."
I’ve heard that argument before. My sister’s husband is uncut and they chose not to circumcise their son for the same reason. It makes no sense. It takes a wild leap of the imagination for any little boy to think his penis looks like his father’s, with or without that curious flap of foreskin hanging at the end of it. My penis is hairy, droopy and big. It’s been through the wars: furious bouts of self-love, one-night stands with mysterious strangers, a lifetime of suffocation wrapped in white briefs until freed to boxers. A baby’s penis is pristine, taut and hairless. The connection between father and son is tenuous down there. Even the most precocious child is unlikely to find common ground.
"If the father is already circumcised, then he should circumcise his son, and similarly, if the father is not circumcised, he should not circumcise his son. It is significant to a son as he gets older that his penis should be similar in structure to his dad’s. A young boy spends a great deal of time examining his own body and his father’s as well, and any differences are going to be a source of questions. There may be issues, as the boy grows older. Zachary is fascinated by his body, and especially by his penis and anus. He tugs on his penis like it’s some kind of pull-toy. He also sees my penis in various circumstances. If he’s in the bathroom while I’m urinating, for example. He asks questions: ‘Why is your penis bigger than my penis?’"
"Your son is circumcised?"
"Yes,” Alan says. “My wife’s family are all non-observant, but tradition-respecting Jews. By that I mean they go to temple on the holy holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they make a Seder for Passover, reading from the Haggadah and saying the prayers. It also means that they like to be somewhat involved with a local temple, and want their grandson to go to Hebrew school.”
"They’re not that different from my family," I say, almost to myself. In the course of all this torment, neither Helena nor I sought solace from those closest to us, our relations.
"Many people think this is hypocritical behavior," Alan continues, "but really it’s not. Tradition, and the observance of traditions, plays an important social role in the family and community. For example, holiday dinners, whether for Yom Kippur or Christmas or anything else, help bring the family together. It’s not often that extended families join together for an occasion, and holiday dinners are one of the few times it happens, along with weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, confirmations and what have you. Even for non-observant and non-religious people, these traditions often contribute to family cohesiveness."
This is the crux of my problem: I want to wrap that communal fabric around my family to protect and comfort us. I want to strengthen the bonds of family and tradition, just not by using my son’s penis as material.
"Circumcision can be seen as an important tradition, and the bris as another one of those occasions, even completely divorced from a religious aspect. That is one of the reasons I chose to do it — out of respect for our family’s traditions, and the meaning those traditions have for them, even thought they are not very important to me.”
Alan pauses before concluding. “There is one final and important reason I chose to circumcise my son — my own familiarity with a circumcised penis. I don’t know anything about what it’s like to have an uncircumcised penis. Are there different cleaning techniques? Is urinating or ejaculation different? Is there more after-urination leakage or less? Who knows? Not me. By circumcising my son, it becomes somewhat easier for me to take care of him because I can answer questions about his penis with a certain authority that comes from many years of my own real-world, practical experience. This aspect of the decision should not be ignored.”
One of Alan’s large hands rubs his hairy chin. His eyes narrow and meet mine. “You want to instill morality in you child?” he asks rhetorically. “You and Helena are moral people. You will teach your son the difference between right and wrong. Whatever decision you make in terms of the circumcision will be the right one. Once the baby is born this will all seem trivial; that’s when you face the real challenges,” he adds, with a knowing smile.
"I was an avid fan of wrestling for many years," he goes on, seemingly changing the subject. "By about age fifteen or so, my interest was waning, though, even to this day, I’m always up for watching a good wrestling match.
"I enjoy watching certain things on television with Zachary, but I’m sensitive to how much of an impact television might have on him. A lot of a child’s behavioral development comes from copying what they see in the world around them. I have reservations about him copying the aggressive and often violent behavior shown on wrestling. As normal adults, we understand it as entertainment, but that subtlety is lost on children. Wrestling has no place in our home."
Alan is conjuring a vision of the future where penises no longer dominate.
"I have even had to cut out beloved icons such as the Three Stooges because immediately after watching them Zachary would attack me and continue to use the maneuvers he learned even days afterwards. I will censor this until he is old enough to understand the concept of acting, that these shows are scripted and the emotions and behaviors are not real."
Whether to circumcise my son or not is almost quaint in comparison. Right now Simon is more a concept than the flesh-and-body reality that is rapidly growing inside Helena. When he comes out there will be no time for intellectualizing.
"He will have his own will and he will use it," Alan prophesies. I am advised to enjoy my mental masturbation, relish it even, because soon I will lose that luxury. There will come a time when my decisions won’t be slowly debated over a hot lunch. I can see the truth in Alan’s tired eyes. In his home the penis is not the subject of debate, unless it is how to protect your penis from attack, as Zachary has grown crotch-level and when angry unintentionally targets that private zone. Alan is living with the furious development in toddler communication called the temper tantrum. He is not theorizing, but experiencing the brutal force of life outside the womb.
"There are three stages to the infant temper tantrum," he says, pushing the empty lunch plate forward and resting his full frame back in the chair. "First is what I call the Martin Luther King, Jr. That is the act of civil disobedience. Zachary will go limp, fall on the floor and refuse to move. He’s dead weight. It’s most effective. If that doesn’t work, he ups the ante, stage two: the Malcolm X, by any means necessary. Zachary will fight to get his way, kick and scream. It is a nasty confrontation, but nothing compared to the final, most intense stage: the Jihad, total war. He screams until his throat is raw, spastically kicking in every direction. The tears are running down his face, snot pouring out of his nostrils like two raging rivers. His fists are a blur of uncontrollable violence. He wants me dead, Mom dead, the world obliterated, torn into tiny fragments and tossed into an incinerator. You won’t be thinking about your son’s penis when engaged in Jihad."
