3rd Place Co-Winner in the 2020 LifeWriting Contest.
by Lisa Braver Moss
On a dreary January morning in 1986, I sat in my hospital bed weeping, trying to pretend to my husband, Mark, that it was the hormones. It should have been a joyous day. The night before last, I’d given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.
This morning was the circumcision.
Mark and I are both Jewish, and we’d agreed to a hospital circumcision as a compromise. Mark, having been brought up more traditionally than I had, wanted a bris ceremony, while I was in conflict about the whole question.
On the one hand, I wanted my baby to have access to all that circumcision promised: a sense of belonging in a wonderful, vibrant community with a proud history and rich culture; kinship with a group that had been following this tradition for thousands of years. Who was I to break the chain?
On the other hand, my inner voice was screaming. How in the world had I become willing to inflict unnecessary pain on my perfect baby? I had barely met him, and now I was being asked to hand him over for an undeniably violent act. I felt like the miller’s daughter in the fairy tale when Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect her firstborn. Where was the magic word that would get me out of this nightmarish pact?
If I had it to do all over again, I would have listened to myself. I would have had more confidence in my instincts, rather than feeling alone and ashamed as I did. I would have been a warrior, doing everything in my power to protect my precious baby. I would have convinced Mark somehow.
At the time, I sincerely couldn’t tell whether my inner voice was hysterical or righteous or somewhere in between. So I gave in. There were no complications—other than the emotional ones.
I’ve regretted my compliance ever since.
Months after my son’s birth, I was still upset by the dilemma I’d been in. My feelings of isolation and shame had been an awful initiation into motherhood. Having failed to listen to myself then, I was determined to listen to myself now.
Though I had majored in English in college and had worked as a technical writer in the computer industry, I didn’t think of myself as having general insights to share with others. But I kept circling back on the idea of writing about my experience. Could I produce a cohesive piece about something as complicated emotionally, culturally, and religiously as circumcision?
I began taking stabs at a freelance article for submission to a Jewish magazine. I did a lot of reading, had many conversations with friends and rabbis, and then asked them to read drafts of the piece. Most of the feedback I got was critical. Some was ridiculing. Though I was stung by certain comments and found the metaphorical pats on the head condescending, I listened and learned. This time, I was not going to let anything interfere with my inner voice.
For the first time professionally, I felt I had a purpose—to write an article on this topic that could not be dismissed as shrill, ill-informed or anti-Jewish. Despite having no legal background, I researched Jewish law in order to come up with original arguments against circumcision that were consistent with Jewish values. My article was eventually published in the Jewish progressive intellectual magazine Tikkun, and was later selected for inclusion in the “best-of” volume The Tikkun Anthology.
I wrote several other articles and made a presentation at an international symposium on genital cutting. I gave more talks, some at Jewish institutions, and continued the discussion with rabbis and colleagues. And then, encouraged by my success, I began writing and publishing essays and books on other topics such as family and health.
The circumcision dilemma—with its complex layers of Judaism, sexuality, ethics, and medicine all rolled into one—remained fascinating to me. Years later, I taught myself to write fiction and penned a novel on the topic. I then teamed up with another writer to create a book of ceremonies for non-circumcising families. I had become one of the world’s leading Jewish voices calling for a reappraisal of the circumcision tradition.
When I started writing about circumcision, I knew little about Judaism. Gradually, as Mark and I observed Shabbat and other Jewish holidays at home and with family and friends, that began to shift. I knew I belonged. I’m now part of a community I’ve always wanted to belong to, and I’m still seeking to make meaning of Jewish texts, traditions and values.
I still get some derision for my stand on circumcision, especially at my synagogue, but I also get respect and even appreciation. When I encounter institutional resistance to my message, I no longer feel alone and isolated; rather, the resistance tells me I’m on the right track.
Thinking back on that gloomy January morning, I realize how far I’ve come. I didn’t listen to myself that day, but the experience taught me to take my inner voice seriously. I’m grateful to have the privilege of writing articles and giving presentations on Jewish circumcision, and have reason to believe my work is serving the current generation and will serve future generations. I figure I must be getting somewhere, because even in my own family, my husband has come to agree with me about circumcision. As for my children, they don’t plan to circumcise their sons.
Perhaps the biggest gift of all is that I’ve come to see many of my challenges as good writing topics. Instead of feeling isolated, I often choose to write about my internal battles, and in 2019 published an award-winning autobiographical novel based on my childhood. I could never have predicted, as a new mother, that I’d become a writer. I have my inner voice to thank for that.
Lisa Braver Moss is the author of the novels The Measure of His Grief (Notim Press, 2010) and the award-winning Shrug (She Writes Press, 2019). Her essays have appeared in many publications. Lisa's nonfiction book credits include Celebrating Family: Our Lifelong Bonds with Parents and Siblings (Wildcat Canyon Press, 1999) and, as co-author, The Mother's Companion: A Comforting Guide to the Early Years of Motherhood (Council Oak Books, 2001) and Celebrating Brit Shalom (Notim Press, 2015).
See the other winning entries on our website.