It is a cool and rainy spring morning on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I am standing in the changing room of a mikveh in the basement of a brownstone. The whole operation has an unexpected spa-like vibe, though you have to imagine a spa with fluorescent lights and linoleum floors, run by a middle-aged balaboosta. There’s a waiting room with potted plants and magazines, a communal space jammed with rows of makeup tables, private dressing rooms, like the one I’m in, furnished with shower and sink and full regalia of single-use toiletries. A maze of narrow, humid hallways. And everywhere, the smell of water.
I stand naked and a little nervous under a thin, white terrycloth robe. By naked I mean shorn of everything—not just clothing but glasses, wedding ring, a Buddhist-ish bracelet with bone skull beads that I like to wear, fingernails and toenails pared to the quick. Naked, as the saying goes, as the day I was born. And by a little nervous, I mean what I think of as a particularly challenging kind of nervousness, because in a moment a stranger will arrive to perform a symbolic circumcision.
I also like to think that I am standing naked before God. It only took the better part of a lifetime, but here I am—hineni—on the threshold of transforming from Jew-ish to Jewish. I was born a patrilineal Jew, Jewish on my father’s side, which in the eyes of some is not Jewish at all, and in my own eyes not Jewish enough. It is this neither-nor ambiguity, these decades of feeling not-quite, that I am here to resolve.
The journey to this moment started a half dozen years earlier, triggered by the confluence of three life-changing transitions: a divorce, the death of a beloved mentor, and the beginning of a new relationship, all of which peeled away layers of personas and habits until I could finally hear myself asking, who am I? In particular, the memorial service for my mentor had awakened something deep inside me; a cantor led it, and there was just something in what she said, and how she said it, that struck a chord. I tracked down her email, and she introduced me to her rabbi. And that rabbi cracked the door to a kind of wondrous and never-ending library of books and writers and ideas that I still can’t get enough of. Along the way, too, my Israeli-born girlfriend and I married, and soon enough it felt right to light candles for Shabbat and observe a new set of holidays.
Yet throughout those next few years of reading and studying, of learning my baruchatas and attending High Holy Day services, I struggled with an undercurrent of fret, obsessing over a growing conviction that there exists a you-are-or-you-aren’t Jewish binary. And I was on the wrong side. Because religion is only part of it. Being Jewish is also culture, history, language. Family. Soul. And blood. Yes, blood. Even Chabadniks, I noticed, with all their energetic outreach, confirm this. They don’t stand on street corners going, “Pssst!” to the passersby, saying, “Do you want to be Jewish?” No, they ask, “Are you Jewish?” The implication being, if not, keep walking. The times I do stop I feel it in their eyes: They know.
Nine months, auspiciously, before I found myself at the mikveh, I decided to sign up for a class hosted by a local synagogue, a kind of Judaism 101 designed to cover the basics and lead, for those who wanted it, to conversion. By this point I pretty much knew the 101 part; it was the possibility of converting that drew me there—this, maybe, could be the official declaration of Jewishness that I was craving. I’d dismissed the idea of a bar mitzvah. I felt too old, and besides, I understood it as a ceremony for people who are already Jewish. But even the idea of conversion opened up issues. Mainly, can you “convert” to something you kind of already are? Also, two recent teachers, one a retired Reform rabbi and the other a leader of a progressive shul, both told me I didn’t need to. What? Convert? You’re Jewish! Want something more? Go into a synagogue during services and have an aliyah—walk up to the front of the congregation and announce yourself. And that’s that. But I knew that my gut would never trust the “that’s that.” Too arbitrary, too easy. And who’s there to say you’re in?
Then, something serendipitous happened. During a call with the young rabbinic fellow who was leading the class, where she and I talked about the syllabus, about goals and expectations, about my background, and then touched on the whole knotty thing I had about conversion, she explained that I would, at the class’s end, be qualified to undergo a ceremony called an affirmation. As a patrilineal Jew I would be “affirming” my Jewish identity. All the wheels stopped spinning. I couldn’t believe it: This was exactly what I was searching for.
One day in April, with our class in its final weeks, without preamble, my teacher called and told me that she and her senior rabbi had an opening next month to perform the affirmation at a local mikveh. The thing that was somehow going to happen in the hazy future had arrived. She went on to explain the basics of what would happen, the dunking, the prayers. We talked about whether I wanted to choose a Hebrew name, but agreed that my own—David—was Hebrew enough. I asked about a beit din, a kind of oral exam with a panel of rabbis. No need, she said, not for an affirmation. (I felt slightly let down but let it go.) Then came the awkward question of circumcision. I told her I was, with my best matter-of-fact voice. She nodded, ready to move on, but I brought up something my retired Reform rabbi once mentioned: I’ve heard it’s required that medically circumcised candidates for conversion undergo a symbolic ritual circumcision, a hatafat dam brit. Do I need that?