Penis, penis, penis — I’m sick of thinking about penises! A diet of penis: penis for breakfast, penis lunch, penis at suppertime. My life has more penises than a gay stroke book. I paint Simon’s nursery with a pattern of flaccid penises, alternating between circumcised and uncut to cover all bases. At the baby shower, Helena smiles and thanks her friends and family for the lovely penis-shaped baby bottles and pacifiers, the cute little onesies with the penis embroidered on its chest, the stroller with penises for handles. Everywhere I turn I see penises. The rabbis, the doctor, my friend all metamorphose into giant penises, sitting on scrotums like hairy beanbags, with pink heads flopping this way and that on limp necks. Each morning I looked at my refection in the bathroom mirror, my mouth agape like a drooling urethra. I am a dick.
My unborn son, floating in the womb, is playing with the object of our obsession. Even he can’t keep his hands off it. Enough. Fine. Cast the die. Flip a coin. Spin the dreidel. It doesn’t matter anymore. A month before the due date I called a mohel. He comes well recommended, a veteran of thousands of discarded foreskins.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
17. PARADISE LOST AND FOUND
The grass is always greener on the other side of belief. Judaism embarrassed me. I looked Jewish. My family spoke Jewish. Our holidays were Jewish. The New Year celebrated in September like a rude guest arriving months early to the party. Ghettos. Holocaust. The Sabbath, which begins on sundown Fridays. Yom Kippur. Torah scroll. Everything is different, a curse for kid who doesn’t want to stand out. But I am fascinated by the Big Questions — Life and Death, Good and Evil, God — queries directly addressed in religion. I wouldn’t seek answers in my own faith. That would be too easy. No spiritual pain, no spiritual gain. So I practiced the ancient art of Jewish self-hatred, and explored religious worship foreign and, therefore, attractive.
The first stop on my journey out of the Jewish desert to the promised land of enlightenment was Christianity. But there was much about Christianity I didn’t understand. I came to realize that a Catholic is a Christian, but a Christian is not necessarily a Catholic. Just like Judaism there were different branches or denominations: Protestant, Baptist, Mormon and more. The only commonality was that they worshiped Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I knew this Jesus. He was a Jew. To my knowledge, Jesus never set out to start another religion. He was a Jewish reformer. It was only after the Crucifixion that the apostles came up with this Christian thing. I couldn’t find much fault with the basic tenets they preached. I wished my bullies turned the other cheek rather than making me lick their shoes. However, it wasn’t gospel but God who fascinated me.
I made portraits of gods. My earliest drawings were of cowboys and businessmen. My cowboys held smoking guns, stood erect in profile, wearing cowboy hats, big and heavy as an ocean liner cutting through the chop of their hair. My businessmen carried briefcases, a crescent of hair framed their bald pates, and they wore striped ties that hung stiffly from their necks. The cowboy was my fantasy, the businessman my Dad. That was my frame of reference.
Soon I matured from prairie daydreams and the patriarchy to the great subjects of the masters. God for me was not a naked guy lounging on a cloud with muscular arm outstretched to give life to Adam. My God was detached, cool. He sat up in the clouds, to be sure, wore a flowing white gown and had the prerequisite long white beard, but sported mirrored aviator shades, smoked a large cigar and donned a shiny golden crown like a king, with G-O-D etched clearly in front in case there was any question of deity.
God is a great character, but Jesus was my muse. He was like the superhero comics I read, less physically developed perhaps, but with great powers. His story was dramatic as any from the Marvel Comics universe. I began to draw Jesus obsessively, his skinny limbs nailed to the cross and each wound realistically depicted as my talent and Paper-Mate would permit. Color appeared in my work, well, red, underscoring the dying Christ grotesquely as possible. Jesus replaced Frankenstein, Dracula and the mushroom clouds of atomic explosions graffitied in my schoolbooks. Jesus Christ was my idol. He was Spider-Man and Godzilla, then I ate him.
The first time I entered church was for the confirmation service of the sole Catholic member of the Unholy Three. The place was enormous, stretching out as far as my eye could focus, with every inch of space adorned with something shiny and jeweled. I sat in the back trying to blend in, but when the priest called the congregation for communion, I didn’t want to appear discourteous and joined them. Getting closer I noticed that the priest was handing out free food. Nothing special. A thin wafer. No schmear of cream cheese or dollop of chopped liver, the priest served the snack dry. He ceremoniously placed it on my outstretched tongue. I declined the kind offer to wash it down with a sip of wine — wine is gross, grapes gone bad — and returned to my seat.
Later I learned of my sin. There’s a lot of sinning in Catholicism. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the wafer becomes the living flesh of Jesus Christ when it meets a wet mouth. The wine is His blood. But I was ignorant of such things, likely guilty of several mortal sins, uneducated in the liturgical rite of confession and, therefore, not in the state of grace required of me to partake in the Eucharist. The fact that I was Jewish was probably an even bigger no-no.
