I understand the world doesn’t usually think much about adult male circumcision. It’s like having a chat about ball trampling or the Pentagon’s Kevlar underwear. Even on the covered-wagon side of the circumcision wars, where people fight for the foreskins of baby boys, no one wants to talk about grown men getting their corn shucked. Take it to Craigslist, please.
I get all this (and so much more). And yet as someone who knows the sting of this particular ritual—who volunteered for it, in fact, and signed his own check to the part-time reaper who did the job—I have to say: It’s not so bad. There’s no need for any of us to go on treating our junk like our father-in-law’s scratch-free Ferrari. It’s much tougher than you think.
I came to this knowledge on the way to the altar, of all places. I was engaged to a nice Jewish girl, taking some free conversion classes at a big, progressive Manhattan synagogue. I wanted to learn about something that mattered to her, and the more I learned the more it mattered to me, too.
This wasn’t a fur-coat-in-summer kind of congregation. It was part of the Reform movement: only game for the high holidays, mostly casual about pork, always down with gay female rabbis. When one of my own rabbis (gay, female) slipped me the number of a mohel, a professional snipper, I laughed it off: classic Jewish humor!
Medically speaking, I was already circumcised, along with most of the other babies born in America in the Eighties. But that’s no good for God. I needed a hatafat dam brit: a drawing of blood. To remain uncut, I was told, is to remain spiritually cut off from the Jewish people. That’s the idea of the “covenant.”
While bloodletting has always been a condition of the Orthodox and Conservative wings of Judaism, Reform congregations have been willing to welcome the sexually sheathed and uninjured. Biblical law doesn’t require otherwise. Neither do most of the arguments of the Talmud. But a funny thing happened on the road to gay, female, pork-friendly Judaism: The Reform movement began to ask more people to put some skin in the game. “In an era when the forces of cultural assimilation pose such a daunting challenge to our continued existence as a distinct people,” Rabbi Mark Washofsky explained in an essay in Reform Judaism, the official magazine of the movement, in the fall of 2008 (also the season of my snip), “this admittedly ancient tribal custom bears a message that we do well to hear.”
That’s how I found myself Biblically nude in a kind of spiritual locker room, a shower space in a converted brownstone, waiting on a man with a razor. The surroundings were civilized, more University Club than Russian Bath House. Blue-black tile ran along the floors and climbed the walls. A minty scent hung in the air.
But all noise had already washed away in the roar of my thoughts. I was 12 when Lorena Bobbitt cut her husband down to the size of an elevator button, igniting prurience and anger. It was hard to get to seventh grade in the morning without encountering Slice soda jokes and “Love Hurts” humor. It all made the very idea of external genitalia seem, well, kinda crazy, all of it so fundamentally exposed.
When the mohel arrived, he looked, I’m sorry to say, like Danny Devito in curls. We stood in silence. I opened my towel. Hello, groin. He opened a shaving bag with glinting instruments. Hello, knife. My mohel produced a pen-sized lance, which he wielded ever so gently, like Lady Grantham with a paring knife. He sliced, sliced, squeezed, dripped, and was done. The whole transaction was over in seconds, long before I could scream, or faint, or decide if I liked it.
Instead I felt the way I remember feeling as a child when, rising early, I could watch light fill the woods behind my house, revealing nothing at all scary. When the mohel finally spoke, he spoke in Hebrew and I couldn’t make out a word of it. But I had the feeling that the substance of his words was important and that if I could understand him I would be in the possession of something profound, a message from God: It’s only a penis.
Tony Dokoupil is a senior writer at NBC News. His book about the outlaw age of marijuana and his family's place in it, The Last Pirate, was published by Doubleday in April.