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Dear Gillespie

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Amen, Amen, Amen: an interview with author Abby Sher photo

“It’s kind of a no-brainer for us.”

“I mean, if you want a list of mohels, I can email you one.”

“For me, it’s more of an aesthetic thing. I had this experience with a guy who wasn’t circumcised…have you ever played with a long water balloon?”

This was the discussion I had with a few friends last week – all of us in our last trimester of pregnancy. And while the water balloon image stuck with me on the playground the next afternoon, I still didn’t get the answer I’d sought.

Two years ago, my husband and I were doing the circumcision debate and wound up in a dead heat. Blessedly, on the last push he yelled, “It’s a girl!” We spent the first eight days of her life in a blissful haze. Our biggest concerns were whether I had the proper breastfeeding latch and if we should reheat more lasagna.

But here we are, almost two years later to the day, still undecided. And this time, even though we’re trying to keep the gender a surprise, even my midwife has called my bump a he. The only name we have so far is Gillespie, because I was so dizzy for the first few months, and now though I’m physically more stable, my mind is still spinning. Here are some of the arguments, opinions, and inconclusive statements from my husband, Jay and me.

Me: Well, it’s been proven circumcision is healthier. I have to check the WHO website but I’m pretty sure.
Jay: I think they’ve found studies both pro- and con- health wise.
Me: Then, how will you explain it to him if he looks different than you?
Jay: I can handle it.
Me: Okay, and there’s also….the covenant thing.
Jay: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

The Covenant Thing. Jay is not Jewish. Which doesn’t upset me, but it does challenge me. To be more aware and honest about my own beliefs. When I first met him, he called himself an atheist.

“But you must believe in something!” I insisted. When he asked me to clarify my own faith, I got defensive and nauseous. I’d spent most of my thirty years obsessive about my prayers and rituals and didn’t know how to distill the importance of the Shema and yahzreit, kissing the mezuzah and Friday night chicken into a pithy response. My relationship with G-d was and continues to be sacrosanct. Jay knows I pray every day for a half hour. He knows not to open the door or interrupt me with anything short of a five-alarm fire. But he doesn’t know exactly what I am reciting or how I am constantly trying to evolve in my daily practice and make it into more of a conversation. Though I take comfort in the Jewish traditions and consider matzoh ball soup the truest form of manna, I have Chungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron on my night table, not Martin Buber. I visit the yoga studio a few times a week, and the local temple a few times a year.

Jay’s spirituality has definitely grown in our years together too. Though he was brought up with his parents practicing many different traditions, and his father is now a minister for Unity for Peace, I think studying martial arts is what brought Jay to a stronger belief in a universal connection. I find it incredibly hopeful (and pretty sexy) when he talks about putting positive energy into the world so someone else can feel that space and possibility. I love that we can connect through shared ideas about the power and responsibility of human kindness even if we don’t agree on what lies Beyond.

And yet, our personal journeys with religion do not solve the problem of what to do with our son’s penis. Or do they?

In many ways, Gillespie’s birth feels like my chance to truly uphold my end of the covenant. My parents gave me this inheritance of Judaism, which for so long meant doughy challah, a crush on my rabbi, and a warm temple library where I could find quiet in between Hebrew school classes. The Berit Mila could give my son the support and possible enlightenment of a time-honored tradition. It could give him a sense of belonging and protection, whether he chooses to be actively Jewish or not.

Equally valid are Jay’s ideas that if we do circumcise our son, we are imposing our will on him. Jay feels strongly that whatever we do shouldn’t commit him to any one faith. But if we have a doctor circumcise Gillespie in the hospital with no ceremony, that feels even colder and more barbaric. And what about the sanctity of letting him choose?

I wish this could end in a neat verdict. But it’s more like a to be continued. My role as mother now means keeping this discussion open in my family. Learning to articulate what and why we have our individual beliefs. I used to fear that I would do wrong by G-d. That I would sin so irrevocably, I could never earn His forgiveness. I often still list my mistakes and offenses when I sit down to pray. But I do not believe in a G-d who punishes or excludes someone from His fold because of the shape of his penis. This is what I know clearly, and can say with conviction to all of my children: I believe in a G-d who is all-accepting and all-loving, finding the good in each creature and each blade of grass.

So here is my half of the conversation that I’d like to start, and I hope one day soon my dear boy can answer me if he likes.

Hi, sweet Gillespie. This will be a running theme throughout your life, but Mama’s confused. I want to do right by you but I’m not sure what that is and also what will serve you best in the long run.

The long run? That’s a good question. Well, it means the future, but who am I to predict anything farther than what’s for supper? My job as mama is to live in the present tense with a generous heart and trust. Trust that the world will keep spinning and I will learn from my mistakes and you will find your own relationship with faith and G-d, whatever that means to you. All the covenants and sacrifices and candles and even latkes passed down are reminders of this one essential truth.

So right now? This moment, as you roll your body under my skin and give me such giddy anticipation with your hiccups. Right now, I feel like I should circumcise you so you can enjoy this connection with your Jewish brethren. But I also feel that I should let you be the perfect, untouched creature of astounding beauty that you already are. Connected with all humanity through your steadily beating heart.

And I’m trusting that the answer will come clear soon.

Abby Sher is the author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying. To learn more about Abby and her book, visit  http://abbysher.com/ .

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