The zombie aspect of Catholicism was going to take time for me to digest. The undead in movies behaved differently than the risen Christ. A reanimated corpse as an agent of eternal life was a paradox I tried to write my way out of.
My early attempts at prose were imitative at best, a pastiche of the short comic writings of S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley and Woody Allen. Then I wrote a fable of the Second Coming as a fuel-efficient car, inspired by the gas shortage of the mid-seventies that was headlining the newspapers I read while eating my morning cereal.
Four coworkers chipped in to buy a fuel-efficient compact to carpool. Each character represented a different aspect of faith. One was a fundamentalist, another agnostic, there was an atheist and a character who was devotional but nonjudgemental. Admittedly a quartet that could only play in fiction, but I was on a religious quest.
I had the car run on water, which miraculously turned to wine and divinely powered the engine. The Last Supper was a company barbecue.
The ending gave me trouble. The four coworkers, each fighting for control of the car, are in flight from the police. There’s a bend in the road, but the car doesn’t follow it and careens off the ledge, exploding in a violent fireball. God is dead. A coda was more ambiguous. Police reports noted that from the burning wreckage a car was seen driving away, seemingly unharmed. God lives! I’ve been trying to resolve that story ever since.
I kept the door open for religion to walk in. While in art school, living in the ground-floor shambles of an apartment in Chelsea, the front-door buzzer used to regularly cut through the silence of early Sunday mornings. These were good times when I slept in and nursed hangovers seven days a week, having learned to appreciate the effects of wine. The shrill electronic cry was never welcomed before the crack of noon, but I ran to answer the wakeup call each Sunday despite my poor condition. It meant another visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Pressing the button on my intercom, I heard the click of the opening front doors. Then came the tap of shoe leather echoing over the sunken lobby’s slate floors. Up two stairs and to the right was my front door.
I pulled that door open before the Jehovah’s Witnesses could ring my bell. Two young men with short hair, wearing dreary ties over clean white shirts, smiled at me. I returned their smile.
Jehovah’s Witnesses always travel in pairs. They had copies of Watchtower magazine in hand for me.
"Do you know Sal Marrese?" I asked, before they could talk.
The last time I saw Sal was at our high school graduation. He was a fellow artist and a Jehovah’s Witness. Sal drew in a loose, sketchy hand reminding me of Renaissance artists, while I was trying to emulate Heavy Metal magazine.
I had never met anyone as sincerely religious. He reminded me of the characters I viewed with morbid curiosity on The 700 Club, only I genuinely liked Sal. That didn’t stop me from consciously blaspheming.
"Oh, mighty Calculator!" I prayed, holding the bulky electronic as if a revered totem. The heathen god demanded sacrifice. "Please, oh Great One, don’t make me kill again!"
It wasn’t really funny. It didn’t even make sense. But it got a reaction, which was all I was looking for. Sal literally hid under his desk as if a bolt of lightning from heaven was that moment zigzagging earthbound to extinguish my sacrilege.
Sal was tall and thin, with dark Mediterranean good looks. He wore slacks and fine-cotton dress shirts. His jet-black hair cut so short you could see his white scalp through it. This was in the late seventies when long, feathered locks were blow-dried off the face like the false idols of disco gods. Clothing was garishly Polyester. Sal stood in proud contrast to the decade’s transient fashions. I respected that, even as I wore jeans and T-shirts, the better to disappear in.
After graduation Sal went to New York City’s Copper Union to study architecture, which was very close to Parsons School of Design, where I was ignoring my BFA in illustration. But it would be more than a decade before we’d see each other again. Fittingly, it was at a clothing store.
I was shopping for a suit, eyeing a conservative gray one, with a three-button jacket and no pleats in the pants. Trying it on and checking myself out in the mirror, I noticed Sal going through the racks behind me.
He was unchanged — same short dark hair, neat appearance and pleasant, almost embarrassed smile on his face. He was living and working at the world headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Brooklyn, on the waterfront between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. It was good to see Sal, and I suggested we get together. We never did.
The need for connection, for continuity, attracts me to religion. My life in Harrison, even as I hated living it, is part of my history. I want to counter the erosion of memory by time and retain that past to carry with me as I move into the future. There is a profound need to preserve, like giving historic buildings landmark status, and Sal was one of those storied edifices my mind was threatening to raze.
"Do you know Sal Marrese?" I asked. "He’s an architect at the Jehovah’s Witness compound in Brooklyn. Please pass on my name and number," I said. "Tell him it’s an old high school buddy who’d love to see him again."
Nodding their heads, they’d politely waited for me to finish before saving my soul. “Oh,” I’d say, taking a Watchtower, “I’m Jewish. But thanks.” I beckoned the team into the building wishing them better luck with my neighbors.
A few weeks later, a sign was posted in the lobby asking for whoever was letting in the Jehovah’s Witnesses to please stop. I soon moved out from that godless dwelling. But I have yet to found a house of God that I can reside in.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
16. TWO RABBIS AND A DOCTOR…
Rabbi Solomon dresses for Sabbath in a big suit. His head is a choppy grove of light, thickly curled hair. The rabbi’s features are doughy, eyes sink in the putty of his face, and when he enters the room it’s as if by accident, those eyes rolling under hooded lids. Shaking his hand, I feel it might come off. He talks like his tongue is more concerned with loosening a particle of stuck food between his teeth than formulating coherent sentences. Eventually his eyes lock with mine. He seems a nice if inconsequential leader of the community.
