This article was originally published in Tablet Magazine on June 16, 2009.
I found my son’s foreskin at tax time. It had been sitting at the bottom of my inbox for nearly a year, folded in a square of gauze that was tucked inside a letter-sized envelope then sealed in a Ziploc bag, all buried under a pile of invoices and bills I’d been avoiding. It had been there since the mohel handed it to me last June.
“What’s this?” I’d asked him the morning of his bris, still frazzled by the circumcision I’d witnessed.
“Nathaniel’s foreskin,” he answered as naturally as if he were announcing the score of a baseball game. “I bet you thought I was the only one who got a tip!” One common mohel foible is a tendency toward puns.
He explained that I was obligated, as the boy’s father, to bury the foreskin beneath a tree, returning it to the earth. If and when my son decides to marry, he can use branches from the tree for his chuppah. My wife, Jennifer, and I weren’t familiar with this tradition, nor had any of our Jewish contemporaries undertaken the task, though a quick online search shows it’s not altogether rare. The mohel seemed to think that the custom dated to the Exodus. As Moses and the Israelites frantically wandered the desert, he hypothesized, they had no time to bury their foreskins. So they just tossed them aside, apparently, whereupon the dust covered them. The tradition, the mohel said, pays homage to their struggle. The tree part is a modern addition, perhaps designed to appeal to an increasingly eco-chic constituency.
The mohel’s uncertainty notwithstanding, it sounded like a fine ritual, rich in circle-of-life symbolism and agrarian mythology, assuming one could get past handling bloody medical waste removed from a screaming eight-day-old’s penis. Jennifer and I decided to do it. But despite our best intentions we were swept up into the sleep-deprived business of raising a newborn and promptly forgot about the package. Then April rolled around, and I was forced to confront my inbox. That’s when I rediscovered Nathaniel’s 2008 deduction.
I stared at the bag, resolving to act on the mohel’s decree. But where to bury the foreskin? Like most New Yorkers, I don’t have a yard. Naturally, I took this deficiency to mean that the entire civilized world was an option. I drew up a fantasy list: a graceful banyan on Harbour Island, where Jennifer and I were engaged; a sturdy cedar near the Mohonk Mountain House, locus of the boy’s conception; a towering pine along the shores of Lake Michigan, where I spent boyhood summers. But each required an investment of time and money. And, as Jennifer pointed out, Nathaniel is a Brooklyn boy. After some deliberation we decided on Prospect Park, home to more than 30,000 trees. Finding one, we figured, couldn’t be that difficult.
I went to Home Depot to buy a digging implement. Though the Midwesterner in me was drawn to the titanium spading forks and motorized Toro tillers, I settled on a utility shovel small enough to fit discreetly into a messenger bag. (While there is no specific prohibition against digging in a New York City park, Section 1-04 of the Rules & Regulations of the Department of Parks & Recreation forbids “possessing any tools commonly used for gardening.”)
A week later, well after sunset, my dog, Sophie, and I crept furtively through Prospect Park. Though Sophie’s arboreal palate isn’t especially discerning, I thought her natural digging tendencies might come in handy. It was a dark and cool May night, and the park was nearly empty: a few stray joggers; some stalwarts finishing a moonlit Sunday soccer game; nobody, it seemed, who would arrest me. Ten minutes later we were in the “Nethermead,” a large rolling meadow near the center of the park popular among ultimate Frisbee players.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I searched for the right tree, trying to picture each candidate in 30-odd years, when Nathaniel might return to remove a few limbs. There were giant mature oaks whose branches seemed unreachable even with a ladder. There were tiny sycamore saplings surrounded by protective fencing. But there seemed to be nothing in between. I felt defeated. I let Sophie off her leash and continued to survey the area. The dog had more luck than I did: she spotted a brown squirrel and chased him to the base of what I believe to be a maple tree. It was full and vibrant, but its lowest branches hung nearly to the ground. This would do, I decided.
I glanced around to make sure I wasn’t being watched, then I pulled out the shovel and began digging into a patch of soil a foot from the base of the tree’s ash gray trunk. The curved blade hit the dry dirt with a crisp thwack. It felt good to be involved in a minor act of physical labor. Five minutes later I had a foot-deep hole. I used the tip of the shovel to taper the trench. Was this deep enough to keep marauding animals and curious rangers out? I had no idea, but I hoped so.
I removed the packet from the plastic bag and peeled back the gauze. The dried out 11-month-old foreskin was about the size of a guitar pick, and had the appearance of well-done bacon. I moved my nose closer. There was no apparent odor. I tied it up into a tight ball and knelt to place it into the hole. Uncertain as to protocol I muttered a short blessing—a combination of the Shema and a bit of Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm”—invented on the spot. Then I buried the sacred object, carefully replacing the dirt I’d removed. When the hole was full I patted the area down with the flat end of the shovel, then stomped it with my feet to make sure it was packed. I stood for a moment, gazing at the tree. I felt an odd mix of pride and paranoia over the secret mission.
As we walked away I grew worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the tree, despite urging Sophie to sniff and remember. I hastily drew a crude map, noting landmarks, penciling in walkways. The best descriptor I could come up with for the tree was “big and bushy.”
When Nathaniel comes of age I will pass this document onto him, at which point remembering the locale will become his responsibility. Perhaps he’ll want to take prospective marriage candidates to this spot. One day, I assume, he’ll return to snip some branches for his chuppah. I only hope that I’m home to receive the frantic phone call asking that I bail him out of jail for the crime of “abuse to trees” (banned by Section 1-04 of the Rules & Regulations, and rightly so). We’ll blame the mohel, plead for religious tolerance, and then agree to keep the arrest a secret from his mother.
Peter Hyman is the author of The Reluctant Metrosexual: Dispatches from an Almost Hip Life (Villard). His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate.com, and on NPR.