Fragments from Evolving Manhood: A Full-Throated Protest Against Existence and the World

I have written before about the book of personal essays dealing with manhood, masculinity and male sexuality that I tried, unsuccessfully (even with the help of an agent) to get published in the 1980s. Evolving Manhood was the working title, though my agent preferred and used my second choice–What Kind of a Man Are You Anyway?–because she thought it might sell better. When my agent finally dropped me because it was clear that no one was going to buy the manuscript–which I may one day make the subject of a whole other essay–I put the material aside and went back to working on my poetry, and then I was commissioned to do the translations of Persian literature that I am still working on, with the result that Evolving Manhood receded into the background of my writing life, and this makes me sad, not only because I worked damned hard on those essays, but also because I think some of the writing has held up pretty well, even though it is, some of it, 20 years old, and because I think the questions I was trying to explore are still profoundly relevant. More, I am saddened by the fact that the odds are overwhelmingly against my returning to this material in any substantial way. Time, both in the sense of what my commitments are now, personal and professional, and of my distance from what I wrote back then, is working against me.

So, since I don’t want what I think is worth keeping to disappear into my filing cabinet forever, I have decided that I will start a series called Fragments from Evolving Manhood made up of just what the title says, though the posts may be edited if I think it is necessary. I decided to make this the first one because it is Passover, a holiday that, broadly speaking, is (or should be) about social justice but that is also about what it means to be Jewish in a world where being Jewish can get you killed.


A Full-Throated Protest Against Existence and the World

As a Jewish man, like it or not, my identity within the Jewish community as both a man and a Jew is defined by the fact of my circumcision. Even though I am Jewish first because my mother is Jewish, at least according to the tradition accepted by most of the Jewish communities in the world, I entered God’s covenant with Abraham, became fully a member of my own people, only after my foreskin was removed, and for the first fifteen or so years of my life, I romanticized the moment of that cutting. Imagining a bloodless ceremony saturated with self-conscious majesty, I saw my boy’s body wrapped warmly and securely in a blanket, held peacefully at ease in the lap of my Uncle Max, smiling drunk on the wine-soaked cloth I’d been given to suck on to dull the (as it was explained to me by my grandmother) very small pain I would feel. Prayers were uttered over my flesh, and after the cutting was done, my membership in the covenant, not to mention into the community of Jewish manhood, was celebrated with food and drink. I pictured myself being passed lovingly among the guests, cuddled and coddled as they talked about the man I would grow up to be.

When I turned sixteen, however, I witnessed an actual brit milah, or circumcision ceremony. The house was full of people. I could see in the room beyond the room where I mingled with the other guests the feast that had been laid out for after the cutting. People were chatting, joking, shaking hands with old friends, and making new acquaintances, but when the mohel—the man who performs Jewish circumcisions—arrived, the atmosphere became immediately serious. As he shook hands with the boy’s father and with those other men who would participate in the ceremony, the women left and the room grew quiet. The boy, bundled tightly in a blanket, was brought in and placed in the hands of the man who had been chosen for the honor of holding the child while the preliminary prayers were recited. Then, the boy was given to the sandek, the man upon whom had been bestowed the privilege of holding the infant in his lap when the cutting was actually done. My view was blocked as the older men crowded around so they could see, but I knew when the cut came because that little boy howled. A full-throated protest against existence and the world, his scream filled my ears, the room, the entire house with his pain.

The men smiled and laughed as if they did not hear the child’s voice. Above his wailing, they shouted mazel tov!—congratulations!—and shook hands with each other and with those who had participated in the ceremony. Some of them even began to sing. The boy’s screaming did not stop. I was taken to meet the child’s father. He smiled at me proudly, gripping my hand and, as his still shrieking son was carried from the room, steered me into the dining area where people were beginning to eat. This was not the peaceful ceremony I had imagined. This was hypocrisy, the sanctification and celebration through denial of the pain of the boy who’d just been cut, and also of the pain I had felt, and of the pain of every man in that house. I felt mocked, betrayed, and tremendously angry, but I had no words to express what I was feeling. Even now, having rejected circumcision in my own family, it’s hard to dismiss the ritual merely as the patriarchal marking that, at its roots, it is. Because whatever else that ritual might be, the history of the oppression of the Jews has made it also a sign of defiance, a bodily affirmation of Jewish (male) identity and Jewish (male) worth in the face of enormous persecution.