Then I hear his sermon. Leading the congregation, Rabbi Solomon demands attention even as he deflects it individually. His voice loses its stuttering hunt for words. He speaks clearly, commandingly, but not in the bombastic, hackneyed tones of what I expect from a preacher. I am enrapt by his brainy homily, its wisdom and goodness, a call to spiritual arms not mired in the gobbledygook of the supernatural or dogma. He makes me think. Being observant doesn’t have to be hoodoo. Religion can attract sage, smart men.
The office is large and crowded with Judaica, dark but not gloomy or claustrophobic. Rising from his desk the rabbi thanks us for coming and, with an open hand, indicates a seat on an old leather couch. I sink down next to Helena and feel like a child lost in furniture not made for his stature. It seems to take forever for the rabbi to maneuver around his enormous bureau and take a seat in an upholstered armchair opposite us.
I pull myself from the depths of the couch, lean forward and explain the reason for our visit. “Mazel tov!” the rabbi exclaims, hearing the news of the pregnancy. I nod, smiling, appreciative, but hold my hand up, palm forward, to stop him in his congratulatory tracks. I must maintain focus. The rabbi sits back in his chair, arms crossed, his face attentive.
From the edge of the couch I give the rabbi a condensed version of how Helena and I ended up here. The pregnancy, the fact that we aren’t married, but want to start a family together, that I am Jewish, raised in the Reform branch, while Helena is a lapsed Catholic and curious about Jewish observance, how we desire a spiritual foundation to support our growing family, and how, as a family, we are compelled to become part of a community greater than ourselves. The rabbi bobs his head silently. I tell him that we’ve taken various classes at the synagogue and enjoy his sermons. We have yet to join, but are close to a commitment. There is only one concern, and that’s why we seek his council. I take a deep breath, “The bris … well, it’s troubling us.”
The rabbi smiles, acknowledging a common discussion he has had with new parents. He attempts to abate our fears by regurgitating medial and cosmetic data that we are so familiar with I find myself rudely finishing the rabbi’s sentences. We’ve done the research. The evidence is inconclusive. There is no smoking dick, so to speak — no villain. Parents who have their sons circumcised are not monsters. Parents who chose to leave their sons uncut are not fanatics. What I want is for the rabbi to act like his namesake, wise King Solomon, and decree that Simon’s penis be cut in half or something, anything to provide clarity for us. But what I really want is a loophole in Talmudic law, allowing Simon to join the Chosen People without the skin-ticket entry fee. “Look, rabbi,” I finally interrupt, “is the bris a deal-breaker?”
It is. Almost every other piece of Jewish faith is debatable. When shopping for Judaism there are even different branches to suit your level of observance. If you find the separation of men and women at an Orthodox shul sexist, join a progressive Conservative synagogue. Yarmulkes give you hat hair, Hebrew a headache and tainted meat too great a temptation, then the Reform branch of Judaism is your cup of Manischewitz. But everyone agrees: a penis looks better with a little off the top.
"Rabbi," I say, politely, "Judaism is an evolving religion. Even your Conservative branch now permits women to be rabbis."
“The bris,” he says, “is a covenant from God.” I’m playing chess, and losing. My king is in jeopardy. I can’t make a move. Judaism has checkmated me on a board of undulating foreskins.
"Now, rabbi … " I am beginning to lose my patience, "we’re both mature adults, and I think we can agree that the bris is a throwback to a more primitive time in our people’s history.”
"I object to your use of the word primitive."
"I’ll give you something to object to!" I spew. "The Bible tells us to do a lot of things that haven’t carried over to modern times. We no longer sacrifice animals in temple, do we? We don’t stone blasphemers. Right? Why do we draw the line at a little boy’s penis? What is it about penises that are so important to a great religion? You find nothing primitive, nothing perverse, nothing disturbing about this practice?”
The rabbi jabbers about the original Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in antiquity, but when rebuilt will renew discarded practices such as ritualistic animal sacrifice. My mind wanders. There is no loophole. I am kidding myself thinking even a progressive rabbi would bend such fundamental rules for my family. I wanted to work something out between the rabbi and myself, man to man. But instead of a civil discourse, I felt like a wise guy, a thug: “This is a very old building, things can happen, bad things. I’d hate to see you or your precious congregation hurt. Oh my! Did that brass menorah just fall off the shelf? It could have landed on your head, seriously injuring you. You don’t want to take risks like that, rabbi, not you, a religious man more interested in matters of faith and intellectual pursuits. You should let us worship in you nice little synagogue as good observant Jews … and nobody gets hurt.”
Helena had put on weight during the early pregnancy, but she’s no intimidating strong arm to my eloquently oily mobster. I fall back into the yielding couch and make a mental note to play the odds at the Reform temple. There I might have a winning hand.
Helena and I first meet Rabbi Benson at an open house for the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. He stalks the hardwood floors of the large townhouse that serves as the congregation’s temple, moving from couple to couple, submitting his meaty hand to shake while its mate swings around to slap your back, jerking you closer to his grand frame. He is the complete opposite of Rabbi Solomon. Where Rabbi Solomon walks into a room in a seemingly empty suit, Rabbi Benson makes an entrance of flesh and blood, physical, almost popping out from the tight constrains of his muted clothing, his attire an afterthought. A big round face, thick with hair an earthy brown and cut short to his head, his jawline is hidden behind jowls and a scruffy beard that grows over his flush cheeks. He is instantly likable. He could have been holding the severed head of a baby, his other bloody hand reaching out in greeting, and it wouldn’t matter. His is an aggressive friendliness that warps reality into a happy place.
