My father and I arrived late to the synagogue in the Bronx. It was the morning of my brother’s son’s bris, the Jewish ritual circumcision. There were 60 people crammed in an annex meant for half that many. We took the only two chairs left, in the first row. When I sat down I realized why they had been empty. We were inches from the table where the mohel would slice the foreskin from my newborn nephew.
We were late due to the fact that I had come down with the flu, and also because my father, Fred, had made the trip from Boston starting at 4 am in his beater car.
The day was cold and sharp but inside the air was thick with the heat of bodies.
Years ago, my younger brother left our secular Jewish family for a strict Orthodox lifestyle. Standing at the front of the room, holding his tiny, sleeping boy, my brother the rabbi wore his head shaved save for the curled pais and a thick black beard. He had on a beautiful, glossy black coat.
My dad is his opposite: a New England atheist gentile who grew up in rural Massachusetts. His father abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with him; his grandparents raised him on their farm. By the time he was 11, he earned a wage picking tobacco wrapper leaf in the Connecticut River Valley.
My father then served as a combat medic in Vietnam. After the war, he kept fighting — with everyone. He fought my mother with endless litigation for 20 years after he divorced her; he fought with his second ex-wife; he fought with me and my brothers, his business partners and lawyers. I learned to be both terrified of my father and as independent as possible. I eventually moved to California for college to escape the fighting and find my own path.
Meanwhile, he owned a healthcare business that made him richer than any farm boy could imagine. But after two decades it collapsed. One day he called me in a panic from Boston. By now I was 25 and living in Manhattan. He asked for all the money I had. I’d always been so intimidated by his rages that I didn’t have practice saying no. In a little over a year I gave him a huge portion of my savings. I like to think I paid him back for college, just all at once.
Soon after, the government indicted my father for tax fraud. The night before he went to prison for a year, in his car idling at the curb of my mother’s house, he handed me a checkbook and a list with bank account numbers. At nearly 60, he was worth less than my paycheck. I was no longer the bookish boy cringing when my father would storm the front lawn bellowing at my mother, or exhorting me to try harder. I wasn’t the runaway anymore. He needed me to be his caretaker. I was now responsible.
None of this felt strange to me. By the time I was in my early 30s I was used to being in the driver’s seat. I had been taking care of myself since he left home when I was ten. It rarely occurred to me that anyone should be taking care of me.
Now years later in the synagogue, seeing my youngest brother watch his newborn boy with love, and standing next to my father who had sweetened over the years, I paid witness to the ancient moment.
I stood shoulder to shoulder with my father, but my flu left me lifeless. More people streamed in the airless room that got hotter and smaller. More prayers. More announcements.
The mohel showed up: a tidy man in a bright white jacket and a beautifully manicured beard. He unpacked a briefcase on the table in front of us. He laid out gleaming scalpels, pincers, anticoagulants, tweezers.
My father, the outsider in this room of Jews, the former combat medic, watched intently. “He should sterilize his hands,” he whispered. “I don’t like it.”
Panic gripped me just south of my stomach. I wanted fresh air. The mohel told someone to shut the window. He put his hand on my infant nephew. My brother stood up to pray and we all joined him. The mohel’s hand took up a scalpel. The baby bawled. I tried to pray but I could only watch the mohel. From my vantage point all I saw was his back and the instruments.
He discarded a pile of gauze pads thick with the baby’s blood. I felt a shimmering heat wash over me and I sat down. After a moment I forced myself up to join the other men. Then I saw the bloody gauze pads again. The men prayed loudly but I couldn’t understand what they said. The baby screamed as the mohel worked. I passed out.
I remember waking up surrounded by gigantic bearded men rocking and praying. It was like being in Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom. I was bewildered. Sweat covered my forehead. No one had noticed me slumped in my chair. I woozily stood back up to join the men but the terror of blacking out clung to me. My father, also standing, silently reached out, grabbed my hand and gently squeezed it.
He didn’t look at me or speak. He kept watching the baby, listening to one son pray while the other slowly revived. I clutched back at his hand. I needed him more then than I had realized. It was a morning for fathers to watch over their sons. And there he was.