|A fortuitous library book sale find.
Until that night, sitting there drinking BEER on the couch in B.'s dorm, the closest thing to an explanation I'd heard for the 90 percent circumcision rate among my American-born peers was a vague insinuation that my mother had made years before that foreskins were something found far from urban centers among the lowly and uneducated. She seemed to think that circumcision was a mark of sophistication, kind of like table manners or knowing how to say "chaise longue."
"You know why we're all circumcised, right?"
I let B.'s question hang in the BEER-fragranced air for a moment.
How do you answer a question like that? Of course I didn’t know why we were all circumcised. You grew up in America too, B. You know how it works. Nobody tells you why you're circumcised and you don't ask. You're supposed to pretend like you don’t notice. At least that was the cultural expectation that I had internalized by age 19.
Looking back though, it made sense that B. would have formulated a theory about America's curious history of male genital alteration. For one thing, B. was a hypochondriac. I mean a big time hypochondriac. He was one of these people who would go to a party and bring up one anecdote after another about visits to specialists and painful treatments for conditions that defied any kind of straightforward diagnosis. A delicate surgery in which bone harvested from his hip had been grafted onto his left wrist had appeared in a medical journal. He seemed to take a special pride in that.
No, B. was not the kind of person to bear any aberrant bodily condition quietly, and for B., as for me, having a dark scar on your penis where your foreskin was supposed to be was an aberrant condition. I never really thought about it at the time, but I think one of the reasons B. and I shared that perspective was that we'd both grown up in the midst of immigrant cultures that didn't practice circumcision. B. had spent almost his whole life before college in Miami. Many of his boyhood friends and classmates came from Cuba, their families having emigrated after Castro's revolution.
I waited until B. answered his own question. "It was the Jewish doctors," he said.
"The Jewish doctors?" I said. "How do you figure?"
"In Europe, if they wanted to know if you were a Jew, they'd pull your pants down. If you were circumcised, you were a Jew. When the Jews got to America, the Jewish doctors started circumcising everybody. That way, nobody could tell who the Jews were."
I thought of a book I'd read in my senior year of high school, Mila 18, by Leon Uris. It was about the Warsaw ghetto. I learned from that book that during the German occupation, the Jews in Warsaw used women as couriers, never men or boys. It was too dangerous for Jewish males to step outside the ghetto walls, because you never knew when a German soldier might tell you to pull down your pants.
The Jews, I thought. Maybe B.'s on to something. They are the people who invented circumcision, aren't they?
Then I thought of some of the other crazy ideas B. had. He thought that you could contract a fatal illness if you rinsed off chicken parts and then baked them without patting them dry first. I mean pat them all the way dry, leaving not so much as a droplet glistening on the bony end of a drumstick.
In fact, he seemed to regard eating in general as a life-or-death struggle against malevolent natural forces, kind of the way you might think about backpacking in the Amazon rain forest. He believed so strongly in the potential lethality of seafood, undercooked meat, mayonnaise and most fruits and vegetables that he lived almost entirely on prepackaged food. If it came in a box, he trusted it. I guess that's why we ate so much Rice A Roni.
You would think I would have treated B.'s Jew theory of circumcision a little more critically, but I didn't. I think part of me wanted to believe it. Not out of any feelings of anti-Semitism on my part. No. Just the opposite. I had a deep sentimental attachment to Jewish culture, particularly American Jewish culture. I'd seen every Marx Brothers movie, every Woody Allen movie, every Mel Brooks movie and "Fiddler on the Roof." I'd read Portnoy's Complaint, Goodbye Columbus and Oscar Levant's memoirs. I used to play Sophie Tucker 78s on my grandmother's record player.
I loved Sophie Tucker. She was like an older, more family-friendly version of my mom.
And then there was Mad Magazine. Mad was full of Jewish humor. I think that's where I learned most my Yiddish.
No, I think this crazy idea that circumcision had begun in America as some kind of vast Jewish conspiracy brightened my outlook a little bit. It was another one of those ideas that I could bargain with. My disfigurement had a purpose. A heroic purpose. It was camouflage for the Jews. It made America pogrom-and-Holocaust proof.
It was a comforting misconception, and one I might have held on to a little longer had a secular American Jew named Ed Wallerstein not published a book called Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy.