The other day, on the way uptown on a packed subway car, I positioned myself next to a set of seats labeled “priority seating” for the disabled. I was hoping my seven-month pregnant belly would qualify me for a seat on the hot, not-yet-fall-like, September day. There were four passengers seated on my side of the car: a couple of teenage girls rapt in conversation, one young woman napping on her way home, and a middle-aged guy pretending not to notice me. My target. Women of all ages and ethnicities have generously offered me their seats in the last few weeks, but with men, it seems, you never can tell who’ll be empathetic toward a pregnant lady with swollen ankles. I gave this man my best side profile, so there was no doubt, and stuck the book on birthing I was reading squarely in front of him.
No luck. I resigned myself to standing and started reading, but couldn’t help having an uncharitable thought about the kind of man who won’t offer a seat to a pregnant woman on the subway. If there are two kinds of men, this might be a fair way to divide the groups. Further proving my point, the train conductor (who said New Yorkers aren’t friendly?) noticed all this from his nearby cabin, slid his door open and asked if I’d like to sit down. “Sure,” I said, “but I’m fine.” I didn’t want to cause a scene. “No, you’re pregnant,” he insisted, “you should be sitting down.” And he asked one of the teenage girls to get up. They immediately apologized for not noticing, and fussed over me as I sat down, before continuing their conversation about what they would do that evening. I smiled at him, theory confirmed. See, there really are two kinds of men.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about two other kinds of men — the circumcised, and the uncircumcised. To snip or not to snip, is the question in my mind as I enter my third trimester. On the one hand, the idea of having my baby undergo an optional and pretty much unnecessary medical procedure in his first days of life seems crazy. Penises come with foreskin — why not leave good enough alone? On the other hand, alongside the medical reasoning related to disease prevention, I’m reluctant to pass on this surgery for more emotional reasons.
Part of being a mama’s boy, in my son’s case, will mean being Jewish. Although I haven’t been a practicing Jew (whatever that means) for years, it will ultimately be up to my son to decide what Judaism means to him in his own life. I’m reluctant to leave him without the option of being a typical Jewish circumcised boy, although the decreased rates of circumcision in the U.S. and the small rate of circumcision in Europe are making me doubt my decision. Will circumcision be an anachronism for all but the most religious in five or ten or twenty-five years? Will I regret my decision?
The first circumcision I witnessed was at the bris, the Jewish ritual at home with bagels and lox and a Mohel doing the snipping, of a newly adopted infant cousin. I remember my aunt crying as her new baby screamed in a burst of pain. But I didn’t doubt the morality of the procedure — we were Jewish and this is what we did. Of course growing up in a conservative synagogue with less than observant parents meant there were many things we learned in Hebrew School that we should have been doing, but weren’t: keeping a kosher house, observing Shabbat. For a time, living in Israel in my early 20’s, I flirted with the idea of becoming “religious” and having more consistency between what I had been told was right as a child and how I lived. I imagined myself with a cool headscarf and a wardrobe of long skirts, living in the cobblestone lanes of Jerusalem or on a modern orthodox Kibbutz. But, in the end, what felt most authentic to me was finding my own spiritual path, and embracing Judaism as a cultural heritage. Marrying Neil, who was raised by staunch Jewish atheist intellectual parents, helped push me in this direction.
The second bris, or ceremonial circumcision, I attended was also the first that Neil had ever seen. My older brother had a new infant son, and Neil and I (newly a couple) flew out to California to attend the ceremony. The bris seemed, to my adult eyes, a strange if interesting tribal ritual. Neil, on the other hand, was shocked by the brutality. No anesthesia? A medical procedure performed by an old man with shaky hands? But I defended the ritual, and didn’t think much about Neil’s reaction except that he seemed squeamish when it came to foreskin removal.
Fast-forward seven years, and Neil’s the one who thinks he might want circumcision for our son. Neil, a vegetarian, would rather eat a tongue sandwich than have a traditional at-home bris with a Mohel. He does, however, wonder if we should go ahead and do an in-hospital circumcision. Should his baby look like him? We’re still trying to decide what to do — but even this very much non-practicing Jew (who asks me if I want to have a Seder with him on Rosh Hashanah) is being pulled toward tradition. As for me, there’s a feeling of “just in case” — and I want to give my child, my son, the chance to be whomever he wants to be — including an observant Jew. As long as he grows into the kind of man, religious or spiritual or stridently atheist, who will willingly, and without a second thought, offer his seat on the subway to a pregnant women with