Say it with me: penis. For centuries, this word has held a special position in our lexicon as being a rare pair of syllables that reliably elicits some kind of visceral reaction from any interlocutor. In fact, a lot of our toilet humor (including the world famous “Penis Game”) all share the same underlying assumption: it’s generally not cool to throw the word “penis” around casually. There are rules for that kind of thing—perhaps unspoken or untaught, but all the same, rules.
Apparently these rules don’t apply everywhere. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to witness the magical event that was my cousin’s bris. For those that don’t know, a bris is the Jewish practice of circumcision that signifies the baby’s entrance into the religious community. Just from the description, a bris may sound like a weird mixture of the spiritually inspirational and incredibly awkward, but it gets even weirder. Over the course of the threeish hours I spent at my cousin’s house, I became increasingly aware of a terrifying truth of the entire bris ritual. I learned that when enough old, inebriated, distantly related family members are put into a room where there happens to be a bris going on, a really unique cultural phenomenon takes place. Somehow, the taboo usually associated with what we will here call “penis-discussion” evaporates, and what results is an all-out, anything-goes discourse on male genitalia.
Listen up, because your parents definitely won’t tell you this stuff if they ever invite you to one of these things. This article may be shocking, even repulsive to some, and I’m sure that most people reading this are probably wondering, “Why is this guy so interested in writing about dicks?” I’m doing this for you, reader; I am writing about penis not because it is easy, but because it is hard. In short, I am writing this article to make sense of a strange, frightening experience that I had, to expand our readership’s scope of cultural awareness, and, most importantly, to provide advice to fellow unsuspecting young Jewish males who may be confronted with a similar situation. I know this is probably something that is difficult to imagine if you’ve never seen it yourself, so I’ve constructed a virtual bris experience for you:
The first problem with a bris is that when you get invited to one it all seems so abstract and impersonal. As you drive over with your parents, it’s still going to sound like a normal family obligation that you just have to do. No big deal. Plus, there’ll probably be good food and maybe you’ll even get to hang out with your cool cousins that you don’t get to see that often. Could be fun!
Basically as soon as you walk into the room the stark reality of what’s actually happening is going to hit you all at once. That baby’s worst nightmare is about to become a reality in front of a room full of people, and he doesn’t even know it yet. Why would anyone want to watch this? It all seems like some cruel joke, and you and this poor kid are missing it. All of your natural instincts are going to be pointing in one direction—bail. Bail as soon as possible.
Unfortunately for you, this is a no-bail situation. It’s time to accept the reality that your parents are pretty into this and you’re going to have to stick around till the bitter (bloody?) end. Take a look at your surroundings. The faint scent of Manisciewitz mingled with gross white fish hangs in the air and begins to dull your senses. The company is looking pretty bleak, too. Everybody looks normal on the surface, but something just doesn’t feel right.
More bad news: while you’re still wrapping your head around your surroundings, here come the unrecognizable relatives to really up the discomfort level. Don’t expect to get by with the inane small talk that usually suffices in these awkward interactions with the distantly and possibly imaginarily related—Surprise! Aunt what’s-her-face has been here since 9am, and since she never drinks more than a few sips of wine at dinner she’s pretty much wasted.
Auntie’s going to start with the normal introduction to these kinds of conversations, probably something like “Wow, you’re all grown up! I haven’t seen you since the blah-blah” and so forth, and from here you’ll probably think it’s safe to throw your attention into autopilot. It’s all good, until suddenly you hear her say something like “Man, I remember how much fun we had at *your* bris…”
HOLD UP! Did she seriously just go there??
Damn right she did, and now the worst has happened: you’re caught right in the middle of a fully-fledged penis discussion, and now it’s on you to navigate this wiener minefield that you were so suddenly, so undeservedly thrown into.
There’s really no good way to proceed from here. Respond too passively and she’ll surely think you’ve gotten too big for your britches; display a little too much interest, and God knows where that conversation could end up. Basically the only thing to do is to smile, nod, and sheepishly repeat, “It’s good to see you, too, this is such a happy occasion.” Don’t lose hope! Odds are that your stern defense of awkward politeness will tire her out, and she’ll eventually set her sights on another unsuspecting young victim.
