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Gonna Make You Bleed
I grew up as Jewish as an Ohioan could, which was not very. I gained an affinity for corned beef on rye, Hebrew National hot dogs, and saying soda instead of pop. But food aside, religion and me weren’t best friends. I attended Hebrew and Sunday schools thrice a week, but I spent more time watching the digital seconds dissolve on my Transformers watch than learning my alef, bet, vets. I attended synagogue, but only during Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, the Super Bowl and World Series of holidays. Nevertheless, I considered myself a full-on Jew–I had the nose and could spin a dreidel. So when my parents–three weeks before my bar mitzvah–told me I wasn’t really Jewish I was, most assuredly, shocked.

I was sweating Super Mario Brothers’ final level when my parents summoned me to their bedroom with a "Joshua Michael." The first and middle name? I hurried in. With my mom seated beside him on the bed, my dad, a doctor accustomed to informing patients he must amputate their limbs, started explaining.

"You know that your mother was raised Catholic and I was raised Jewish, right?"

I nodded.

He continued, "Well, when you were born Mom hadn’t converted yet, and in Judaism, as the rabbi told us, religion is passed through the mother. We didn’t think it was that big of a deal because you were circumcised, but the rabbi’s making a big stink. He won’t do your bar mitzvah unless you convert."

I nodded again.

"So, to satisfy the rabbi’s demands," my dad continued, "you need to undergo a symbolic ceremony and get into a mikveh."

A mikveh, as my dad explained, is a pool of water conforming to rigid religious specifications, like a holy wading pool. Mikvehs have three common usages, none of which involves playing Marco Polo:

Semites take a tevilah (immersion in the waters) when craving a spiritual jolt, akin to Don Ameche and Wilford Brimley in Cocoon.

Jewish women abstain from marital relations during menstruation, stepping into a mikveh when their periods run their course. Afterward, coitus fills many a Hebrew household.

Lastly, wannabe Jewish converts, otherwise known as proselytes, use the mikveh as part of the conversion ceremony.

Like a sci-fi movie stolen from the 50s, I Was a Teenage Proselyte.

If raised as a Reformed Jew, then this proselyte business would be for the birds. Reform’s only Judaic requirement is that a child be reared engaging in acts identifying with Judaism. You know, like watching Yentl and adoring Woody Allen. Unfortunately, Orthodox and Conservatives–my sect–a touch more than scarfing potato latkes.

For girls, it’s cake to convert. All that’s required is a tevilah supervised by a Bet Din, or three-man court of hyper-religious Jews, rabbis or not. After that, it’s hello Hanukkah. For what boys experience, though, sadomasochists would gladly trade their favorite riding crop.

Immersion in the mikveh is also requisite, as is a brit milah, a legal circumcision performed by a mohel, a person of Jewish faith ordained to do circumcision. If a boy already has the cuttin’, then a symbolic ceremony, the hatafat dam brit, is his ticket. My foreskin resided in a decomposing biohazard bag somewhere in upstate New York, so the latter would, as my dad explained, be my path. It seemed simple, but I was missing one point:

"Dad, what’s the symbolic ceremony?" I asked.

My father wiped his brow, glanced at my mother–a wonderful woman, but averse to any movie above PG-13–and slid the heavy artillery into place.

"Josh, you’re not going to like this, but during the hatafat dam brit…," he trailed off, beginning anew. "During the ceremony, they need to draw a drop of blood. From your penis. And then the mikveh, the pool I told you about? Well, you can’t wear your bathing suit. You have to take off your clothes and get in the water and say a few prayers while Rabbi Fox and the Bet Din watch."

Well, hello Judaism!

I looked at my mom. She was eluding eye contact, examining her hands like her cuticles contained life’s secrets. Puppy-dog eyes couldn’t get me out of this one. So I needed an out, for more reasons than a man would soon make my penis bleed. I’d just turned 13, right, and that meant hormones were rebelling against every synapse. Zits festered, body odor emanated, and, most disconcertingly, hair sprouted from my crotch. My crotch, the place where they’d be releasing my precious blood from my precious penis just starting not to look so precious. Oy, vey!

"Josh," my dad continued, "we’ve already arranged it. The ceremony will take place tomorrow morning. Jon, Becky, and your mother will be converting too, so it won’t just be you."

Misery loves company, but I was damned if my mom, dad, 7-year-old brother, and 10-year-old sister were going to see my budding penis and the hair creeping around it. I couldn’t imagine the ribbing my parents would lay on me. These were the same folks that laughed when I shat myself–a slick, fetid diarrhea soaking jeans and underwear alike–in the family minivan following a failed affair with cashew chicken. Yes, I had to get rid of my pubes.

After the talk, I retreated into my bedroom and devised a plan. They won’t know I’ve started puberty, I surmised, if they don’t see any hair! Praise youth’s cognitive reasoning! I’d shaved nary a follicle but I’d watched many a Gillette commercial, so I felt confident in my decision. That night, as my parents cooked lasagna, I stole into their bathroom and borrowed my dad’s razor and shaving cream. Extra aloe for extra sensitive skin.

I snuck into my bathroom, lasagna wafting toward my nose, and locked the door double tight. I dragged my acid-washed, French-rolled jeans down to my ankles and surveyed the situation; a scraggle of wiry, black pubes about one inch in length covered the flesh directly above my penis while a wispy smattering populated my testicles. I sprayed shaving cream into my palm and slathered my delicates. When they were good and foamy, I took razor to skin. After five careful, cut-free minutes, all hirsute evidence was eradicated. It was a feeble salvo in an impossible war, but at the moment I felt like the 12-year-old I was two months ago.