I put the word male in parentheses in the last sentence because, while circumcision marks only men and is therefore problematic from the point of view of gender equality within the Jewish tradition, I do not want to deny the courage that it took for Jewish mothers to continue to allow their sons to be circumcised, or for Jewish women to continue to value circumcision as a religious ritual, a physical mark and as a metaphor for the relationship between the Jews and their god at times when forcing a man to pull down his pants was one way that anti-semites would identify appropriate targets for their hatred and violence. In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, for example, Yaffa Eliach tells a story that, whether it is completely true or only an embellished version of the truth, illustrates precisely what I mean. In the midst of a “children’s Aktion,” a massacre of Jewish children, the tale goes, a Jewish woman demanded of a Nazi soldier, “Give me [your] pocket knife!”

She bent down and picked up something…a bundle of rags on the ground near the sawdust. She unwrapped the bundle. Amidst the rags on a snow-white pillow was a newborn babe, asleep. With a steady hand she opened the pocket knife and circumcised the baby. In a clear, intense voice she recited the blessing of the circumcision. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by thy commandments and hast commanded us to perform the circumcision.”

She straightened her back, looked up to the heavens, and said, “God of the Universe, you have given me a healthy child. I am returning to you a wholesome, kosher Jew.” She walked over to the German, gave him back his blood-stained knife, and handed him her baby on his snow-white pillow. (152)

I am that boy; that boy was me. Had I been alive during the time of the Nazis, they would have tried to kill me precisely for being “wholesome and kosher.” Yet while the violence that mother did to her son absolutely pales in comparison to the violence the Nazi intended to do to him, the story nonetheless omits the boy’s pain, glosses over the blood that must have stained the pillow, the mother’s hands and the German’s knife. It is that blood which haunts me, for my circumcision is my connection to that mother’s courage, to the courage of the men who circumcised and were circumcised at a time when a cut penis could have gotten them killed. Yet that blood is also about the making of men, and as long as the making of men requires such bloodshed, manhood will continue to require the spilling of blood as its proof.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

This entry posted in Anti-Semitism, Gender and the Body, Jews and Judaism. Bookmark the permalink. 

14 Responses to Fragments from Evolving Manhood: A Full-Throated Protest Against Existence and the World

  1. 1
    Tara says:

    It’s a misapprehension that circumcision is required for full Jewish status. It is a halachic obligation on the father to circumcise his son, and if he does not, the son inherits that obligation on/for himself when he comes of age, but circumcision itself doesn’t impact a man’s halachic (as opposed to cultural/sociological/emotional) Jewish status. (The obligation is waived, for example, when a particular child has a health condition that would make it particularly dangerous, don’t quote me on this bit I believe hemophilia would be an example – but that boy/man would be no less Jewish or halachically obligated than any other). It is NOT a perfect parallel to a Christian baptism. 

    I appreciate what you said about the historical and cultural aspects of circumcision – they give me pause also. Especially when jurisdictions make noises about criminalizing it, it is practically impossible for me to separate that out from Jewish history, persecution, forced assimilation, and so on. 

    It’s also interesting to me that you focused on the pain element (at least in this essay) rather than the permanent physical alteration element. The purposeful and ritualistic imposition of pain makes me think of the fairly popular Ashkenazi custom of mothers slapping their daughters when they get their first period, as an induction to womanhood. But it also raises the question of what if the pain, which in this case is a byproduct rather than the point, could be eliminated.     

  2. Tara:

    It’s a misapprehension that circumcision is required for full Jewish status. It is a halachic obligation on the father to circumcise his son, and if he does not, the son inherits that obligation on/for himself when he comes of age, but circumcision itself doesn’t impact a man’s halachic (as opposed to cultural/sociological/emotional) Jewish status.

    Thanks for catching this. I learned this after I first wrote the piece, but missed editing in the correction before I posted it.

    It’s also interesting to me that you focused on the pain element (at least in this essay) rather than the permanent physical alteration element.

