Bris-and-Tell

My brother-in-law-to-be on welcoming his son to the tribe.

You could say the Weiss women are a kind of Judaism onboarding collective. People meet them (there are four sisters), fall in love, and soon enough . . . start blogging about Judaism.

And so it passed that my soon brother-in-law — an Italian-Catholic firefighter who remodeled his marital home by hand and manages to do in a day what I accomplish in a week — converted to Judaism last year. 

This month, one Casey Weiss, wife of Doug, birthed a baby boy. So eight days after that, on this past Tuesday, Doug held his newborn son, and his little boy entered the covenant of Abraham. In less poetic language: the baby was circumcised.

The Torah says Abraham did it by hand on himself as a grown man. These days it is now done by a mohel — many are also rabbis or doctors — when a newborn is eight days old. 

Reform Judaism, in doing away with many ancient traditions, wrestled with the bris. While they decided that Judaism could stretch to marry gays and allow men and women to sit intermingled, it could let kosher be a little lax and women could become rabbis (!), it could not bend on the foreskin issue. Abraham’s covenant with God could not be altered or abandoned. 

I tried to fight on this front too: I always thought and still feel that babies are born perfect. The men in my family are not circumcised (sorry, I didn’t clear that line with the men but I asked mom! Too late!). In coming to terms with this part of Judaism, I tried to think about the healthful aspects of it — very healthful, yes (I lived in Swaziland for a year, and some of my closest friends there were working on a pro-circumcision healthcare campaign, since it helps stave the spread of HIV). But there are arguments on the other side of this, too.

I talked about it with my rabbi, Noa Kushner, a year or so ago. I emailed to ask what she told me, since I’d forgotten the words:

When people ask me about a brit (not ‘circumcision' but the word for covenant, an important difference) — if they are towards the beginning of engaging in Jewish life, I find it impossible to explain or convince. In short, my arguments probably make things worse: 

(a) We are commanded (b) It is one of the few truly men’s mitzvahs. Not insurmountable for women to take it on for their babies, just harder. (c) It is a reminder that the baby does not belong to the parents, but to God. It is a sacrifice in the most primal way.  

I think these explanations make a lot of sense. The bris reminds us that a child is not owned by parents but part of a bigger community and history. Also, let’s be honest, there are parts of every religion that just require a leap of faith.

Rabbi Kushner wanted me to add: Please explain I am actually very nice and, more importantly, Jewish life overflows with lovingkindness. And I would like to add: please direct all intactivist mail to nellies.fake.email@gmail.com, where it will be carefully read and responded to individually. 

But in truth nothing quite worked to sway my heart on this except one very important Jewish phrase, a bit of wisdom I think of often: Shalom Bayit, domestic harmony, good relations between members of the family. Bari gives me things: our kids will have my last name, and she gave me California, at least for now. I can give her the bris. It’s sort of an old village barter system in our home. 

As years have passed and I’ve become more Jewish through life and study, I’ve begun to understand this very ancient, very fundamental ritual more. However, as I don’t have this body part nor do I interact with it much, nor do I have any of these hypothetical sons, this week’s guest columnist is … the one …. the only …. Doug Frisbee:


Doug “Dougie” Frisbee fast facts:

Bio: Age 31, born in Pittsburgh

Work: Firefighter/EMT

Jewish journey started with: meeting Casey Weiss. Doug was working at a beloved Pittsburgh pizza joint, Aiellos. Casey lived in an apartment upstairs.

Converted with: Rabbi Seth Adelson at Pittsburgh’s Beth Shalom in 2020

I became a Jew in September after a year of study. For a select group of individuals, I may not classify as an authentic Jew. My mother is not Jewish, my father is not Jewish, and I had a conservative conversion. Here I think of the story of Ruth, the first convert to Judaism. For that reason I chose the Hebrew name of Yishai, Ruth’s grandson.

I chose that name knowing I would soon become a father to a family of my own.

Even before I became a Jew, I’ve always been very moved by the way that Judaism approaches matters of life and death. It is done with such care and precision. But observing it and being a part of it are different. Especially when it’s your first son.

The ritual of bris was an honor. I used that term not in the sense of honoring the Jewish tradition — though it was — but it was really exciting knowing my son is now officially born into such a sacred tribe. Being converted, I feel like I’m part of the tribe, but having your first born son born into it feels even better. He’ll know these stories from the beginning.

He will know that Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, Isaac. God told him he had to, and so Abraham was about to do it. God saw that he was so devoted and then God gave him instead a ram. And he commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and all the men in his family. Giving the foreskin is a symbolic offering of giving yourself to God. 

I was already circumcised before I converted, so it wasn’t a big deal for me. And I wasn’t scared on Tuesday with our son. I don’t want to make light of the tradition, but I’m a very goal oriented person, so I’m just like, ‘Ok this is the next step, let’s get it done.’ A lot of parents are nervous, but for me it was exciting.

Everyone who could be was in the room.

My stepdad is a Jewish guy, but he doesn’t practice Judaism really. He kind of let his religion go. Now, giving myself and my son the honor on Tuesday brought him back in. He put a kippah on for the first time in 25 years. He was able to carry Kobi out. That meant so much.

I know my son is Jewish no matter what, but being able to do all of this as a Jewish father felt important.

We named our son Kobi, in English, after Casey's maternal grandfather Kyle. And in Hebrew, Yaakov Chaim, after her paternal grandfather, Jack, who had the same Hebrew name.

Casey’s Dad said something at the bris that I loved. He talked about when a rabbi was asked for a reaction on the 750th anniversary of the great scholar Maimonides’ death. The rabbi responded: “This is the first time I've heard that he is no longer alive.”

Our ancestors live through us. They never truly die if we live by their wisdom and our example. It’s our job to teach those values now to our son.


Doug’s words close us out.

As always, tune in every Thursday night for a new installment. Join as a paying member if you want to encourage this effort. Here’s some press coverage of this little project. Special shout out to Bari for the free editing work I force her to do if she wants to stay in this house. Weekly reminder: Give tzedakah to someone in need and this week make it actual money, maybe it’s $50 randomly to a friend who you know is short on work. And converts, send me more essays for Convert’s Corner! The ones I’ve gotten are incredible.

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