Compelled to “Do Jewish”

By Lea Zeltserman

Here’s a scenario my 16-year-old self could never have imagined: the day when, eight months pregnant, I found myself on the phone with a mohelet* discussing how to make the non-Jewish family members of the father-to-be feel involved in a brit milah. What to do about the God word. Trying to imagine a bris with more non-Jews in attendance than Jews. How did this happen?

*A mohel, or sometimes female mohelet, is the person who perform the brit milah, or bris—the Jewish circumcision ceremony.

A bit about that 16-year-old self. I grew up in Edmonton, where Jewish was a word with solid definitions. It meant you lived in the west end, and on holidays your family drove downtown to either the Conservative Beth Shalom syngagogue, or the only-marginally-more-strict Orthodox Beth Israel around the corner. It meant Hebrew school, Hebrew camp, Jewish youth group. A Bat Mitzvah, a Holocaust education trip to Poland, and, in my case, kibbutz in Israel after high school. Also, Shabbat dinners and a lot of turkey bacon.

Judaism was the default setting, and I’d always assumed that it would stay that way. In other words, I’d just keep doing the same things without thinking about it or putting too much effort into it.

But in university I gravitated towards feminism, activism and other -isms. I grew dreadlocks, wore chunky black combat boots, shouted slogans at protests. I studied in Africa and taught English in Asia. I moved closer and then further from my Jewishness.

Eventually I ended up in Toronto, interning at the magazine where I met C. Early on I told him it was important to me that my children would be Jewish. Baptism was not an option. He was raised Catholic, in a predominantly white suburb. He said okay. I didn’t think much more about it. Which, I suppose, is how I found myself trying to arrange a bris.

Circumcision itself didn’t bother either of us. C, born when it was routine, is snipped. But a religious ceremony?

The mohelet explained to us that the grandfathers would each hold the baby—the Jewish for the cutting, the non-Jewish for the naming. The grandmothers would light candles. It was all very symmetrical. She downplayed the cutting and talked about minimizing the pain. The ceremony would mostly be in English.

Despite her reassurances, my overwhelming sense of the event was one of awkwardness. We were planning a small ceremony, which translated to my parents and brother, and then a whole lot of his family. I couldn’t shake the image of our crowded apartment, with me at the centre, alone, thrusting this medieval ritual on everyone. I tried to envision myself explaining what it meant. Or answering questions that started with “Why,” the most terrifying being the simplest: “Why are you doing this?”

Because I don’t know. I can’t tell you why I feel compelled to “do Jewish.” I’ve lived abroad and now I love living in a highly diverse city, with friends from all kinds of backgrounds. I’ve chosen to spend my life with someone who isn’t Jewish.

Among my liberal Jewish friends, the debate about circumcision was growing. I had endless conversations in my head, worrying about how I would explain myself and whether I’d have to face shrill accusations of genital mutilation. I grew in a Soviet Jewish family, and circumcision was a big deal—as a persecuted minority in the USSR, where it was banned, I knew men who’d opted for it as grown-ups (yes, ouch) at the first possible opportunity. For them, it was a statement of freedom and of finally becoming real Jews.

Amidst all our talk about multiculturalism and wonderfully hybrid identities, no one tells you that it’s much easier to brag about that ethnic hole-in-the-wall you’ve discovered than to wrestle with the implications of religious rituals involving sharp objects. I waited as long as I possibly could before I finally picked up that phone, but in the end, I couldn’t quite shake that 16-year-old self.

I sometimes wonder whether I’d feel less compelled to follow all these rituals and traditions if I’d ended up with someone who was Jewish, where I could just lazily slip in or out of following this or that practice without worrying about whether it would make me, or my children, less Jewish.

What I realized is that, in our secular world, there is something deeply personal in openly practicing faith, especially in a world where a loosely defined spirituality trumps religion. In choosing a Jewish home, a Jewish circumcision ritual, over the default Christmas setting, I’d exposed my deepest beliefs for all to see. Even some of my more secular Jewish friends don’t understand my pull towards Shabbat candles or hosting Passover Seders.

And while I’m still not sure what I’m clinging to, for now, it seems to work.

Oh, and in the end we had a girl, and it all became a moot point.

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2 thoughts on “Compelled to “Do Jewish”

  1. I know this wasn’t your reasoning, but here (at least in US) not having one would be the subject of ridicule, and I know a kid who did it after immigrating here, just so there would be no questions at the locker room. the exact opposite was true over in the USSR and I am glad my parents didn’t impose this on me. That would’ve been two painful years of the army showers. Not in that sense 🙂

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