    About this I will say only that this is a fragment of what was originally a much longer piece in which I took up the question of physical alteration at great length. Also, I am not sure the pain of circumcision is altogether beside the point, at least not in popular, non-halachic explanations of the ritual. I can’t lay my hands on them right now, but I have read contemporary justifications for ritual circumcision, some of them–if I remember correctly–by Reform rabbis–that point to the alleged benefits, symbolic and otherwise, of the pain. (And I also seem to remember that Maimonides wrote something about the value of the pain caused by circumcision, though I could be misremembering this entirely.)

  3. 3
    chingona says:

    re: the pain, I did read recently that the Reform and Conservative movements consider circumcisions performed with local anesthetic halachic and acceptable, but that the Orthodox movement does not. There was no mention of the reasoning applied to reach those conclusions, and there weren’t any cites, so that’s about all I can say about it.

  4. 4
    Jake Squid says:

    I have attended Conservative brises both with and without a local anasthetic being used, Chingona. I think that, within the Conservative sect, it varies by particular congregation. As do a bunch of other things.

    As far as I could tell, it was the preference of the mohel that determined whether or not something other than a small bit of wine was used.

  5. 5
    Robert says:

    Publish it yourself on

  6. Robert,

    The short answer is that I don’t have anything in publishable form right now and I don’t see when I will have the time to put such a thing together.

  7. 7
    emjaybee says:

    I was never so angry as when I read this piece by Neal Pollack, far less thoughtful than your own, in which he basically just shrugged off his own misgivings and circumcised his kid in the name of family harmony.

    I mean, yes, family is important, but as a parent of a boy, I cannot comprehend valuing the feelings of family members over my son’s physical well-being and putting him through that pain. All of my most ferocious instincts rise up at the very idea.

    Of course, I’m not Jewish. Although men in my family were circ’d and my husband was strictly due to medical misconceptions from the time they were born. My husband initially wavered wondering if his son would feel ostracized in gym class for being “different”, another consideration that I find utterly unimportant in comparison to my son’s right to his own bodily integrity.

    But I did say, should our son come to us and beg us to circumcise him as a teen for this reason, well, we’d talk about it. He’d be the one deciding for own body.

  8. 8
    Simple Truth says:

    This topic first really presented itself to me through a college course in which we spoke about female circumcision. I’m not making any claims on the religious value or the inherent health results of either male or female circumcision, merely the outlook by traditional Americans that it is firmly OK to circumcise boys and DEFINITELY NOT OK to circumcise girls. It always seemed a bit of hypocrisy.
    Perhaps you brought it up in the part of your essay you edited here for length, but I’ve also wondered about the romanticized aspect of the circumcised penis. The whole “locker room” situation sort of belies the fact that in America, the circumcised penis is the norm. Most graffiti I’ve seen does not depict an uncircumcised penis. Is it something that fathers/mothers wonder about, that their son will be unattractive if his penis is not the above average, cut, and shining example of manhood? Why is that even an issue to us as a collective? Penises aren’t status symbols, yet they’re treated as such, even by Jewish tradition (as evidenced in your essay.) Granted, I am not Jewish, nor am I trying to say you’re religion is wrong. But isn’t it time to stop using circumcised penises as a status symbol, even in religious contexts?
    I feel like I coming off combative, and for that I apologize. I’ve defended my stance here before that it’s not right for anyone to tell someone else that they can’t participate in something on either side of the issue. I’m not telling anyone they can’t circumcise or that it’s not important to religion, etc. I just feel like it should give us pause, collectively, if this is the way we really want to embody that status, and if the benefits, whatever they might be, are worth the cost.

  9. 9
    augustus818 says:

    We are complete strangers. That having been said I’m about to share something a bit personal. I don’t know why, or even if it will help anything. I think it’s because what you stated in your last sentence is one of the few things left that truly frightens me, that I feel it’s important.

    I remember when I was a little kid, my dad told me a story of an uncle of mine who was in Germany during WWII. He had taken part in the liberation of a concentration camp in Western Germany. While he was there he became enraged at all the death and misery surrounding him and felt the need for vengeance. So, he found one of the camp guards and without getting into the gory details for they are too terrible, wrecked his vengeance. All I will say is that Inglorious Bastards doesnt even begin to explain the reality of vengeance, and that circumcision only begins to explain what my uncle wrought that most miserably tragic day.