"The membership fee is steep, I won’t deny it," he says, as an introduction. I never even thought about payment until that very moment. My experience with the Jewish religion as opposed to Jewish culture is so limited that I assume a collection pot is passed around like in a church. This financial commitment is more likely to break the camel’s back that I’m trying to ride through the eye of a needle than my concerns about Simon’s penis.
The rabbi’s office is in the basement of the townhouse. Narrow windows are set high in the wall framing a view of shoes walking by on the street above. Similar Judaica lines the walls as in Rabbi Solomon’s office, but Rabbi Benson’s workplace is modern and minimal. The desk is metal, the bookshelves without ornamentation. There is a computer in the corner. The rabbi sits behind his desk and Helena and I pull up two hard chairs.
We have only gone to one service at the Reform temple. There was an acoustic guitarist and a general softness about the proceedings teetering towards New Ageism that was both unfamiliar to my Reform upbringing, with its country club Judaism, and contrary to my fledgling interest in a vengeful, more traditional God. When the rabbi spoke to the congregation his sermon was as amiable and superficial as his handshake.
People my age can find themselves unmoored from the trends and fashions that held such fascination only a short time earlier. They are entrenched in career, married, starting families and searching for a tradition, a template to fit the responsibilities that have come to consume their lives. The business of religion is good. Drawn to what’s familiar, a place of worship, rejected in youth, grows in the imagination like a warm hearth to fend off the chaos and uncertainty of a messy adult life. The Reform branch of Judaism has tried to position itself to exploit this spiritual niche, an alternative to the rigidity of orthodoxy. But it’s a no-thrills belief at a time when customers are buying the package with all the bells and whistles.
It is just this business plan, this religious compromise, which may allow my son to slip into Zion with his penis untouched.
"He wouldn’t be a Jew," the rabbi shrugs.
There is an out. Simon could have his foreskin and eat it too. So to speak. Who would know he wasn’t Jewish? When Simon stands before the congregation as a man on his bar mitzvah, the rabbi won’t stop the service, turn and dramatically pull down Simon’s trousers to exclaim, “Aha! There is goyim masquerading among us!” Following which the entire pant-less male population of the congregation will bludgeon Simon with their superior circumcised penises, batting us from the temple with their angry staffs. It’s all a matter of faith. The rabbi will take my word, my untrue and corrupt word, and then everything would be hunky-dory.
The bureaucracy of Judaism is not fostering an ethical life.
My feelings for authority are conflicted. I distrust it yet seeking its acceptance. That’s why I need some higher power to support our increasingly clear rejection of circumcision, someone more scientific, pragmatic, such as our pediatrician, who follows an empirical rather than divine rule.
Fillipa Gordon’s office is close to our home, just a block west of the Kane Street Synagogue, where we first met her at one of the temple’s religious classes. She has a musical voice, quiet and soothing, with a tenor to iron out a minor wrinkle like circumcision.
Her practice is in the basement of a row house. Toys are in the lobby and an examination room in back. Helena and I squeeze into her tiny office. Dr. Gordon is at her desk, built into the wall and only big enough to hold a computer monitor and keyboard, the hard drive underneath competing for legroom. We sat beside her in chairs too small even for her patients.
Like the rabbis, the doctor too has experience with new parents airing concerns about circumcision. She says there is no right or wrong decision. That may be true, but it isn’t helpful. “It’s no different than having your ears pierced,” she adds.
Circumcision brings out the poet in a person. People are swept up in analogies, similes and metaphors. A circumcision is like having your ears pierced. As a literary conceit it’s not very moving. There must be a more persuasive way to express the ritualistic amputation of the foreskin. A circumcision is like a love nibble from God. A circumcision is like scrapping your knees on the way to Heaven. A circumcision is like being castrated by God, but pulling your penis out from beneath the falling blade of a guillotine a split second too slow. A circumcision is like a not so hungry rat in your pants noshing on your divine package. But a circumcision is not like having your ear’s pieced. It’s a poor analogy. A circumcision is more like having your ear cut off.
Dr. Gordon means well, and she is right. It is our decision to make and whatever we chose is the correct choice. There are only two problems: one, I can never make a decision, and two, the results of that decision will effect neither Helena nor myself but our innocent baby. As parents we are advocates for our child. Is pain and blood the right introduction to reality? Life is pain. Dunk the kid in reality swiftly like jumping into a cold pool. More analogies, I’m sick of wordplay.
We agonize over the circumcision. Dr. Gordon tells us there is no evidence that a baby remembers the pain, or even if a baby processes pain as does an adult. I know babies cry. They feel pain. The level of that discomfort is impossible to gauge. Reasonably, as a parent, I want to prevent my baby from feeling any pain — therefore, no circumcision. But a bris has nothing to do with rational thought. A bris is an edict from God, the Supreme Being, yes, but not always so sensible to the ways of we sentient creatures. If you want to get into Club Jew, He’s the doorman checking your crotch to see if you make the cut. Helena and I can debate the wisdom of a bris for eternity and never come to a satisfying conclusion because there is no answer. It takes faith. And I don’t have faith. I don’t trust my religion to catch me if I fall. I don’t trust words on paper written thousands of years ago by anonymous men to tell me what’s best for my baby. I don’t trust the library of books published each year telling parents how to bring up their children, each contradicting the last. I don’t trust anybody who tells me how to do anything. But our baby has to trust Helena and me. Simon has no voice to say yes or no. He may hear the muffled sounds of debate as he grows in the womb, but it’s up to us, his parents, to trust that we know what’s best for him. And I don’t trust the word of God. God’s will be done? God’s will be damned.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
15. A SHORT HISTORY OF THE PENIS
The African model disrobed and, taking a seat in the middle of a circle of easels, let it all hang out. It hung unlike anything I ever saw hanging between a man’s legs. It looked like a yam, only not as yummy.
