A family legacy weighs heavily on a mohel’s plans for his future.

Male circumcision concept, banana with skin cut off

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I never wanted to be a mohel. Tradition thrust the job on me. My father, my grandfather, as far back as the genealogy app would take me, every guy in the direct line before me had mohel listed as a full- or part-time job. My forebears have snipped foreskins in Lemberg, Newark, Saint John, Edmonton … the list is long. And the inevitability of history’s repeat cycle has brought me to the door of this suburban home.

I ring the bell. A man opens the door and greets me. Late 30s I’d say, in great shape, wearing a mid-weight houndstooth wool suit. Cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spines all perfectly aligned. We should all be so lucky. I assume he’s the father, who, according to the forgotten biblical direction, is responsible for today’s job. Why doesn’t he do it himself? He looks like he’s up to it. Not just buff, but calm, or at least he presents that way.

It’s not as if I’ve got any natural talent, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this father get as good a result as me. He would just need the training, that’s all. The delegation of fathers’ surgical duty to their sons has been going on way too long among our people. With effort and proper focus, every dad could learn. After all, Abraham circumcised Ishmael and even himself. Did he have a knack or did correct angle, perfect light, and cooperative subject simply converge?

So the father, Dave, invites me in warmly and I meet the mother, Sandra. She gives me a double-edged, you’d-better-not-mess-it-up smile. “Your father snipped Dave, so it’s logical you should snip our son,” she says. Personally I fail to see the logic in her statement. It would suit me fine to set aside the expected business of the day and instead embark on that most Jewish of activities, a multifaceted debate. Dave might actually go for it. Sandra definitely would not.

For this bris, it’s just the parents and the baby and me, thank God. Difficult enough, but the bigger events are much worse. I always want to ask the spectators, “Do you like to watch?” Pardon me, not spectators. Guests.

For my ancestor-mohels who were also doctors, I suppose doing the circumcisions came easy. I know they did for my cardiologist father, before Parkinson’s brought an end to both his practices. He knows I take no pleasure in moheling. But the family tradition must continue. That’s how he thinks. That’s why it was always understood I’d take up the family business. Not medicine, I haven’t got the head for that. The other one.

Twelve hours ago, I thought, maybe this time I would escape the night-before preliminaries. I wish. It went like all the other times. At 11:00, the waves of nausea started, and simultaneously my kishkas went into a peristaltic fury. The body convulsed erratically, it didn’t know what to do, I spewed from mouth and rectum at the same time, all this accompanied by crashing abdominal pain. The gastro hurricane continued on and off for hours, ended only by depletion. The whole time, Eric stayed by me, spoke soothing words, cleaned up my messes. Then he had me sip water. Finally I lay down on my right side and he rubbed my back until at last I slept. In the morning, after we dressed, him in jeans and a rainbow T-shirt, me in a suit, he held my hands between his. “These are good hands,” he said. “These hands will do what they’ve been trained to do and they will do it well. I have total belief in these hands of yours. And in you.” We sat quietly like that for 20 minutes. I entered a state of what Eric and I have come to call induced serenity. I suppose it is akin to hypnosis. The goal: for me to hold onto that calm until the end of the job.

Eric drove me to a block away from the house of the bris and waited for me in the car. Sure, I could have come on my own, but because I am the nervous type, driving would have broken my induced serenity. Also, like always, I took a beta blocker just before our hand-joining rite, and Eric says I never drive with enough alertness when I’m on the medication, so it’s got to be him at the wheel then, for everyone’s safety. He’s right. The way he is with me completely no matter how I feel at any given moment, the way what I choose to do in life is fine with him — I’ve had to get used to that unconditional acceptance. It’s nothing I knew growing up. My two sisters both ran circles around me academically, then one became a corporate lawyer and the other a physics professor. Me, my parents’ only male progeny, I sell menswear in a chain store. As for higher education completed, I’ve got almost nothing — just a year of community college plus my mohel training. It’s not exactly a profile my mother and father can kvell about, and they don’t. They’ve accepted Eric, though it took some doing to bring my father around. My mother helped me out with that. But now they’re after us to adopt a baby boy so he can take on the family name and game. “How do you know we’d give him my last name?” I said. “Maybe we’d go with Eric’s, or a hyphenated name.” My mother is fine with the hyphenation idea, but my father hates it; he thinks it’ll corrupt the purity of the line. He’s always making up new reasons to disapprove of what I do. Of me. And here I am, still exposing myself to his toxic mishigas at 32. Not listening to him all the time, necessarily, but hearing him. Eric and I would like to be dads, we talk about it a lot, but I think my father’s poison has kept us from starting the adoption process.

* * *

So here I am in Sandra and Dave’s living room, knowing that a human born only eight days ago needs me not to mess up. Even more than his mom Sandra needs me not to.

There is so much I can’t reveal to the boy and his parents. That I resent how most parents schedule brises in the morning, because I am very much not a morning person.

I must hide that it is only my lack of moral fiber to stand up to my father that has kept me in this business for the past 10 years, that has brought me to their home today, that stops me from running away. That only by calling every penis a goinkle can I keep smiling, hold on to induced serenity. Goinkle is the nickname Eric gave mine and now it’s become our generic term. I found out recently that in Kentucky, a goinkle is a cement mixer truck. But it’s too late to change now.

During the minutes that count I block out all external stimuli. Today the baby’s goinkle peeks out and addresses me. Do exactly what’s needed, no more but no less. Be neat. Don’t rush but don’t dawdle. I’m a little concerned about that sugar water. Do you really think it’ll kill the pain? And what kind of clamp have you got there? The Gomco? Please say no. Even in the short time I’ve been out in the world I’ve had time to hear terrible things about the Gomco. The adults make no effort to shield me from such talk. In utero I knew the entire Torah, yet from the moment I emerge, they think I won’t understand what people are saying? Wait … you’re using the Mogen clamp aren’t you? Good. Much safer.

This one is chattier than most.

Of course I am using the Mogen. First of all, the Gomco looks like an instrument of torture, which I prefer to believe I am not committing. And I feel more control with the flat shape of the Mogen, so we can just get that little flap in place and cut clean. I take comfort in knowing a mohel, probably a competent mohel, invented the Mogen.

The baby yells. Louder than his mother did in childbirth, I’m sure. He screams to the heavens. Is anybody there? He wonders. I wonder.

Now the baby switches to wrenching sobs. I can’t do anything about that. I need to finish. He’s enraged and insulted, yes, who would not be? But I did a clean job. Again. Somehow.

Once the bandaging is done, Sandra picks the baby up. He’s still crying. She gives me a you-did-mess-it-up look.

Like its owner and the owner’s mother, the goinkle is displeased. You schmuck, I told you the sugar water was useless! Every nerve is on fire. Thousands.

* * *

Tonight in bed I ask Eric, what about our baby idea? And he says, yeah, he thinks it’s time.

“But,” I say, “if it’s a boy …”

“I know,” he says. “I know.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Dear Mr. McGowan,
    According to the research I did while working on “Goinkle,” even non-religious circumcisions are not generally done immediately after birth, unless there is a medical emergency such as the foreskin being sealed over so that the poor little boy can’t pee.
    Glad you enjoyed the story.

  2. Wow Ms. Altrows, this is (oy vey) quite a little story on an unusual topic; my goodness. It’s not a job very many could do. This baby is 8 days old. I had my banana peel done in the hospital right after delivery—- I’m figuring, then put in that room with the other fresh babies to sleep it off. It’s probably the best time since a baby’s already traumatized anyway, hate to say it. Don’t remember a thing, thank God. Okay, enough of this talk about the goinkle already; sheesh!


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