Before we converted our bedroom into a nursery, my wife, Elettra, worked at an old wooden desk adjacent to the casement window with views of the Dolomite mountains. The room was on the third floor, the vista one of the many reasons we decided to relocate from the States to her childhood home in northern Italy. But on a clear and sunny and objectively pleasant day in September 2019, she was threatening to jump out that window.
Our son had been born not two weeks prior. At the hospital, Elettra asked the nurse about circumcision. (My Italian was non va bene; hers, being an Italian, was ottimo.) The nurse replied that the hospital did not perform circumcision unless it was a medical necessity. And this was not.
What I had not anticipated before our move to Europe, perhaps preoccupied by the food and drinks and lure of all things Veneto, was my desire to practice Judaism, if only on my own terms. But then my son was born, replacing my somewhat amorphous desire with a specific urgency.
Thus began two weeks of frantic searching, trying to find a place to have my son circumcised—and an even longer period of trying to find out what Judaism meant to me.
I used to feel antipathy and great reluctance toward Jewish traditions—the lighting of Shabbat candles, High Holiday observance, pivotal Jewish celebrations like bar and bat mitzvahs—in part because I didn’t see their value. The traditions were a burden.
I was raised modern Orthodox in Manhattan. My father was keen on practicing his religion as best he could. As a child he had often felt ostracized from his classmates, finding spiritual and religious refuge only at Sunday school or at home. Sending his children to yeshiva was, for him, a way to shelter us from the lonesomeness born of religious exile. As I grew, I watched my twin sister invest herself in yeshiva studies and, much later, join a Jewish sorority at a predominantly Jewish university, remaining part of the community and religion well into adulthood. She’d marry a kohen and uphold Shabbat. She turned her phone off and didn’t use the elevator in her apartment building during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But my connection to Jewish ritual had been severed when I left yeshiva to enroll in the middle school at a military academy after the attacks of 9/11. Even though the academy was “nondenominational,” we were made to visit chapel services each Sunday. In short order I learned about everything from which my father once tried to shield me. As I studied the Talmud and my bar mitzvah Torah passages at my desk during nightly study periods, held within damp and crowded barracks, I’d be interrogated by other cadets for being a strange “kike,” a word I’d not heard before. I found it impossible to eat anything substantive; there were hardly vegetarian options. So, shortly after my bar mitzvah, which took place during those first months at the academy, I stopped davening and wearing tzitzit each day as I had when I was at yeshiva. And while my family kept kosher, at the academy I’d given in to pork and king crab. Wanting to be patriotic in the wake of the terrorist attacks on my home city, I folded myself into an image of the majority white America for which I anticipated one day fighting. I began to feel about Judaism what my peers had: good for nothing and less-than. Meanwhile, my father watched as I slipped further from what religious and familial traditions he fought to preserve for our family.
After I graduated the academy my aversion to religion only became worse; for a time I believed myself agnostic and, in the spiritual kaleidoscope of psychotropics in college, a nonconforming, quasi-Buddhist or Phish head. I defended my Judaism if it ever arose from conversations about my last name, or when people asked where I’d gone to school and I told them a mix of yeshiva and military academy. I began to wonder how I might explain to my nieces or nephews or perhaps my own children my reason for nonpractice, something I could hardly articulate. The best reason I could muster internally was that I’d had the faith beaten out of me.
In my early- and mid-20s I went on in this way, watching my family’s faith and observance as a lone castaway, until I met Elettra. Before we were engaged, I made sure to ask whether she’d be willing to convert to Judaism. She said yes (she would convert from Catholicism to Reform Judaism). But we hadn’t practiced religion in any meaningful way. We’d gone to shul twice, lit the Shabbat candles a handful of times, and only glanced at a Jewish calendar when we needed to remember to plan Passover with my family. I found marriage to be the rebirth of my confrontation with Jewish heritage: I soon came to articulate that I desired our future children (were there to be any) to be Jewish by birth, if only to give them consistency. The point about circumcisions was mutually understood and never again addressed—until the balmy autumn day our son was born.
Finding myself in want of a spiritual and religious need came about, unexpectedly and rather suddenly, the moment I glanced up in the birthing room, my son writhing under an ultraviolet lamp, to notice Mother Mary looking down at us from that and every proceeding hospital room.
I began a frantic search for a mohel—a search that would eventually lead my wife to that window ledge: A quick search online for Italian circumcision yielded terrifying headlines about Muslim refugees accepting the services of pro bono circumcision doctors, almost always leading to botched procedures and death. I looked for Chabads in Venice and Milan, but found them cold and unwelcoming, in part because of the news about the deaths and me being an outsider journalist. I frantically contacted six doctors and six pediatric hospitals in Switzerland and France, many of which had conditions on the timing of the procedure, preferring to do it later, rather than shortly after birth. Rabbis I contacted were disgusted to learn I hadn’t married a Jew, discounting my wife’s Reform conversion as a sham and refusing to help. I kept emailing pediatricians in Zurich and Rome, begging my wife to intervene and help more than she already had. But she believed the circumcision was less important now, questioning why it had become such a big deal, adding: “I’m going to jump out of this fuckin’ window if you don’t show yourself the door.”
“But our son will have broken the covenant!”
It was the end of September when we found a mohel in Paris who could schedule the procedure for the second week in October. My father flew from Miami to Paris a day before the procedure. All the trouble made sense then, seeing my father go to great lengths to uphold Jewish tradition, knowing that we were carrying on something he long struggled to find, fellowship and faith in a world that often lacked both. Both the procedure and the ritual were important, and we’d have both, even if they didn’t happen on the eighth day.
If the military academy was the point at which I turned my back on Judaism, the event that brought me back was my son’s bris. I’ve a long way to go to more fully integrate the practice of Judaism into our lives, but isn’t religion a committed and continuous reinvention?
This year my son celebrated his second Hannukah, gleefully pronouncing the holiday “Honk-e-la.” His sister, nearly 1 year old, watched the dancing candles as I struggled with the prayers each night. Though we travel frequently, for work and recreation, my wife and I bought a travel Shabbat candle set, aside which I will begin packing the siddur given me on my bar mitzvah all those years ago, while I was still at the military academy. We’re also planning a move to a city with a bigger Jewish population and more opportunities to embrace a Jewish community.
Before my son was born, I had not quite fathomed what my life with Judaism looked like after so many absent years. Now it seems there can only be life with Friday nights of wine, candles, and Shabbat prayers, Saturdays spent away from electronics, and High Holidays at which to seed the stories and insights about a faith I’ve only just begun to reimagine and embrace.
Kenneth R. Rosen is a writer based in Italy.