I held a stick of charcoal, but didn’t mark my newsprint pad. I was too busy staring. His penis was hairy on top, with the obligatory sack of balls draped below. But my eyes were on that tubular protrusion between the two familiar landmarks. From the root, as it drooped forward, everything was in order. It was only as the staff came to a head that things took a surrealist bent. Where was the head? The crowning pink jewel of manliness was missing. On closer inspection I could see that the flesh of the shaft fell loosely over the covered glans, sloppy like untucked shirttails over a waistline.
I wanted to tell him to tuck it in, but I was speechless. My drawing rendered the figure, captured the slant of his pose, but emasculated the model with an impressionistic dark smear between his legs.
When the model took his break, class retreated to the hallway to smoke. My friends talked about our uncut model, which turned to gossip about uncircumcised boyfriends. Cigarettes were extinguished and we returned to life drawing.
Mystery solved. So that’s what an uncircumcised penis looks like. Fine, I thought, no reason to dwell on it.
The penis is an uncomfortable topic for me. Mine had been the object of too much probing and anxiety as a child. I was born with a mild case of hypospadias. My urethra rested shy of its normal destination. The condition didn’t require surgery, but for years I had to visit a specialist. The ashen-haired doctor was large and wizened. Wrapped in a blinding-white lab coat, he sat across from me resting massive arms on a big oak desk like a god. He was omniscient, following me to his bathroom to observe while I peed, making sure everything was coming out properly. Every time I unzipped at my toilet or in a school bathroom or at some public restroom, I felt his judgmental scowl. By my final visits, I was no longer accompanied to the bathroom. Instead I’d sit opposite the doctor, the vast landscape of his desk between us, and answer his questions about my urine: did it flow out from my penis as a unified stream or break up in several directions? It was embarrassing. I knew what the doctor wanted to hear and told him as much, rather then relate the facts. I ended up wiping the toilet seat a lot, but that was worth never again having to expose myself to the doctor’s critical eye.
Penises should be zipped up, obscene and not heard. They’re funny: sort of a wrinkled Groucho Marx appendage in your pants, comical in appearance, and like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect. No wonder men have come up with short, blunt and powerful nicknames for their tender member. Bone. Chub. Cock. Crank. Dick. Dink. Dong. Dork. Drill. Junk. Hog. Hose. Knob. Lance. Meat. Pipe. Plank. Pole. Prick. Prong. Pud. Rod. Shaft. Snake. Staff. Stick. Sword. Tool. Tube. Wang. Wood. And that’s just the monosyllabic words, passing up the endless hyphenated compounds.
The penis isn’t meant for display, that’s neurotic, even pornographic. It’s a private treasure, a thing of great beauty to care and fondle and nourish alone, at least until its ready for its debutant ball.
I never gave my penis a name. Never spoke to it, manipulated it like a hand puppet or decorated it with ink and jewelry. The penis isn’t a toy, but a tool to urinate, masturbate and fornicate with, and I’ve done my share. Do I dwell on the hammer? No, I grab it and drive home the nail. It’s fetishistic to focus obsessively on a body part, but that is just what I’m forced to do.
The convergence of a bourgeoning flirtation with Jewish observance and the approaching birth of my son made it so I could think of nothing else.
Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
14. FORESKIN OR AGAINST
The road to observant Judaism is paved with foreskins. The bris, or ceremonial circumcision, is performed on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life. It is a covenant between God and His people.
All I know about foreskins is as fodder for bad jokes, like the doctor who makes a purse out of discarded foreskins, rub it and it turns into a suitcase. Humor dehumanizes that insignificant piece of flesh and makes it easy for me to discard. I am told removing the foreskin is no different than having a tonsillectomy, only without the ice cream afterwards. Not yet born, I already have designs on Simon’s body. He will have a bris. A mohel will dab my boy’s lips with wine and slice off his foreskin with a prayer. There will be a party afterwards with a huge spread. The family will celebrate. There’s no question, Simon will be circumcised.
Helena and I are trying to be good Jews, even if she is a lapsed Catholic and I am suffering flashbacks of my youthful internment at synagogue. But Helena is more curious about circumcision than I. Maybe if it is my penis going under the knife I would show more interest. Logically, or religiously, if we plan to bring Simon up as a Jew then he has to have a bris. It is like a fraternity hazing or initiation to a secret club. I’m circumcised, and it was no skin off of my back.
Helena researches. She takes me to some of the most repulsive sites online. I look at crying newborns strapped to gurneys as they roll through the hospital assembly line of circumcisions. Close-ups of botched circumcisions leave me reflexively cupping a hand over my crotch. This propaganda by anti-circumcision advocates is persuasive. I begin to question the wisdom of handing over my precious newborn to a stranger with a knife.
