This week The Week (March 16, 2007) features an excerpt from Neal Pollack’s book Alternadad. In it his wife and mother battle over his newborn son Elijah’s foreskin. Neal’s mother wants it cut off as a sign of Neal’s loyalty to the Jewish people. Neal’s wife, who does not belong to that people, wants it left where God put it. Neal’s account of the matter shows how insipid and insane Jewish life has become for many Jews.
Responding to Neal’s concern for his wife’s wishes, his mother says, “You’re wife is immaterial here.” Not only is his mother heartless, she is totally wrong. Neal’s wife has everything to do with this. She isn’t Jewish, hence baby Elijah isn’t Jewish, hence his penis is none of Bubbe Pollack’s concern.
True, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaisms allow for patrilineal descent, meaning that a baby born to a Gentile mother and raised as a Jew can claim Jewishness through the father. But, as will be evident in a moment, the Pollacks case does not apply.
What really matters to Neal’s parents is not Judaism but emotionalism. Bubbe and Zayde Pollack threaten to disown baby Elijah (at which point I would have told them to fuck off and hung up the phone), but they themselves don’t practice Judaism seriously, their son had a wedding that was in his own words, “deliberately, almost absurdly secular,” and they never seek out a rabbi to help with this matter. The real issue here is this: Who does Neal love most, his wife or his mother? While this alone makes clear how Jewish Neal is, it has nothing to do with Judaism itself.
As any Jewish boy will tell you, mama always wins, and Neal in fact has his son circumcised. But if cutting off foreskins made a boy Jewish millions of Muslims men would be Jews! Circumcision only matters Jewishly in the context of a bris (Covenant), a religious ceremony. The Pollacks, however, don’t have a bris and opt for a medical procedure instead, leaving them with a Gentile baby without a foreskin! The fact that they never had a Bris shows that they have no intension of raising Elijah Jewishly. All they want to do is make mama happy. And it won’t stop here.
I sympathize with Neal, but he’s a wimp. He stood for nothing. Baby Elijah will continue to be a political football that Neal’s parents will use to control him and isolate his wife. Neal’s marriage is doomed. I’m serious.
If Neal and his wife had come to me for advise I would have said this, “This is what you get for marrying spouses with living parents. You have only one hope. Sit down and work out your religion for yourselves. Become Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, or make up something that is satisfying to the two of you. Decide on what is important to you, not to your parents. Then teach that to your son. And if your parents don’t like it, threaten to keep Elijah from them. They will fold faster than you did.”
Now you know why I left the congregational world.