Tensions are high, with Iran bombing Israeli diplomats and flaunting its nuclear progress, and Israeli experts split over what to do. Also, there is the threat from within—the ultra-Orthodox zealots who mirror both the fanatics of other religions and the Zealots of old who, by dividing Israel, helped its enemies destroy it.
But just now I’m occupied closer to home. My first grandchild was born in the small hours of January 27. So (by invitation) I attended my first daughter’s birth and decades later that of her first child.
Few things could have made me happier, and in the end it was a celebration, but I knew too much to be overconfident. I saw my three children born and delivered thirty-five others in medical school, yet I’m always amazed when it works. Susanna’s delivery was a typical first labor, easier than her own birth. Still, she was in pain; it was hard to see.
Her husband Doug was at her side, supportive as always. Her sister Sarah flew down from New York, and Sheena, the young labor nurse, was a pitch-perfect blend of warmth and authority. I could watch, smile, and be reassuring that all was according to nature’s and medicine’s plan. Yet as old obstetricians say, it may be normal for the species, but it’s damn near pathological for the individual. I’m thankful it didn’t cross that line.
Ethan Konner Post is his name, and in the Jewish community, Eitan Chayim. My favorite answer to “Who is a Jew?” used to be, “Someone who has Jewish children.” Then Shimon Peres, President of Israel and its leading wise elder, spoke in Atlanta. Based on events in his own life, he wanted to change the definition: A Jew, he had newly concluded, was someone with Jewish grandchildren.
We can’t decide to have grandchildren, much less Jewish ones. Still, I feel I’ve gained new status, not just by his birth but by his Brit Milah—“covenant of circumcision”, which took place in our home on the eighth day, before our children, other relatives, and close friends. His blue and white kippa, tied with tassels under his chin, was lovingly crocheted by my wife Ann. Officiating were Rabbi Hillel Norry (right, especially eloquent that day) and a Mohelet, Lillian Schapiro, M.D. (at center; Sarah is holding him as his parents look on).
When my son Adam (left, on ukelele) was circumcised thirty years ago, the deed was done by an M.D. double-boarded in obstetrics (Lillian’s field) and pediatrics, who was also a certified Orthodox Mohel. Our bases were covered.
But I had my own response to the rite, which took place when my late wife Margie and I were in a modest stage of life, in a spare, not quite properly heated Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment. Adam was taken from his mother’s breast by a man, who gave him to another man (my father), who gave him to another man, who cut off his foreskin.
As an anthropologist, I couldn’t deny the pattern. The mom who had made him in her body and was nursing him at her breast could not prevent these men from taking him and cutting off part of his body. In her mind she had freely agreed to it. But in her heart she surely wanted to protect him from them, and she could not. The patriline, doubtful as men always must be of their paternity, asserted itself against her clear biological claims.
God tells Abraham that any male uncircumcised in the skin of his foreskin will be cut off from his people. Do it, and be fertile like the stars. Fail, and be severed from the present and the future. Still, some young people who claim to care about being Jewish will not circumcise their sons. My other children, joining a beautiful ceremony, were uneasy with what they saw.
Will our descendants keep this covenant, as our ancestors did even on pain of death? I don’t know. But for now I am glad that my daughter and her husband’s choice, to have a highly trained, religiously and medically able woman do the job, took the patriarchal taint away from my grandson’s public welcome into Jewish life.