My story doesn’t start with a Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t have one. Instead, it starts with my second circumcision.
I’m in a mikva... it’s a clammy, damp basement. It’s like a steam room without the heat. The process is simple. You pray, and then submerge in the ritual bath in the middle of the room, and then pray some more. One caveat is that your physical connection to the water must be uninterrupted by clothing, jewelry or contact lenses. So here I am, naked and blind, while the fuzzy figures of the beit din, three fully clothed and bearded rabbis with perfectly corrected 20/20 vision watch me and we chit chat about sports, the weather and the Jewish concept of Shalom ha-beit, peace in the home. And then one of them reaches for my penis.
Now before I get back to my 31-year-old phallus, I want to step back and explain how I got there. There are many liminal stages in our lives. For me, being born to a non-practicing atheist Jewish father, and a non-practicing atheist Catholic mother, I was in a perpetual liminal stage, neither here nor there. Jews didn’t consider me Jewish because my mom was a shiksa, and everyone else did. And anyway, I was raised to discredit religious hierarchy, more or less wholesale. God, in my adolescent mind, was a cartoon old man sitting on a puffy cloud and nothing more.
But it always gets complicated. Growing up, I felt very connected to being Jewish. My closest friends are Jewish, I went on Birthright. And through it all, there was something familiar and comfortable about it. About Jews, about Judaism, about Israel.
And then it got more complicated. Evolving as my Jewish identity was, I started to take a harder look at where it came from. My paternal grandparents fled pre-world War II Europe, and their families and past lives were ransacked and eradicated by the Nazis behind them. My grandparents never let my father forget it, and he, in turn, never let me and my sister forget. Despite his disdain for religion, he raised us, intentionally, or not, to identify with the Jew. Find the Jew in the crowd - he’s your friend, he’s like you. That’s what Jews do. We connect with other Jews. And I did it.
And yet, my father did not want any part of the Jewish world. His Judaism was an affiliation with death. With sorrow. With suffering. Not from the texts, or teachings, but from his own life experience. Judaism, for him, began and ended with the Holocaust. He grew up watching his mother shed tears over brothers, and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents, all of whom , as family lore tells it, she waved goodbye to on a dock one spring day in Poland in 1938, still just in her early 20’s. Her entire family whom she would never see again. My father's witnessing of his mother's torment had whittled down his Jewish experience to a single, solitary event. And a lonely, isolated connection.
So I tried to reason with my father - maybe you would be less obsessed with anti-semitism and would stop reading all those books about the Holocaust if you joined a synagogue. You know, go on Friday nights, make friends with guys named Morty and Chai, shove herring and bagels into your mouth and complain about Obama with some like-minded friends. Subtext - Isn’t there more to this religion than the Holocaust? Shouldn’t identity derive from social efforts, community building and faith in something other than “they’re coming to get you someday. Watch out!”? His response? Son, honor your father, love him, but don’t tell him what to do. Subtext - “Fuck off”.
So I went on my own search. I wanted to learn what it meant to live as a Jew, and I wanted more than to just read some books. I really wanted that it be guided by a rabbi. When you do approach a rabbi to convert, he or she is supposed to send you away three times to test the strength of your convictions. It didn’t happen to me. In fact, the first rabbi I met with, a reform rabbi, said “What’s the issue? We acknowledge patrilineal Judaism in the reform movement. You’re all set. Now go find a Jewish girl and I’ll marry you.” I left disappointed.
What did it mean to already be Jewish? My deepest identity behind me was the rubble of World War II, and my high-pitched imagination was the boundless milk and honey ahead of me. That rabbi had picked me up and put me down in the exact same place. I didn’t necessarily need to be told I was a Jew. I needed to know what that meant. Eventually I met a conservative rabbi I felt comfortable with. I took classes, I read books, I went to services, I fasted, I got constipated from matzoh. I even kept kosher and prayed in the morning with t’filin. It all culminates with the ceremony at the mikvah.
And that brings us back to my naked, near sighted self, with the rabbis, one of whom has a lancet and small piece of gauze and is reaching straight for my junk. The symbolic bris, as it’s called when a man has already been medically circumcised at birth, achieves the same things as the baby version - it welcomes a male into a covenant with God, the community, and the world to come, and that covenant is marked by blood.
So...we did it. I was very relieved at the lack of pain caused by the blood letting, a little prick, if you will. I looked closely with as much curiosity as the rabbis to see the little drop of blood on the gauze. Then it was into the ritual bath I went, bleeding weenie and all, to finish it all up with some final prayers.
Despite the mikvah marking the official end of my conversion process, it didn’t make me feel any more Jewish. It didn’t bookend a process in my mind or heart. No magical threshold crossed. That identity, as confused and stunted as it had been, was already in flux and on its way to somewhere fresh and new. But the sight of that little drop of blood on the gauze…blood that once had symbolized the death of a people had begun to symbolize their birth to me.
Two months later, a group of 25 friends threw me a celebratory party at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, a party they affectionately called “The Farbmitzvah”. There were inflatable saxophones, snap bracelets, and a group huddle at the end of the night, when we swayed and sang “That’s what friends are for”. The invitation to the Farbmitzvah began with a quote: “Freud, Einstein, Farber: Two Jewish geniuses and a schmuck that got circumcised twice.” It was yet the next step in finding the confidence and security of knowing that that schmuck was me.
Chris Farber is co-founder of the reBar project with Rebooter Brian Elliot. Chris is a filmmaker and photographer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife. His greatest accomplishment was winning The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest (Contest #95).