The more I read about circumcisions the more questions I have. Medical studies are inconclusive. A circumcised male is less likely to contract some sexual transmitted diseases, but poor hygiene is the most likely cause of infection. My son will not be a filthy animal. He will bathe. It’s a brutal solution, cutting away a piece of the body just because you’re too lazy to keep it clean. Wiping my ass can be a chore, but I’m not going to let my crack fester with feces or have a surgeon amputate my bum.
There are cosmetic arguments, which are less defendable. Sure, I’m familiar with circumcised penises. I know one intimately. My most pleasurable work has been done with a circumcised tool. Still, I have no problem accepting an uncut son — nothing wrong with a little diversity down there.
The only rationale for messing with millions of years of evolution is irrational, or religious. If I’m an observant Jew then God demands that my son be circumcised.
The pros and cons of a medical or cosmetic procedure are debatably, but God is not. The immovable nature of God is beginning to irritate me. Judaism first attracts us with its intellectual approach to spirituality, but that now seems an oxymoron. Faith is not rational.
The margins of the Talmud are endlessly annotated with the arguments of rabbinical scholars throughout the ages. It seems as if every facet of the religion is open to contention. Like the joke — Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question? I don’t know, why? — I think of Judaism as inquisitive and highly skeptical, admirable qualities. But delve deeper and it’s a Byzantine bureaucracy, with arcane rules and regulations. The comfort I seek in the routine of ritual is, in fact, stifling.
I may be pulling away from religious observance, but I am still a Jew. Helena can define what it is to be a Jew, Talmudic law has its own demarcation, but none of it marks me. I am a Jew. It took years of denial before I embraced my Semitic identity. I wrote a psychedelic song called “Jews to the Ovens,” when I first joined a rock band in college. In a groovy voice I sang: “It’s nineteen forty-two / Hitler hates the Jews / What’s he gonna do? / Send them to the ovens.” I envisioned red and green rolling swastikas as glowing eyes in a giant Hitler-head backdrop. The myth of the self-hating Jew is manifest in the bold dollar sign I wore on a green Lucite Star of David hanging from a gold chain as my hip-hop persona, Dollar Green; in the large pastel drawings of Jew heads with hooked noses, tiny liver-colored lips, beady eyes and horns that I gave out as birthday presents. I embraced a cartoon Judaism as minstrel show to purge the embarrassment, fear and hatred I couldn’t express growing up a Jew. But now I exclaim, “Mazel tov!” when I learn that someone is pregnant. I purged the demons of self-antiSemitism and discovered in myself a proudly Jewish man, Jewish in every way except fundamentally. Worship is a hurdle I’ve yet to clear. The desire for shared experience, which brought me to temple, is the final chapter in seizing my Judaism.
There’s just the small matter of cutting my son’s penis. Call it a circumcision, a bris, a covenant from God — there’s something perverse about the focus on genitalia. Far be it for me to question the word of the All Mighty, but if I was Abraham and had been commanded by God to kill my son, I’d be shopping for a new religion not a sharp ax. “We had a nice run, God,” I’d say looking heavenward. “If you need anyone to do some begetting, I’m your man. But this sacrifice thing, it’s so … polytheistic.”
It boils down to faith. Do I trust God to catch me if I close my eyes and fall backwards? I’ll fall on my ass and find out. It’s my ass. But tearing open a week-old baby’s diaper and slicing off his foreskin is a commitment to Judaism I take uneasily.
I’m circumcised, but by procedure not ritual. No mohel ever fondled my privates. A doctor, maybe not even a Jewish one, perhaps not even a doctor, removed my foreskin like the end of a cigar before smoking it. My Mom is Jewish, which is like being dealt the “Get Out Of Being A Gentile Free” card, one that Simon never will hold as Helena isn’t Jewish. According to the Talmud, Judaism is passed down through the mother’s line. Simon will not be considered Jewish even after the bris. He’ll have to convert — more rules and regulations.
My son’s penis versus my son’s religion, cock and Jew, like yin and yang spin through my head never forming a cohesive whole. Simon isn’t yet born and already I’m fiercely protective. The idea of allowing an unknown man bearing sharp gifts near my innocent baby is counterintuitive for a new parent, for any parent. As initiations go, the bris is a whopper, the ultimate leap of faith. Your feet never leave the ground, yet you land with a bloody penis.
Religions are essentially about faith, a trust in a higher power that confronts, communes and comforts life’s mysteries, and I honestly respect and admire people who find peace through spiritual ends. It takes wisdom to accept life’s unanswerable questions.
It’s another thing to carve a newborn’s penis into a shape more pleasing to God. The Ten Commandments apply personally. I will honor my father and mother. I will not covet my neighbor’s wife. I will keep the Sabbath holy, not kill, nor pray to false idols. I accept God’s will, and in so doing I’m the sole recipient of His wraith or blessing. But now He wants me to hand over a bounty, my baby, to Him. My son’s foreskin becomes currency to gain entrance to paradise. Why not brand him like cattle, maybe a scarlet J on his chest or a Star of David armband?
God as Hitler? It was time to seek counsel. I made an appointment to visit with the conservative rabbi of the Kane Street Synagogue.
Shmuck: Faith, Fatherhood and Foreskin
13. ALL MY DEAD CHILDREN
New York City-born, liberal, secular Jewish parents raised me. Roe v. Wade was the Eleventh Commandment. A good Jewish boy never questions the wisdom of his elders. Then I left home for college and began exercising my right to choose.
