My son at the cutting edge
There were tears and tantrums the day Jack Shamash had his baby son circumcised. They mostly came from his wife
Thursday 17 December 1998
Five months ago my wife gave birth to a son, and we decided to have him circumcised. It was not a straightforward decision. Over the past few years, circumcisions have come to be seen as almost bestial. Campaigners against circumcision - and there are many - lament the barbarity, the trauma to the child, the loss of sexual pleasure for the adult and the lasting physical and psychological wounds.
The best-selling guide to childcare, Your Baby and Child by Penelope Leach, claims that some babies go into shock during circumcision, and that the procedure leaves some men with a life-long sense of being deformed. She says: "There is no possible good to balance out the probable harm."
I decided to disregard this advice and go ahead with a circumcision - not just because I'm an unfeeling brute, but because we're Jewish and that's what Jews do. And also because - to be honest - I think uncircumcised penises look funny, and I don't really want my son to look different from me.
Jewish circumcisions are done by mohels (special circumcisers), most of whom have no formal medical training. Jewish boys are usually circumcised at the age of eight days, so after the birth we had to work quickly. A friend of ours who had recently had a son recommended a mohel from Stamford Hill in north London - an area which has become almost a Chasidic ghetto - so we called him.
The following day, a large Renault Espace pulled up outside our door. Out stepped two fat men with long beards and forelocks. They wore formal garb. Black silk kaftans belted around the waist, white stockings and polished black slippers. On their heads were the large, fur hats known as shtreimls. They looked as if they'd come straight out of central casting.
The older rabbi was called Rabbi Ashkenasy - it seemed an impertinence to ask his first name. My wife asked whether the baby would suffer any pain. The rabbi dismissed this suggestion contemptuously. He seemed to imply that there was nothing a Jewish boy liked better than to have the end of his penis hacked with a blade.
He said the only problem was that the mothers often became agitated, and this could communicate itself to the child. "I tell you this," he said, "When I hand him back, he will be completely happy and peaceful."
The rabbi gave us his card - on the back of which was a shopping list of things we had to provide for the operation. They included a sterile dressing-pack, six packs of gauze swabs, five disposable nappies, cotton wool, a pillow, two prayer shawls, a bottle of Kedem Traditional Kiddush wine and an unopened bottle of olive oil. We also bought a tube of anaesthetic cream - although the rabbi told us it would have no effect.
The day of the circumcision arrived. For Jews, circumcisions usually involve a party - a bit like weddings or bar mitzvahs. I can't say I enjoyed this one very much.
The circumcision was held at my mum's house, which was packed with guests. We were late. My wife, Carol, dashed upstairs, and drank a large glass of whiskey - partly to calm her nerves and partly so that the alcohol in her milk would subdue the baby. She was too upset to face the crowds.
Half an hour later, the rabbi arrived with his assistant. They set up shop on a small card-table, bringing out bandages, surgical clips and beakers, as if they were about to perform a bloodthirsty conjuring trick.
I brought the baby downstairs. It is regarded as a blessing to help carry the baby to the circumcision, so he was passed through the crowd from hand to hand.
During the operation, it is traditional for the baby to be held by his Godfather. We had picked my wife's cousin Graham for this job. Unfortunately, Graham faints at the sight of blood. The rabbi assured Graham that he would be fine, so Graham sat there with a fixed smile on his face, imagining he was somewhere else.
The rabbi asked me what name I'd chosen for the baby. I told him we were calling him Nathan, which in Hebrew means "given". And then the rabbi called for hush and started chanting. As the rabbi recited the prayers, he grasped a clip from among the tools on the card-table and put it over the baby's foreskin, pulled it forward and, with a yank of his knife, the foreskin came off in one clean movement. The baby cried, blood flowed on to his penis and - as the rabbi had predicted - Graham did not faint. The rabbi then bent over the baby and sucked the wound.
I know this sounds awful, but it is part of the Jewish tradition. It's supposed to help the healing. He then gave the baby a few drops of kosher wine as a primitive anaesthetic.
The rabbi had lied to us. The baby was not at all happy and peaceful after the operation. He was in a horrible mood and whined intermittently for the next day or so. It was tricky changing his nappy - we used two nappies at a time to ensure that the wound wasn't disturbed. After a week, we were allowed to bathe the baby and the dressing floated off. His penis looked rather as one might have expected: a bloody mess. Over the next few days, the bruising went down and the penis began to look like a purple acorn.
Do I have any regrets? None at all. Nathan is a happy, lively boy. And his penis? It's delightful - just like his dad's.
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