    When my dad finished I remember after a very long pause asking him, “Did he feel better?”

    “No, it only got worse.” my dad replied.

    I had never met my uncle but I had heard a bit about him, mostly about how he drank himself into a stupor every night. He died peacefully later, I can’t remember exactly when. And that’s it. That’s the bloody cycle of vengeance. One man spilling the blood of another, because he spilled the blood of another?! All I can think to ask anymore is when does it FUCKING STOP?! Is that really ALL there is? Because if this eternally nightmarish merry-go-round really is it, then …. I want off. So having said that, I’ll close and say from one stranger to another I urge you to at least think about what I said regarding this darkest of human chapters.

    Thank you.

  10. 10
    Ben-David says:

    Stuff like this:

    as long as the making of men requires such bloodshed

    is hyperbolic scenery-chewing when talking about Jewish circumcision.

    Circumcising an infant is not the “man-making” ceremony you imply. It is disingenuous to compare infant circumcision to puberty rites with can-you-hunt/can-you-endure-pain themes.

    In fact one of the reasons given for the timing of Jewish circumcision was to spare the child traumatic memories.

    We have a “man-making” ceremony in Judaism – remember? It’s called “Bar Mitzvah” and directly references upholding the Law of justice/lovingkindness as THE marker of Jewish manhood.

    No trials by ordeal, sorry – unless you count elbowing in on the smorgasbord.

    But why let the facts stop yet another progressive Jew from painting his/her tradition as primitive…

  11. Augustus818:

    Thanks for sharing. That is a powerful and important story to tell.

  12. 12
    Van Lewis says:

    The bottom line on this issue is that according to long-established national
    and international law based in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of
    1948, and earlier and later law, all human beings have the unalienable human
    right to bodily – including genital – integrity. It is no one’s right to
    chop off ANY of your normal, healthy, living body parts without your fully
    informed, adult, written consent. The same is true for every human being on
    the planet, without exception, including especially infants and children.

    People who amputate normal, healthy, living body parts from infants,
    children and other non-consenting persons are committing obvious, blatant criminal
    acts, no matter what excuses or “reasons” they give for doing so, be they
    “medical”, “scientific”, “cultural”, “tribal”, “religious”, “aesthetic”,
    perverted, sadistic or otherwise. Amputating other people’s normal, healthy,
    living body parts is a crime against humanity, “human vivisection”, the same
    crime against humanity that licensed German doctors were convicted of at
    Nuremburg and jailed after World War II for committing against Jews,
    Gypsies, homosexuals and others during the war.

    What counts is not the adult mutilator’s excuses for their diabolical
    mutilations. What counts is the intended victim’s human right to be free
    from them.

    Adult mutilators and mutilationists do not respect human rights, obviously,
    but that does not mean that human rights do not exist. The mutilators and
    mutilationists cannot obliterate human rights as they do sex organs, try as
    they may. Human rights are un-obliteratable. That’s what “unalienable”
    means. They cannot be alienated from their owners, they cannot be taken
    away, cannot be stolen and destroyed as sex organs can. All the mutilators
    can do is violate unalienable human rights, and violate them they do,
    freely, rampantly, criminally, in several grossly and disgustingly barbaric
    places around the world, including the United States of America, the only
    country in the entire WORLD where the medical profession mutilates the sex
    organs of the majority of male babies.

    They will be held accountable for their horrific, heinous, hideous crimes of
    torture, mayhem and mutilation, no matter in whose or what’s name they
    commit them. “Science” will not protect them. “God” will not protect them.
    “Culture” and “religion” and “aesthetics” will not protect them. Ignorance on the subject is rapidly disappearing and soon will no longer protect them. Only JAIL
    will protect them from the mighty and righteous wrath, delayed though it may be, of their victims.

    Obliterate circumcising, not sex organs.

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  14. 13
    Jerusalem Blade says:

    Thanks for baring your psyche, Richard, in this first of your prose writings I have ventured into. Modern persons have varying takes on the ancient Abrahamic covenant, of which circumcision is the token. I find its observance a pretty straightforward affirmation of the value of that covenant to a soul, and his or her offspring. Some 4,000 years later – much history in between – Messianic baptism is now the token of that covenant, an unbloody rite. I bear both.