“And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Vayikra 12:3)
Uncle Sol claims to have over a hundred bris jokes. More than half are in Yiddish. Some I don’t really understand. (“Cut off twice and still too short.” What does that even mean?) Most cannot be written in this story. I mean, hey, kids read this column, you know. But maybe I can tell one.
A man is looking to buy a clock, so he goes to the shopping area of his local town and he finds a store with a clock in the window. He goes inside and says to the proprietor, “I’d like to buy a timepiece, please.”
The store owner says, “I’m sorry, I don’t sell clocks. I’m a mohel.”
“A what?” the man asks.
“You know, a mohel. I perform Jewish ritual circumcisions.”
“Really?” the man asks, “Then why do you have a clock in the window?”
“What should I have in the window?” the mohel asks.
That Uncle Sol. Incorrigible.
But I digress. The Slamowitz bris was not going well. They probably should have called the whole thing off as soon as the caterer forgot the cream cheese. No, I’m serious. He forgot the cream cheese. I understand that at these newfangled brises you have things like pancakes, scrambled eggs and croissants, but if you can’t have a decent bagel and lox, what’s the point? And the cream cheese is the mortar that holds it all together. Sure, there was butter, but if you think that’s OK, you’re missing the point.
The father fainted while the mohel was doing his job. I’m not lying. He hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. Thank God he wasn’t holding the baby. I guess that’s why he went to law school. Blood is clearly not his thing. The sandek holding the baby was the baby’s grandfather on the mom’s side. He’s a periodontist, so he was fine. Truth be told, he was a rock. The father, though, not a pretty sight.
Then there was the thing when they named the baby. The rabbi read the prayer they say at a bris. Then when they got to the naming, he said:
“And let his name among the people of Israel be called…”
“Shimon,” the recently revived father said.
“Eh?” the bubbe—the periodontist’s wife—intoned. “Don’t you mean Shmuel?”
“No, Mom, he said Shimon,” the baby’s mother said.
“Really!” the bubbe said. I guess she was expecting the baby to be named after somebody in particular. But needless to say that was a bit awkward. The whole thing kind of fell apart after that—although if you ask me the whole cream cheese thing wasn’t helping. Everyone went downstairs to the social hall for the meal, but you could feel the tension in the room.
The father got up and gave a speech, thanking everyone for coming, explaining the baby’s name, and telling his wife how much he loved her. But he was never much of a speaker—I couldn’t even understand him at his wedding, and then he had a microphone! And on top of everything else he was still a bit woozy from his previous nose dive during the bris ceremony. I actually have no idea what he said.
I think Rabbi Goldfarb saved the day. He is always such a good speaker. Always from the heart. I think all I’ll remember from that morning was his beautiful speech. Well, that and the fainting. And the whole naming fiasco. And the cream cheese, of course. I mean, butter, really?
Rabbi Goldfarb has this high-pitched voice—kind of like Truman Capote. I think that’s what helps him sing like an angel. But he can carry a room, let me tell you.
“It is such an honor for me to be here for little Shimon’s bris. I remember his father’s—”
Yes, he spoke about his history with all of the Slamowitz family, and how he spoke at the father’s bris, too. But what really got me was what he said at the end.
“The true name of a bris is a brit mila. That means the covenant of circumcision. For Jewish men it is a sign of identity, the mark they carry for the whole of their lives. It is a state of being, rather than a state of doing. It testifies to membership in the Jewish people.”*
Then he quoted Maimonides who said that “circumcision is a unifying mark that links us as a nation in the most ultimate, existential way.”**
Wow. That’s powerful. I’m really not sure what that means, but it deeply moved me. It made me realize that the only important part of the whole morning was the actual circumcision of this 8-day-old boy that brought him into the Jewish people. The rest is window dressing.
The periodontist zayde said a few words after the rabbi, and that kind of reunited the family after the whole naming snafu, so all in all I think it was a successful morning.
I really think the rabbi brought it all together for me. Brit mila is a unifying experience for the Jewish people. Still, I will leave Uncle Sol with the last word:
What is the technical term for an uncircumcised Jew who is more than 8 days old?
*Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Covenant & Conversation, Leviticus: The Book of Holiness,” pg. 165, Maggid Books, 2015.
** Rabbi Sacks, ibid, pg. 167, quoting “The Guide for The Perplexed,” III:49
By Larry Stiefel
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics who is dealing with a lot of matzah overdoses and assorted ailments this week.