I chose intoxication over study, girls over grades, all with reckless irresponsibility that lead to an unwanted pregnancy.
Liz was my first girlfriend and my first abortion. There was no debate: the pregnancy would not come to term. It was a cool, clear morning as we walked the side streets, empty of traffic, to a clinic. It was quiet, uncomfortably still. The intense sunlight flattened the granite faces of the stout buildings. Everything looked real and unreal at the same time. I could hear my pant legs rub together in a loose rhythm as I walked. The sidewalk was hard beneath my sneakers. Plate-glass storefronts reflected the sun and glared at me pop-eyed. Neither Liz nor I said a word.
Ahead of us I saw a cat sleeping peacefully in front of a closed metal gate. I lurched for it. Quickening my pace to reach the cat, which offered momentary relief from the awkwardness — nerves, fear and sadness — I felt but couldn’t express. When I reached the animal, stooping to greet it, before my bare hand touched its gray fur, I stopped. The cat was dead. The gate was the entrance of a Jewish cemetery.
Liz went into the doctor’s office alone. I sat in the waiting room. She came out after about an hour. We split the bill like a Dutch treat, and walked back home. Liz told me she didn’t remember a thing. They knocked her out with drugs.
I don’t question the legality of abortion. I fully believe in a woman’s right to choose. Less absolute is what is being chosen. Abortion ends life. Whether human or merely a collection of rapidly multiplying cells, I don’t know. When the growing mass becomes sentient is impossible to answer. Abortion may not be murder, but I know something died that day.
If I learn from experience, it’s slowly. I continued to knock Liz up and then abort the fruit of our labor. Soon I didn’t even accompanying her to the clinic. I always thought I’d have as family. Who knew it would be a dead one.
There were other abortions, but I didn’t learn about them until later.
Kate found our apartment in Brooklyn, a floor-through above a shoe store called Johnny’s Bootery. Every Catholic school kid that grew up in South Brooklyn knew Johnny’s. They sold the regulation shoes that went with the required school uniform. Our kitchen overlooked a public-school playground. There were basketball courts and a tall standalone wall for handball. Every couple of months a bottle, combination lock or some other pubescent flotsam and jetsam would crash through the window. The landlord poorly repaired the damage with sheets of plastic and duct tape. From the schoolchildren marching into Johnny’s to the schoolchildren smashing our windows, there was no getting away from kids. These I could not abort.
Kate was removed from my life without the aid of a doctor. For several months after our separation Kate’s room was empty of Kate, but not her belongings collecting dust. She promised to pick up her things, but never did. I left it untouched until I got tired of looking at it and began to box stuff up.
When Kate and I broke up I was a mess. The admission of failure was more embarrassing than Kate’s blatant fooling around. As bad as we were to each other, I could only remember the good times. I loved her. I love her. I guess I always will, but like Kate prophesied: love dies if you let it. It was over. I found someone I loved and cared for, who I wanted to share a life with, and loved and cared for me. Life moves on and I had to move on with it. But I could never let go of Kate with her presence lingering in the apartment. A friend only half-jokingly suggested performing an exorcism. I decided to exorcise Kate’s physical remnants and move them out on the street if she wouldn’t come and get them.
I sat on top a mountain of colorful bras, G-string panties, thigh-high leather boots, mini-dresses, fishnet stockings, Fluvog platform shoes, latex skirts, false eyelashes, rock T-shirts, crumbled cigarette packs, bent beer caps, kiwi dolls, Keane prints of teary-eyed dogs, wigs, whips and bondage gear, torn condom packages, strap-on dildos, a galaxy of half-used makeup, band flyers, books and imitation jewelry. Then I found Kate’s notebooks.
Kate kept a journal, on and off, long before we met. I respected her privacy, never once taking a peek. But now, alone and entangled by the ephemera of our tattered marriage, I sought insight. I needed to be kicked in the balls; violently reminded of why I awoke from a deep sleep, shake the cobwebs of selected memory out of my head.
It hurt. I never suspected the extent of Kate’s dishonesty. There were several entries in which she wrote that she was leaving me. I wish she had. I wish I left Kate that dawn on the rooftop. It made me angry. It made me sad. I was in shock.
Kate wrote that she was pregnant. Kate was going to leave me and run away to start a family with one of her lovers, a guy from the neighborhood bar we called Hairdo. Later in the journal I read that Kate aborted the baby.
All of this happened years ago, as if to somebody else. I couldn’t hold the facts in the narrative of my life.
Kate and I had talked about having children. I had similar conversations with other girlfriends. For a self-confessed family man I was indecisive on the subject of starting a family. I wanted one, just not now. Now being whenever I was asked. I was too young, too poor, too inexperienced. There was always an excuse. I’m unable to make up my mind about why I can’t make up my mind — why should parenthood be any different?
Kate’s notebooks went into a large trash bag with her clothes, which I tied in a knot and pushed into a corner with her bed, dresser and vanity. Kate finally took her stuff away in a van and lost it all some time later when she couldn’t keep up the payments for the storage space she rented.
There’s a picture somewhere of a place that doesn’t exist. In it I am an old, happy man, just like I envisioned myself as a young, confused boy. My wife is close by my side and at our feet are all our dead children, an unborn family portrait where aborted fetuses rest on a bed of torn-up journal entries.