It was my first bris; well, first besides my own. I don’t remember mine, or know anyone who remembers his. Why would you want to? The flesh of our manhood: cut, trimmed, snipped. Ouch. But that was tradition, or so I’m told. I don’t know much. My last run-in with Judaism was at my bar-mitzvah, 12 years ago.
The bris would begin shortly. The chant of the Mohel, his clinking metal instruments, the shriek of an infant. We didn’t have to be in the room, but proximity was a sign of respect. I stayed close. Others stood outside in the hallway; they’d listen, not watch. Cookies and pastries and chocolates — “nosh,” as Grandma calls them — filled the air with sweetness. Comfort food; we’d need it.
So it began. The baby, removed from his crib, was passed on a pillow from Mother to Mohel, from Mohel to the empty dinner table — a makeshift operating bench where I consumed large sums of brisket during holidays. The baby wiggled, curling to one side. No one would touch his junk without a fight. His Grandfather held down his squirmish arms. Precision was crucial — one wrong slip by the Mohel and, “Whoops. He’s a girl!” The Mohel took off the baby’s diaper and sprayed something, probably an anesthetic. The surgical tools were removed from a plastic pouch, glistening like Grandma’s silverware. The Mohel got to work. A piercing howl split the room. The Mohel chanted, his beautiful hymn audible between the baby’s wail. I stared ahead, but my mind drifted to another scene . . .
The final minutes of The Godfather: Michael Corleone in church at his nephew’s baptism. The innocent baby weeps; he’s in unfamiliar territory. The priest’s routine movements, a gentle touch to the baby’s face. The chanting, the ceremony, the ritual — so it begins. Concurrently, Michael’s team of assassins spray bullets at rival families, opposing bosses taken out one-by-one, shots to the head and chest. Michael watches his nephew in comfort, somewhere else the killers are content with their fallen victims. Good and evil, life and death, baptism and murder. The scared, oblivious infant. The unsuspecting mob rivals. Holy water is poured on the baby’s head, cleansed of original sin. A candle is held before Michael, the nephew’s Godfather. “Go in peace, and may the lord be with you. Amen.”
. . . The Mohel worked. The baby’s arm squealed — “danger,” his instincts told him. The women in the room covered their eyes or turned around, like they just saw a violent car accident. The men were stoic, face-forward, thinking of football or music or anything to keep from projecting the baby’s pain on themselves. The Mohel sang, distracting us from the baby’s distress. Snip, snip. Shriek! The Mother cried — the agony of her child in the hands of an ancient Judaic tradition. Then it ended.
The Mohel put his tools down, wrapped up the baby, and stuck a wine lollipop — a ball of cotton soaked in Cabernet — right in the boy’s mouth. The crying ceased. The baby, lifted from the table, was passed to the to the Mother, from Mother to the crib. The kid won’t remember. Only the people around him will.
The bris is part of a religion I haven’t practiced since my bar-mitzvah. I thought I wouldn’t care. “To celebrate it is barbaric,” I told my parents. But I left the bris with an appreciation, a respect for the longevity of the culture. It didn’t change my religious views, but it helped me understand the habits of others. My mind brought me to the scene of the Godfather not as an escape, but to underscore what I was experiencing: pain at the sake of tradition.
After the bris, we stood around and ate pastrami-on-rye. We traded obligatory dick jokes. We admired the lasting tradition. Most of all, we were glad we didn’t remember when it was us.