Nathan’s father died soon after he was born, and before his death he asked his wife to be certain that their son would become bar mitzvah at age 13. His wife Joanne created a warm Jewish home, joined our synagogue, entered Nathan into Religious School, celebrated Shabbat every week bringing an assortment of friends into hers and Nathan’s home, and Nathan became Bar Mitzvah.
I met Nathan when he was six years old. He was, even as a child, smart and thoughtful, kind, talented, and graced with a gentle charisma that drew people to him.
I stayed close to him and his mother, but tragically, Joanne was diagnosed with cancer and died when Nathan was 17. Before her death, she arranged for him to live with dear friends who took Nathan into their home as their own, and I made Nathan pledge to stay in touch with me as I would do with him.
I’ve always believed in Nathan, and once suggested to him during his college years to consider the rabbinate, as he had everything it took to be an effective rabbinic leader. He appreciated the thought and my confidence in him, but explained that since he didn’t believe in God this was a path he could not take honestly.
Nathan went on to become a teacher and worked in the inner city public schools for five years with 4th grade children and their parents trying to help these kids to love learning, to develop strong study habits and to work their way up and out of poverty.
Like many teachers in these circumstances, Nathan burned out. The work was tough and he found himself fighting against a strong current of family illiteracy, gangs and drugs. He wanted to help others, but he had to find a new way. So he applied to law school and now is working as a public defender.
Nathan and I talk infrequently, but we’ve maintained a special bond. He’s now 34 years old and married to a wonderful non-Jewish woman who is generally supportive of his raising their children as Jews, to a point. Three months before the baby would be born he called me to talk about brit milah. He wanted it. His wife didn’t. What to do? I spoke at length with him about this and offered to speak with his wife, but she didn’t want to then. Nothing was resolved.
Four days after Nathan’s son was born, he called me desperately needing to talk. He explained that he was on cloud nine and in the dumps. On the third day of his son’s life, he raised the issue of a brit milah again with his wife, and they had the most alienating fight of their relationship.
He explained that his wife couldn’t imagine taking a knife to her new-born baby. She charged that the circumcision was a form of mutilation, and her maternal instinct wouldn’t permit it.
Once again he explained to her all his reasons why he wanted his son to enter the Covenant of Abraham, saying to her, “I feel deeply Jewish in my guts and I want my son to be Jewish too, that not doing this meant distancing himself even further from the father he’d never known who wanted him to be a Jew, from the mother who raised him as a Jew, and from his Jewish heritage altogether. “
He asked me for wisdom about what to do.
I suggested that he also say the following to her:
“Yes – the bris can be momentarily painful to our child, but mohalim (ritual circumcisers) use wine as a way to calm the baby while the brit occurs. The wound may be sore for a couple of days, but that’s it. Compared to the birth experience, a brit milah is far less traumatic, and it heals quickly. It isn’t mutilation at all. It’s the most fundamental and ancient of Jewish rites going back 3600 years. This is something very deep for me and I am asking you to allow it.”
“Nathan,“ I then said. “Your instincts are right. Those Jewish parents who choose not to bring their sons into the Covenant of Abraham separate themselves and their children from this 3600-year rite of passage and ineffable relationship with God. This is about Jewish identity and continuity. Since you and your wife have agreed to raise your son as a Jew, you must do this.”
We left it there, but I checked back with him a couple of days later. He said: “We had another argument last night with a friend trying to mediate, but she has decided that she can’t abide with the circumcision. I’m very angry, but she’s not changing her mind… I can’t maintain my anger and tarnish what is the happiest moment of my life. I have no choice but to move forward. All of this has reinvigorated my desire to give my son a Jewish education, for him to become Bar Mitzvah. My wife has said that she is supportive of that. She recognizes the huge sacrifice I’m making…I hope my son will some day make a choice to have a brit. Will you perform a naming even without a brit?”
I told Nathan I would. He understands, however, that the naming without the brit milah is half-done.
Nathan’s situation confirms my conviction that this kind of a decision has to be made before marriage even takes place.
I have confidence in Nathan and trust him to do everything he can to raise his son as a Jew. I hope his wife comes around one day on the brit milah, and sooner rather than later. Time will tell.