She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no, and that’s when the doubts started. I pressed her for clarification. It’s really up to you, she said. Up to me? Things are different with an affirmation, she continued; it wouldn’t affect the outcome in any way. We kept talking until she sensed that I needed an answer she couldn’t offer, and she gave me the number of a mohel affiliated with the synagogue. Give him a call, she said, he’ll know more. Then you can decide.
He was easy to talk to on the phone, and sounded young, like a graduate student, focused and smart with a quick sense of humor. Within minutes we were discussing things—well, the thing—that I’d never talked with another soul about, the physiognomy of my penis. He asked if I’d originally been circumcised by a rabbi. No. Could I make out the site of the original circumcision? I had no idea (turns out I could, and it wasn’t where I thought it was). He then explained the procedure and told me what it would likely feel like, explaining that he knew it because—and this really reassured me—he once performed it on himself so he would be able to prepare, and empathize with, his clients. A sharp pinch, were the words he used. He also raised one caveat. Sometimes he’s unable to draw blood the first time around. Since the whole point is to show the presiding rabbi a bright red drop, if that happened I’d require a second prick, no pun intended.
He also said that he completely understood why I was wanting this, and though he didn’t exactly give me a high-five over the phone, he clearly approved.
And now there he was, softly knocking on my dressing room door. I’d met him earlier, in the lobby, where we had a meaningless chat while waiting, and now I stood in my ridiculous ill-fitting robe and disposable slippers and we both half smiled as he came in with his black leather bag, the kind a doctor might’ve carried in the days of house calls. From then on, he was all business. A folding chair appeared. He sat. I heard the snapping of latex gloves, the tearing of a sterile wrapper. In a quiet, serious voice he asked me to step closer and open my robe. I did. At this point I could feel my mind slowly leaving my body, as happens in a dentist’s chair, eyes staring, mesmerized, at a distant spot on the ceiling. Obviously he must have reached for my penis though I didn’t register it. A moment later he said something like “Ready?” which was immediately followed by a sharper-than-I-imagined-it-would-be pinch. For a moment the air fell still with hushed concentration. Then came the words I just knew I was going to hear: Sorry, we have to do it again.
A second pinch, sharper than the first. Another moment of pregnant silence, shorter than the first. Followed by words of success, something like “We did it.” He showed me a square of gauze with a vibrant red dot on it. So little, I remember thinking. Then he stepped into the hallway and I heard voices. Of course there would be an audience on the other side of the door, like members of a Renaissance court waiting to see a blood stain on the sheet after the royal wedding night.
Buoyed by the sense of relief that this part was over, the rest of the ceremony passed by almost too quickly. The senior rabbi, my teacher, and a third witness, the synagogue’s chazzan, led me, still in my robe and carrying a towel, feeling like the third character on the Abbey Road album cover, down another long hallway to the entrance of the mikveh itself, just beyond a privacy wall. At that point only the rabbi and I entered. The mikveh was like a small, deep, pristine blue swimming pool. There was a momentary scramble when I realized I’d forgotten to bring a kippah; the chazzan had an extra one and handed it to me from around the wall. Then the rabbi gave me my instructions: Immerse yourself completely under the water with no part of your body touching the walls or the bottom, come up, put on the kippah, and say a prayer. We’ll do this twice. He had a laminated card with two prayers printed on it, transliterated to help me read the Hebrew. I kicked off my slippers, dropped the robe—after the experience with the mohel, I had not an ounce of self-consciousness left—and climbed down the steps into a warm pool. With a quick hand stroke I forced myself almost to the bottom, and hovered there for a moment, feeling that rare skinny-dipping feeling of floating naked and free in a body of water. Then came up, doggy-paddled to the edge, put on the kippah, recited the first prayer with the rabbi, and then did it all over again. It was glorious.
Ten minutes later I was dry and dressed, and we were now all standing in that larger empty dressing room, joined by my wife, listening as my teacher read a declaration certifying my affirmation, first in Hebrew and then in English. The witnesses took turns signing it, and presented it to me with hugs, handshakes, and a few tears. So this was officially it.
I felt changed on the walk back home. Truly. Unlike so many experiences, this one lived up to my expectations. I knew that in the eyes of some I was still not quite Jewish enough, despite the hatafat dam brit. To be reminded of it, I need only to look at my certificate: signed by a woman as well as the men, each affiliated with an unaffiliated liberal synagogue—hardly a prescription to be welcomed by the Orthodox. But in my eyes, and, I believe, in God’s eyes too, I was all good: I was Jewish. We made a covenant. The ancient covenant. A line from Exodus drifted through my head: “A bridegroom of blood you are to me.” Exactly.
And that pinch, it actually lasted for the next day or two, persisting as a kind of phantom uncomfortable sensation. The mohel hadn’t mentioned that, but every time I felt it, it made me happy.
David Schiller is the author of The Little Book of Zen, See Your Way to Mindfulness, The Little Book of Prayers, and other books.