Saturday, July 09, 2011

The final cut

As the years have rolled on by, my religion has simply fallen away. Not that mum and dad were particularly religious. We were a jewish household but only really upheld some of the traditions. A day in the shule and some fasting for Yom Kippur. The first night passover seder with the soundtrack to Fiddler On The Roof playing and the hunt for the afikomen. After the mandatory four glasses of wine, mum would be up and dancing and trying to coax the rest of us up for a dance. It was always a fun night. And there would be honey cake and a plate of apple and honey to bring in a sweet jewish new year at Rosh Hashanah. But that was pretty much it. And to a degree a lot of the festive rituals became more a tradition of our family than anything that was necessarily common to any other jewish household. Dad always said that he liked the traditions and customs of judaism but was pretty much agnostic when it came to the religion part. I did my barmitzah when I was 13 and probably knew more about the religion than either of my parents. And I guess the only thing that ever really made me feel strongly jewish was any showing of anti-semitism. My grandmother had both of her parents and six siblings die in the concentration camp at Riga during the second world war. It was a very sobering thought as a child to know that if I had have grown up in that place and time that I too would have been crammed into one of those trains and sent off to a camp to be gassed. Nothing to do with what I said or did or felt, but just because of the religion I was born into. And the more I learned about religion, the more it seemed to be the root cause of so many of the world's troubles. The "we are right and they are wrong" mentality. So many wars. So many persecutions. And everybody so adamant that they knew the answer when it seemed more and more unfeasible to me that any of them really knew any definitive answers at all. "The jews are the chosen people" I was told when I was young and I was happy to believe it. It seems to me to be an attitude that should be adopted by all religions, just not in a way that excludes all others. "We're the chosen people, and so are they" seems a much better approach. I think "being chosen" gives a feeling of confidence to undertake almost anything. I have taken that feeling with me but have let everything else to do with the religion pretty much slip away. I haven't been inside a synagogue for years. The only reminder of the religion I grew up with is now really at passover time when we go over to Mum's place and I read the abridged version of the seder with my own interpretation of events. Questioning how the plague of blood actually manifested itself, what exactly a mixture of noxious beasts actually means and what kind of god would be so vengeful as to slay the first born of the egyptians regardless of what they had done to the jews. It seems such a fanciful story to me that I can't reconcile it remotely with reality, even though I have stood on Mount Nebo in Jordan with Bedouin goat herders and looked down on to Jerusalem, just as Moses was purported to have done some three thousand years ago in the story of exodus. My cousin, who grew up in a more religious jewish environment than I, told me that recently when he was reorganising his bookshelves, he had moved the religious texts down to the fiction section of his library. This is how I have also come to feel. So through my now secular non-religious life, the indoctrination of my youth raised its head for the first time in years with the birth of Finn. My first son. The question then came, should he be circumcised or shouldn't he? The saying goes that the jews are the most optimistic people on earth because they cut a bit of the penis off before they even know how long it's going to be. And so it is, that according to jewish law, a male child shall have the foreskin of his penis removed when he is eight days old. My parents, well my mother anyway, provided the expectation that "of course he will be circumcised won't he"? Not so much a question as a statement of desire. I wasn't so sure and began looking into reasons for and against. I hoped that I would find some good reasons "for" so that I could reconcile my logical feelings of what was right with cultural expectation that I seemed to have not shaken off as much as I'd thought. On the one hand I had the recollection of meeting a crusty bloke years ago at the pub in Mullumbimby who, on finding out that I was jewish, put to me "you're not going to butcher your sons are you"? He said that he had been circumcised at birth, even though not from a jewish family and felt in some way that it had mentally scarred him. He was looking into an uncircumcision operation where the remnants of the foreskin are stretched and coaxed into growing back to their original form. I suspect that he had a whole lot of other issues that had nothing to do with his penis, but the conversation stuck in my mind. Was I going to butcher my son because of some ancient custom? Was it really butchery? Were there any reasons that made it a good thing rather than bad? "It helps with resistance to the HIV virus", somebody told me. Finn's midwife Trish told us the tale of her brothers who had not been circumcised at birth, who had all had troubles later in life with their foreskins being too tight and so had to be circumcised as young adults. Ouch! That's got to be worse. But the most compelling evidence for circumcision came to me from a friend of Tori's. She had written a book on sex in which she interviewed a wide range of people on their sexual practices. She had found overwhelming evidence that women were more likely to give a blowjob to a man with a circumcised penis than to a man who was uncircumcised. How could I deny my new son the increased chance of being given head? Tori, from a very anglican non-jewish upbringing, had been very supportive through the whole process. She had let it be my call and I guess I found enough evidence that allowed me to justify my deep cultural historical reasons for having Finn circumcised. Even though he would never be recognised as being jewish anyway because his mother is not. And so with Finn only days old, living in the south of England, we went looking for somebody who could remove his foreskin. But no doctors seemed willing to perform this form of elective surgery. In the end we were directed by the hospital to a muslim man who performed circumcisions. Rather than the traditional jewish method of a drop of wine and a sharp knife, he used a glorified elastic band. "It will cut off circulation to the foreskin and it will drop off of it's own accord in a few days", he told us. Well this seemed a relatively painless alternative and so we gave him the ok. Tori felt bad about her new perfect boy having part of his body removed, but that night when we got him home things took a turn for the worse. While on the change table having a new nappy put on, things didn't look quite right. He seemed distressed and when he started to wee, liquid was squirting out as if from a multidirectional faucet. And he was clearly in pain. It was already around 10pm when we raced him up to the hospital. The guy who had performed the procedure in the morning met us and after examining Finn told us that one of the bands had broken and it had caused things to go wrong. He would now have to resort back to the knife and slice the foreskin off. Tori couldn't watch. I went in with Finn and pleaded to the doctor to ensure that he left my boy with a beautiful penis that the girls would love. He assured me that everything would be ok, but it was a horrible time. Finn screamed his lungs out in pain through the whole event, just as all boys do when circumcised. I mean, it's gotta hurt. My father had told me years before that he had cried while watching me scream as I was being circumcised and had threatened the doctor with physical violence. It's not a pleasant thing. This time everything worked fine, the offending piece of skin was successfully removed and I have no doubt that Finn's penis is as beautiful as anyone's. Hopefully it will attract much female attention and give him great pleasure throughout his life. But the other result of this horrible ordeal was that the last vestiges of religion in me were sliced cleanly away. I hated the fact that a custom created thousands of years ago had led me to this particular decision point that was contrary to modern medical opinion. I had found some reasons to justify my decision so that it felt more palatable, but when all was said and done I felt disappointed in the thought that perhaps I'd let down my son. Would he view me the way that feral bloke from Mullumbimby had and feel that I'd had him butchered? I certainly hope not. I've since reconciled this feeling to some extent by talking to Finn about it. And after all, I'm happy enough with my own penis and it has had the same treatment as Finn's. And so now, almost ten years later, here we are again. I have a new little boy and the same question needs to be answered. But now I'm a decade on from having had religion circumcised from my life like an unrequired piece of extra skin. And the answer is no. This time there will be no circumcision. I do have some reservations though. Nobody in my family has ever had a foreskin, so I have no idea of family history as to whether Kim's will fit properly or not. I guess we just have to hope that nature works properly. And will he have some kind of complex develop because he is in some way "different" from his father and his older brother? I guess that will be balanced by the fact that he will be the same as most of his friends. As for the blowjobs, I'm hoping that he'll be blessed with enough charisma and charm to have his fair share. It would be disappointing to think that he'll miss out in any way on that score.

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