New mom grapples with intense emotions at son’s brit

It was my first child, and I wanted a girl. I am a girl, I reasoned, and had gone through all the developmental and emotional stages particular to females. Therefore, I could be a more effective, intuitive parent to one.

Now, nearly two years later, I realize my desire was actually my first Jewish maternal instinct asserting itself: With a girl, there would be no brit.

Noah came into the breathing world on Dec. 27, 1995, and eight days later would feel his first real pain at the hands of another human being. In the meantime, I would experience the outrageous first days of life with a newborn, my hormones wildly erratic, my body battered, my sleep cycles tortured.

Somewhere in the middle of all the chaos, I was making a connection with the little guy, this perfect tiny human with blond hair, blue eyes and flaky hands. Noah was long everywhere: his fingers and toes, his eyelashes, the span of his body. He would, of course, be a pianist, a painter, a model, a hunk, popular in school, one of the lucky ones.

But as the attachment was growing, so was the awareness that in a few days Jason and I would watch our son be exposed and restrained while a doctor-mohel cut the foreskin off his penis without anesthesia. Welcome to Judaism, Noah!

Ambivalence, fear, confusion, resignation, begrudging acceptance — all of these are not uncommon among Jewish parents preparing themselves for a brit milah. I know there are some who accept the commandment on pure faith, who embrace it and rejoice in it, and I envy them. But I could not. When I expressed my feelings to an observant friend, he said, “It’s a covenant with God,” as if that alone should remove all doubts.

So here’s what I knew: Brit milah is a great mitzvah. Noah would be part of a 4,000-year chain. It’s a test of our faith as a people. All Jewish boys are circumcised. All of our husbands went through it, and they came out all right. No one remembers the pain. The baby stops crying soon after so it must not hurt for very long. All Jewish parents love their sons and still circumcise them. This is how Jews welcome a boy into the community. This is Jewish continuity.

So here’s what I felt: Jews have suffered arguably more than any other people in history, yet instead of a nice naming ceremony or something equally sweet, we initiate a male child into the community in a painful way. It’s almost a badge of honor — hey, you think you’re gonna destroy a people who start out life getting a piece of their genitalia lopped off?

Think again.

And another thing: I hadn’t been a mother for very long, but I did know it was my job to protect Noah from pain. Jewish mothers are famous for being overprotective; it’s even expected of us. Yet the community demands us to swallow that instinct for this occasion. And we’re supposed to feel joyful about it!

I wish I could say that all my fears and doubts were allayed that evening as family and friends gathered in our home, bolstering us with their love, showering us with delicious food and providing a vivid model of Jewish community.

Instead, after all the heart-wringing, anguish and sadness, I knew there was no decision to make. The die was cast. In the end, what soothed me were a few simple words spoken by Jason.

“Now,” he said, “Noah is a little Jew.”

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at