P’oor, poor Jonah Benjamin Roberts, my new grandson.
Fresh from the comfort of the womb, he faces a stranger with a sharp instrument. I’m the sondek, the honoree, who must hold his little body still so that the stranger can perform his ceremonial mission.
The center of the ceremony, 8-day-old “Benny,” will wear a secondhand gown, a plain muslin frock with pale blue flowers. His daddy wore it 30 years ago. With such simple ties are the generations bound, one to the other, even in Memphis, Tenn. — 8,000 miles away from the hills of Judea.
Considering the circumstances, Benny could do worse. I, the sondek, am highly proficient, having played this key role many times. Doubly blessed is the child because he gets not only me but also an imported mohel, Rabbi Michael Ravinsky, from St. Louis.
The “Yankee Clipper,” they call him.
The sondek role can be harrowing unless you’re smart enough to have a pre-ceremonial schnaps and stare intently at the ceiling while the stranger does his business. That’s the way I do it.
“That Teddy,” say my friends. “So pious. Always looking heavenward.”
At Benny’s brit milah, I look too long. The mohel is picking up his gear and the crowd is filing into the social hall when a voice, my son’s, says, “Uh, Dad, it’s OK now. It’s over.”
Let ’em laugh. I once saw a sondek faint, which, believe me, takes the spotlight off the baby.
But I’m fine. And soon, amid friends and hungry strangers who heard there was free food and drink at the synagogue, I was recovering my strength with a thick corned beef sandwich. I called it a “Jonah Benjamin” in honor of the newcomer who was the life of the party with his wine-hanky cocktail. The “Jonah Benjamin” is a corned beef, pastrami, turkey combo with heavy slaw and two slices of pickle. We called the tongue-salami package with heavy mustard and tomato on rye, a “Rabbi Michael Ravinsky.” He did a great job. He deserved commemoration.
I commemorated him twice: once with mustard and once without. That calmed me down. And what could have gone wrong with Elijah sitting in the chair next to me? He comes to every brit, ya know. Even if there are two or three the same day. Even if they all start at 6:15.
It’s the same magical manipulation of time the Christians use to simultaneously place Santa Claus at a billion Christian homes on Christmas Eve. “You got it from us,” I tell my Christian friends. Furthermore, Elijah does double duty. He’s gotta make his appointed rounds on the first and second nights of Pesach, too. And Jews are scattered all over God’s green world.
He never misses a brit.
There are two legends — Midrashim, the rabbis call them — about Elijah’s obligations. First, you have to read Kings I, Chapter 19, where the prophet encounters Almighty God. Not in a whirlwind, not in an earthquake, not in the fire, but in “a still, small voice.”
Elijah was not having a good week. He had defeated the evil priests of Baal. That was good. But Jezebel, their sponsor, promised vengeance. So the fearful prophet fled to the Holy Mount of Sinai. He’s holed up in a cramped cave when God appears to him and basically says, “What’s your problem?”
Elijah pours out his heart. The Children of Israel, he complains, have forsaken their God, thrown down his altars, slain his prophets. And worst of all, forsaken his covenants. As I say, Elijah has had a horrible week. And evidently his sermons are not too well attended, either. He wants to resign and find another line of work, anything but this prophecy business.
God’s reproof is immediate and appropriate, says the Midrash. “Forsake my covenant?” How dare the prophet question the health of the covenant. Elijah is commanded to attend every brit through all eternity. (Remember, brit means covenant.) That oughta show him the durability of the contract.
Well, the Book of Kings is maybe two or three millennia old and just as the Lord predicted, the covenant is still in force. As old as the law of gravity, it’s still honored by the two signatories. May Elijah continue his attendance until he’s forced to miss a brit or two in order to herald the Moshiach. That’s his second assignment, you know.
Although I can’t wait for the Deliverer to come, I’m sure glad he didn’t come the 23rd of October. Elijah would have had a terrible schedule conflict. Little Jonah Benjamin needed all the support he could get, even with a world-class sondek.