My mother was Episcopalian when she met my father, and chose not to convert. This meant that, according to the strictest precepts of Jewish law, as a child I was not Jewish, even though that was the religion I practiced. When I was seven or so, my parents, recognizing that there is no force on earth more irritating to deal with than religious bureaucracy, told me and my brother that, if we wanted to be Jewish, we ought to convert.
Being even then a savvy consumer, I went to church a couple times, just to check out the competition. Satisfied that it was just as boring as synagogue–more so, actually, because people actually showed up on time and didn’t talk to each other during the service–I figured sure, why not, and we set it up. It would be a short ceremony, I was told: the rabbi and cantor would say a few prayers, I would be dunked three times in the mikvah–the ritual bath–and that would be that, except for the part where they cut the head of my penis with a razor blade.
Jewish men are circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. I was circumcised at birth, so the cut was merely ceremonial. Nonetheless, the idea discomfited me. Not so much getting cut with a razor blade, you understand; that didn’t bother me so much. No, it was the fact that the rabbi and the cantor would see me naked.
Clearly in the two subsequent decades I managed to get over my squeamishness about being nude in the presence of other men, but at the time it was a mortifying thought. I had a flash of inspiration, though, that would save both my pride and my religion: I would bring handkerchiefs with which the rabbi and cantor would blindfold themselves before the relevant part of the ceremony. They would be able to perform their duties and I would stay unexposed. (It did not enter my head that I might not want somebody aiming a razor blade at my penis to be wearing a blindfold, but even then I was not the most practically minded of homosexuals.)
The hour of the ceremony came. I stood in front of the ritual bath–contrapposto, of course–took off my shirt, and reached into my pocket. “Here,” I said, offering the rabbi and the cantor the two handkerchiefs I’d stolen from my father’s dresser that morning. “These are for you to wear, so you don’t . . . so you don’t see . . .” I trailed off, too embarrassed to complete the thought but certain that these two spiritual leaders would divine my unspoken meaning.
“I’m sorry,” said the cantor gently. “But according to the law we have to see what we’re doing.” He may have been making that up, but he definitely had me pegged. If it hadn’t been a question of law, I would have insisted.
So I submitted, naked and ashamed, while they made a tiny cut that I barely felt at all. I glanced at the single drop of blood on my penis and jumped in the mikvah. After I had dunked my head under the water three times, I was a Jew.
These days, when the subject of my mother’s religion comes up in conversation with other Jews, I say, “She was an Episcopalian,” and then instantly follow it with, “but I converted.”
Because otherwise some jerk unfailingly says, “Oh, so you’re not really Jewish,” which I fucking hate.