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 werent
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 JewI had the nose and could spin a dreidel. So when
my parentsthree weeks before my bar mitzvahtold me I
wasnt 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.
know that your mother was raised Catholic and I was raised Jewish,
continued, "Well, when you were born Mom hadnt converted
yet, and in Judaism, as the rabbi told us, religion is passed
through the mother. We didnt think it was that big of a
deal because you were circumcised, but the rabbis making
a big stink. He wont do your bar mitzvah unless you convert."
to satisfy the rabbis demands," my dad continued, "you
need to undergo a symbolic ceremony and get into a mikveh."
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
take a tevilah (immersion in the waters) when craving a spiritual
jolt, akin to Don Ameche and Wilford Brimley in Cocoon.
women abstain from marital relations during menstruation, stepping
into a mikveh when their periods run their course. Afterward,
coitus fills many a Hebrew household.
wannabe Jewish converts, otherwise known as proselytes, use the
mikveh as part of the conversion ceremony.
a sci-fi movie stolen from the 50s, I Was a Teenage Proselyte.
raised as a Reformed Jew, then this proselyte business would be
for the birds. Reforms 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 Conservativesmy secta touch more than
scarfing potato latkes.
girls, its cake to convert. All thats required is
a tevilah supervised by a Bet Din, or three-man court of hyper-religious
Jews, rabbis or not. After that, its hello Hanukkah. For
what boys experience, though, sadomasochists would gladly trade
their favorite riding crop.
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:
whats the symbolic ceremony?" I asked.
father wiped his brow, glanced at my mothera wonderful woman,
but averse to any movie above PG-13and slid the heavy artillery
youre not going to like this, but during the hatafat dam
," 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 cant
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."
looked at my mom. She was eluding eye contact, examining her hands
like her cuticles contained lifes secrets. Puppy-dog eyes
couldnt get me out of this one. So I needed an out, for
more reasons than a man would soon make my penis bleed. Id
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 theyd be releasing my precious blood from
my precious penis just starting not to look so precious. Oy, vey!
my dad continued, "weve already arranged it. The ceremony
will take place tomorrow morning. Jon, Becky, and your mother
will be converting too, so it wont just be you."
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 couldnt imagine the ribbing
my parents would lay on me. These were the same folks that laughed
when I shat myselfa slick, fetid diarrhea soaking jeans
and underwear alikein the family minivan following a failed
affair with cashew chicken. Yes, I had to get rid of my pubes.
the talk, I retreated into my bedroom and devised a plan. They
wont know Ive started puberty, I surmised, if they
dont see any hair! Praise youths cognitive reasoning!
Id shaved nary a follicle but Id 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 dads razor and shaving cream. Extra aloe for extra sensitive
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.
next morning, after a night of jittery sleep, my family somberly
piled into the minivan. As we trekked off I envisioned a 40-day
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 armys 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
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 congregations
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.
other menDr. Greenbaum (an older, bearded gentleman) and
Chad Trabitz (a younger, similarly hairy gentleman), both fellow
synagogue-goerswere in the room, completing the Bet Din.
Following introductions, Dr. Greenbaum disinfected the needle
(a common sewing implement) and explained where hed stick
me. But I heard nothing; the needles glint made his words
go the way of Charlie Browns 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
taughtand I thought I forgotin sex ed the year before.
My urethra worries, though, were smashed by Dr. Greenbaums
voice. "Joshua, could you please lower your pants."
13-year olds would try to act tough, but I wasnt 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 mustve been amiss, because
the painful situation turned excruciating.
Greenbaum handed me a wet washcloth and asked, "Would you
mind cleaning yourself?" I flew into hysterics. In the past
24 hours Id 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.
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.
that happened," my dad told me years later, "I learned
just how well you could curse."
Id 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 couldnt bear to watch. I gazed
out a window and the sniffled, surveying gas station attendants
doing gas station things while Jons screams reverberated
across the room. After he was good and pricked, all that remained
was a plunge in the mikvehs God-approved waters
tiled room, with the baby-pool-like mikveh in the middle, couldve
been a gay bathhouse or low-budget spa, depending on ones
tendencies. On the rabbis 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 waythis was Jew-makin
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 didnt
permit perfect enunciation of the hard H. Who knows whoor
whatI was praying to?
mustve 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.
my son, you are now one of us," he said. "Judaism is
the most important gift youll ever be given. Cherish it
forever and honor all its commandments."
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
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 shamemy rabbi had seen me naked before Jennifer
Kuklok, my seventh-grade girlfriend, ever had a chance.
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. Greenbaums
needle had made its point. Some time laterit couldve
been two minutes or 20my family walked outside. We climbed
into the minivan and began motoring home.
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 doctors office my weeping returned, but
my dad quelled my outburst. Ever the optimist, he said, "You
should feel lucky. At least they didnt cut it off."
you know, he definitely had a point there.