Tomorrow is the Jack Benny anniversary of our son’s bris. How clearly each moment remains: the dread of anticipation, the joy at having family celebrating with us, exhaustion and uncertainty about this whole endeavor called motherhood. I was responsible for this new life. Eeegad! It was beyond me to imagine how that little being would grow into the amazing man, father, son, husband, grandson and friend he continues to become. Instead of writing any more, I shall leave you with the my recollection of that day. It is the opening story in my book, This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy.
And on the Eighth Day You Shall …
“And who’s going to be there to celebrate if we have a boy?” I was eight months pregnant and about to be transferred from New York to the wilds of the Midwest. I had just realized that if our first child was a boy, we would have only the barest handful of family at his bris. Our immediate family would make the spur-of-the-moment trip no matter when the eighth day fell, but my aunts, uncles and cousins wouldn’t travel from Manhattan to Michigan for a bris—nor would my husband’s 30 or so relatives who had watched my pregnancy with loving and not-too-overbearing interest. All of our friends would be left behind. How many caring friendships could be cultivated in 21 days—the time between our arrival in Michigan and my due date? I began hoping for a girl, even though I’d been getting “boy” vibes ever since the little blue circle had appeared in the glass tube seven months before.
But when the plane touched down in Detroit, a bris was the last thing on my mind. We had three weeks to settle in, unpack, scope out the grocery and drug stores, interview pediatricians and learn the shortest route to the hospital.
As it turned out, I did have one acquaintance: a woman I’d known briefly from B’nai B’rith Girls during my high school years in Atlanta, who now lived 10 minutes away. Our first weekend in Michigan, she and her husband threw us a party to introduce us to their circle of friends. Her friends were in various stages of diaperhood and warmly invited me to join their playgroups when I felt ready. There were few Jews in our neighborhood, but in a procedure reminiscent of the old Farmer in the Dell game, one introduced us to another until we had met them all. The couple from whom we’d bought our house kept in touch, even offering to take me to the hospital if my husband couldn’t make it home from work in time.
One morning I called a baby nurse recommended to me by our future pediatrician. “Lord, you called way too late,” she said when I asked if she could come 12 days hence. “But I will give you this: If you have a boy, don’t let anyone near him but Cantor Greenbaum. I’ve taken care of plenty of boys in my time, and Cantor Greenbaum does it better than anyone else.” Her well-meaning advice only reminded me that we knew barely enough people to make a minyan. I called the cantor and then, feeling lonelier than ever, hoped against hope I wouldn’t need his services.
I went into labor on my due date. Eight days later, Cantor Greenbaum showed up at the appointed hour. My friend’s friends and the neighbors we had met during the past few weeks arrived with cookies and cakes, bunting blankets and knitted sweaters. My grandfather was in classic form: Every few minutes, I heard the punch line to a Yiddish joke, followed by ripples of laughter. My stepmother had set up a wonderful brunch for us all to enjoy. Maybe living in Michigan wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
And then, all of a sudden, it was time. My grandfather held his great-grandson in our new maple rocker while the mohel chanted blessings over my son. Well into his 70s and feeling frail, my grandfather had been reluctant to participate so directly in the ceremony. I had insisted, as there was no greater honor I could give him than to make him sandak, the overseer, as our son was entered into God’s covenant with Abraham. I knew his strength wouldn’t falter.
I looked around the tiny room that was our son’s nursery and was overcome at the tableau before me: People who barely knew us had skipped work to be with us, to welcome our child into the Jewish community with fanfare and affection. The woman who’d sold us our house held my hand as the mohel made his dreaded cut. When my son wailed, my knees buckled. “Did you ever think you could love something so much?” she whispered to me, squeezing my hand. She had seen straight into my heart. Then, with shouts of “mazel tov!” drowning out our son’s cries, it was over. God’s pledge of loyalty to Abraham’s offspring now included our son.
Thinking back on that day, I am reminded of the passage in Exodus when the Children of Israel proclaim to God, “We will do and we will listen.” In the desert, they promised action and had faith that understanding would follow. In my own Michigan desert, the day of my son’s bris taught me the power of Jewish ceremony. It taught me the value of following ritual for no other reason than “just because.” It taught me that our tradition cherishes community, and that by embracing the former, we are richly rewarded with the latter.
© Debra B. Darvick