March 14, 2005

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.

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10 Responses to My mother was Episcopalian when

  1. Brian says:

    First E.S. is lancing your lip, now the rabbi is slicing Little Faustus. (Or Big Faustus, I’ve not seen the evidence to make my own conclusion.) Freakish orgy participants I could handle – this blog is no longer for the squeamish!

  2. MzOuiser says:

    Wow. And all this time I thought you were a real jew! Being a hebophile myself I am disillusioned. However being a fag hag of sorts I’m used to being surprised. Most of all being a fan of great storytelling, I love you anyway.

    And if I convert to marry my boyfriend, at least no wrinkled old man will be taking a blade to any of my special parts. Sometimes it’s good to be a woman.

  3. Pam says:

    Ick. I’m not Jewish and I don’t have a penis but the thought of that brought a tear to my eye.

  4. Idyllopus says:

    Seven must be considered the age of accountability in spiritual matters. When I was seven I was baptized into the RC and had my First Communion, seven being a traditional age for FC (“I’m supposed to be thinking holy thoughts, why then am I suddenly picturing everyone naked? Mustn’t think, mustn’t think.”) It was a brief stint. When my husband was five he sacrificed his life to god in the Baptist church. We have the bible to prove it, that he knew enough about the world to make that commitment, at least so believed his parents and the pastor who thought it ought to be binding for life. My husband says it was the age when you knew you’d better do it or you’d start catching hell. Today my son Jackson Pollocked a wall with vanilla yogurt (it sets fast). When I asked him why, he said, “Hacker made me do it.” (We don’t have a devil around here and he doesn’t have a sibling so there must be a Hacker.) I have a hard time believing a seven year old can make a personal decision of faith and commitment–which is the difference between the RC and Baptists, the Baptists expect a five year old to make a personal decision while the RC just loves a parade. My son doesn’t like the idea of death because he will miss his PBS shows. If the SBC got hold of him they’d likely tell him there is PBS in heaven, dunk his delighted ass, then have him sign on the dotted line for the missionary fund. This will truncate, no doubt.

  5. Jalal says:

    I was circumsized when I was 11. Not a very good experience. It has helped me make sure that noone else I know doesnt get circumsized upon birth.

  6. sdf says:

    jalal: if circumcision was such a bad experience, why don’t you make sure noone you know gets circumcised at all (unless medically necessary)?

  7. Lux says:

    “Being even then a savvy consumer, I went to church a couple times, just to check out the competition.”

    Faustus, you are so freakin’ cool. How is it that you allowed yourself to be conned by Mephistopheles?

  8. i. bendito says:

    Humiliation. Mutilation. Submersion.

    God bless.

    And people gripe about the traumas of Catholic education….

  9. Andy says:

    Yikes! I had no idea that already circumcized men had to undergo a symbolic circumcision to convert…eep.

  10. Colin says: if I ever find out that a Jewish guys mom is Christian, my next question will be “Did you convert?” rather than “oh, so you’re not really Jewish.”.

    What is your opinion on circumcision for other than religious reasons?


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