The next morning, after a night of jittery sleep, my family somberly piled into the minivan. As we trekked off I envisioned a 40-day and

40-night trip filled with winding roads, switchbacks, and a gated entrance guarded by a gigantic Jew clad in chain-mail tallit and toting an uzi, the Israeli army’s weapon of choice. I imagined the mikveh residing in a synagogue-esque structure replete with stained glass images of a wrathful God. Instead, after driving through several suburban subdivisions, we arrived at a dilapidated former farmhouse one-half mile from several gas stations and a Jiffy Lube.

Upon walking into a large foyer colonized by antique sofas and ottomans, my mother and sister met a female attendant who was to supervise their tevilah. Since my mom and sister needed provide no sacrificial blood, they headed straight to the mikveh. Rabbi Fox, our congregation’s leader, met my father, brother, and me. The rabbi, clad in a two-piece suit and tie, led us into a side room bare except for mauve carpeting.

Two other men–Dr. Greenbaum (an older, bearded gentleman) and Chad Trabitz (a younger, similarly hairy gentleman), both fellow synagogue-goers–were in the room, completing the Bet Din. Following introductions, Dr. Greenbaum disinfected the needle (a common sewing implement) and explained where he’d stick me. But I heard nothing; the needle’s glint made his words go the way of Charlie Brown’s teacher. My focus was on my penis, envisioning the steel bisecting the shaft and severing the vas deferens or seminal vesicle or another term Mrs. Giessler taught–and I thought I forgot–in sex ed the year before. My urethra worries, though, were smashed by Dr. Greenbaum’s voice. "Joshua, could you please lower your pants."

Many 13-year olds would try to act tough, but I wasn’t one of those kids. I began baw-ing as I pulled my pants and tightie-whities down around my thighs, revealing the fruits of my shaving. My dad and brother looked away, but three awfully Jewish men started examining my bald crotch. Something must’ve been amiss, because the painful situation turned excruciating.

Dr. Greenbaum handed me a wet washcloth and asked, "Would you mind cleaning yourself?" I flew into hysterics. In the past 24 hours I’d showered and been shorn; how hygienic did the Lord want my penis? Tears racing down my cheeks, I accepted the washcloth and gave my pubis a few cursory swabs.

The good doctor then grasped my limp rod in hand, pinched some skin slightly below the glans, and grabbed the needle. Like a fencer lunging, he pricked my bunched foreskin and squeezed until a dollop of blood oozed from the minute hole, dotting my pink flesh red.

"When that happened," my dad told me years later, "I learned just how well you could curse."

Once I’d staunched my curses and Dr. Greenbaum did the same for my blood, which meant pressing the washcloth against my member, I tucked myself back in and pulled up my pants. When my brother stepped up to bloody bat, I couldn’t bear to watch. I gazed out a window and the sniffled, surveying gas station attendants doing gas station things while Jon’s screams reverberated across the room. After he was good and pricked, all that remained was a plunge in the mikveh’s God-approved waters

he tiled room, with the baby-pool-like mikveh in the middle, could’ve been a gay bathhouse or low-budget spa, depending on one’s tendencies. On the rabbi’s command, I stripped and stepped into the mikveh. The water rose to my nipples, immediately turning them into erasers. My teeth started chattering and tears again welled, but no kind words came my way–this was Jew-makin’ time.

"Please immerse yourself and chant after us, Joshua," Rabbi Fox said as he and the Bet Din broke into prayer like a 60s Hassidic doo-wop group. I submerged myself, the world momentarily muffled, and when I arose "Baruch ata adonai…" filled my water-clogged ears. Off-key and off-word I followed, as heaving sobs didn’t permit perfect enunciation of the hard H. Who knows who–or what–I was praying to?

I must’ve prayed to the right savior, though, because after 15 prayer-filled minutes Rabbi Fox called me forth from the mikveh. I climbed out of the pool and stepped toward him, water plip-plopping to the tiled floor, and he clasped my nude frame tight, crumpling his suit in all the wrong places.

"Congratulations, my son, you are now one of us," he said. "Judaism is the most important gift you’ll ever be given. Cherish it forever and honor all its commandments."

I only wanted to cherish my underwear, but I stayed locked in his grasp and blathered that I understood. When he released me, I walked over to my clothes and, not toweling off, dressed my new Jewish body.

But Hanukkah candles were not aglow in my head and the prayers were as obtuse and foreign as always. Instead of feeling more Jewish, all I felt was shame–my rabbi had seen me naked before Jennifer Kuklok, my seventh-grade girlfriend, ever had a chance.

I walked back into the foyer where my parents and sister waited while my brother took his naked turn. Having had enough for one day, I wordlessly headed out the door and dumped myself on the curb. Head in lap, I tenderly patted the spot where Dr. Greenbaum’s needle had made its point. Some time later–it could’ve been two minutes or 20–my family walked outside. We climbed into the minivan and began motoring home.

The minivan devoured the road, passing a seamless blur of convenience stores and car dealerships and grocery stores as my dad whisked our fully Jewish family back to a not-so Jewish neighborhood. When we passed a doctor’s office my weeping returned, but my dad quelled my outburst. Ever the optimist, he said, "You should feel lucky. At least they didn’t cut it off."

And, you know, he definitely had a point there.


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