You’re going to be feeling a lot of things at this point—confusion, shame, regret—so it’s probably a good idea to shuffle over to the refreshments and pray that maybe they have those chocolate covered jelly rings that usually come around only during Passover time. You need to collect yourself fast, though, because the ambient penis discussions are reaching a fever pitch at around this time.
Penis discussions can take many different forms. There are, of course, the low-brow conversations that make sophomoric attempts at humor (“Are they going to do the schnupp schnupp already or what??” “You know, I bet that Abraham was into some kinky stuff if he pulled this off by himself”, “Do you think the moyel has to practice with real penises?”) Needless to say, these can get pretty uncomfortable, pretty fast.
The worst penis discussions of all, however, are the straight-faced attempts to discuss circumcision civilly. The people that start these kinds of dialogue like to pretend that there’s nothing weird about openly talking about a wiener (let alone the wiener of an 8-day old baby) and that they only bring it up so that they can answer some burning circumcision-related question that’s been bothering them for years. These little chats can start with awkward gambits like “So let me tell you about female circumcision…”, or “Do you happen to know any details about the ways other cultures practice circumcision?”, or maybe they’ll take the philosophical approach with “I wonder if circumcision is just, like, a metaphor, ya know?” Remember, these are mostly your relatives, so don’t be a dick about dealing with them; try to suppress any crack of emotion that could be mistaken for impropriety and respond with something like “It’s just one of those things that I guess we’ll never know. Kinda like, what is wind??”
Make a wish!
If you’re able to survive the barrage of penis-related discomfort, you’ll have to witness the tragic climax of this surreal gathering: the actual circumcision. The living room is inundated with excited guests who are for some reason jostling to get to the front of the group to get a better view. Don’t follow their lead—you’re not going to see anything you like up there. It’s best here to retreat slyly back to a distant corner of the room and put up a front of passive interest while internally finding your happy place.
After reciting a few prayers and giving a brief summary of what’s about to go down, the moyel gets ready to do his thing. After all of this build up, you’d expect there to be a countdown or a spray of confetti or something when they actually do the chopping, but there’s nothing. Nothing. All that happens is a pathetic yelp from the baby and then this horrible confused silence settles over the room for a few seconds, maybe minutes, and I imagine that most people in the room are having the thought that occurs so often when there’s a grand finale involving a penis: “That’s it?”
After some quick patchwork by the moyel, everybody takes their cue from him and the house shakes with a massive eruption of “Mazel-Tov!!!” Quick! Now’s your chance to grab your immediate family and finally head for the exit.
Not quite yet. Before you go, the proud parents of the newly mutilated child might just ask the unthinkable from you: to take a picture with their kid. Seriously, avoid this situation at all costs, because the only thing worse than suffering through a whole day of unmitigated penis-talk is posing for a picture with the only person in the room who suffered more than you that day. There’s no sense of camaraderie between your two battered souls; there’s only a minimal shared feeling of violation and bewilderment.
A steep descent into complete oblivion. If you’ve made it this far into the day and you still haven’t found a way out, I honestly can’t help you any more. I imagine that you’ll spend your evening doing something like curling up into a ball in your shower and futilely shouting “Why??” at an indifferent loofah, but I hope that it doesn’t come to that.
• • •
So what have I learned from this experience? Well, I learned that I really really don’t like talking about penises with my relatives. Maybe I learned a little something about the power of words. I guess somehow through this whacky journey I probably learned something new about myself. I often wonder why that fateful day in Cherry Hill I didn’t stand up for what was right and say “Hey, man, get your penis-talk out of my shit” and restore order to the situation, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’d just been conditioned from years of my own intermittent penis humor to just go along with it when someone took it a step too far. On that crisp autumn morning that baby and I were scarred for life in different though equally serious ways, and it’s all because we, as a society, have lost sight of our deepest values of modesty and morality. I think it’s time we all took a good look at ourselves, and started appreciating that maybe the “Penis Game” isn’t so harmless after all.