Monday, December 19, 2011

The Deal Breaker On Becoming Jewish

     With Hanukkah just around the corner I’m posting a story from my memoir The Kid In the Kaleidoscope, a true tale about my decision to become Jewish when I was ten. But I questioned my decision when I found out about the deal breaker….
     Jonathan Khorman lived three houses down from me. One day while perched in the sycamore tree in his front yard he turned to me and made a startling declaration. “I’m one of the chosen people,” he said.
     “Chosen for what?” I asked.
     He shifted his weight on the branch he was sitting on. “Chosen to be special.”
     “Who chose you?”
     “God did.”
     “Says so in the Bible. Jews are God’s chosen people.”
     I liked Jonathan, but it was hard to imagine God personally selecting him for anything. When it came to team sports at school, Jonathan and I alternated being chosen last.
     Later, I asked my mother about it.
     “The Khormans are Jewish,” she said. “Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people.”           
     I knew the Khormans were Jewish because they celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Jonathan and his little sister Ruthie received gifts for eight days instead of one. I didn’t know much about Jews, but they were light years ahead of everyone else when it came to gift-giving.           
     Then my mother blew my mind with three words: “Jesus was Jewish.”            
    Even though I was an altar boy, I was surprised to discover that Jesus wasn’t Christian.    
     “So who was responsible for the crucifixion,” I asked, “the Romans or the Jews?”
     “People have been squabbling about that for centuries,” she said. “Opinions vary, depending on who you ask.”
     I liked the Khormans and chose to blame the Romans, since I didn’t know any.  
     The Khorman home wasn’t a popular hangout with us kids, but I remember the time Mrs. Khorman rang up my mother to invite me to a backyard sleepover to celebrate Jonathan’s eleventh birthday. Permission was granted.           
     Dinner at Jonathan’s house was strange, much of it not to my liking, but I learned a new word—Kosher. Jonathan opened his presents, most of which were educational toys. We looked at bugs and strands of our hair under Jonathan’s new microscope for awhile, and then we attacked Jonathan’s bright green birthday cake—I’d never had green frosting before. Then it was time to settle down in the backyard for the night. Just as we were zipping ourselves into our sleeping bags, Mrs. Khorman came to kiss Jonathan goodnight…and hear our prayers.
     Jonathan rattled something off that sounded like a record being played backwards. I couldn’t understand a word but I kept my mouth shut about it. When it was my turn I recited The Lord’s Prayer.
     When we were alone I asked Jonathan, “What kinda prayer was that you recited? I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it.”
     “I was speaking Hebrew. It’s the ancient language of the Jewish people.”
     As I lay on the grass in Jonathan Khorman’s backyard watching wispy clouds pass in front of a full moon, I realized that this Jewish thing was sounding pretty darn cool: interesting food, eight days of gifts in December, their own secret language. Catholicism was starting to pale in comparison. I considered giving Judaism a try.
     “Can anyone become a Jew?” I asked Jonathan.
     “I think so. You’d have to go to Hebrew school. In two years I’ll celebrate my Bar Mitzvah, coming of age. I get gifts.”
     It sounded a lot like First Holy Communion, which I’d received two years earlier.
     “If you became Jewish we could study together.”
     And if I celebrated a Bar Mitzvah I could expect more presents. “Is that all there is to becoming a Jew?”
     “There is one more thing, the most important of all.”
     “You need to be circumcised.”
     I frowned at him. “What’s that?”
     “It’s a ceremony commanded in the Bible as a sign of participation in Israel’s convent with God.”
     Confusing. “Say again?”
     “It means you get the tip of your penis cut off while friends and family stand around and watch. This is usually done when a male baby is eight days old, but you’d have to go through it now.”
     I was determined to become one of God’s chosen people, but this was a deal breaker if
ever there was one.
     I’ve never been known for my poker face and the next evening my brother David asked, “Not that I care, but what are you moping about?”
     “I was just wondering how much it would hurt to have the tip of my penis cut off.”
     He looked at me with more disgust than usual. “You’ve asked some crazy questions in the past, but this tops them all. Here’s the answer: IT WOULD HURT LIKE HELL!”
     “That’s what I thought.”
     “Why would you ask such a thing?”
     “I’m considering becoming Jewish and Jonathan said I’d have to get circumcised before they’d let me in.”
     David rolled his eyes. “Have you talked to Mom about this? I’m sure she’d have
something interesting to say on the subject.”
     “Why? She doesn’t go to church much, only on Christmas and Easter. I doubt she’d care.”
     “You’re wrong. Trust me; she’ll care. As for being circumcised, you’re too stupid to know, but you’ve already been circumcised. Boys are supposed to look like their fathers, and you and I were both circumcised at the hospital before Mom and Dad brought us home.”
     “So, Dad was in on this, too?”
     I shrugged off the fact that everyone seemed to have kept this a secret. I felt elated,
like I’d dodged a bullet. I didn’t need to go through a painful penis whittling ceremony
after all. And if circumcision was the most important part of becoming Jewish—as
Jonathan claimed—then Jewish or not, I must already be one of God’s chosen people.
     I was glad I couldn’t remember the feel of that hospital knife between my legs, but knowing what had happened to me before I was brought home from the hospital made me feel…special, until I found out every boy on our street shared the same “specialness”—except for Ramon Guzman, who’d been born in Guatemala.
     When I told Jonathan I’d decided not to become Jewish after all, he looked disappointed.
     “Look at the bright side,” I said, trying to cheer him up. “At school during PE
class when everyone breaks into teams, nobody wants us. This time we’ve both been


  1. Love this. Funny what we come up with as kids. Some of it works out and much of it doesn't.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  2. Good read as always...... though I could have done without the "penis whitling" comment! Maybe to visual for me!!! haha

  3. I was always chosen last, or second to last, too. I really enjoyed this piece, Stephen. It's great to read a child's perspective on Judaism. Nobody wanted to join my peeps when I was a kid. Rather, I was told by my then best friend to "accept Jesus" or she'd end the friendship. I refused but, unfortunately, she didn't end the friendship.
    Happy holiday season and thanks for acknowledging Hanukah.

  4. Good story, Stephen, even though I had my legs crossed through most of it. ;^/

  5. I think it's wrong to circumcise boys. They should be kept in their natural state and educated on how to stay clean, etc. Good of you to know what you wanted at an early age. It took me thirty plus years to decide that all religions have it wrong and that science would be my only faith. Atheist or agnostic depending on your viewpoint. Agnostic meaning if you believe that the Laws of Physics could be a deity. But I shall never believe in a white-haired old man keeping score in some celestial place.

  6. I like the view expressed concerning your already having been circumcised. Every time I wonder why in hell my parents did it to me (my dad wasn't) I get comfort from thinking of it as a sign of my being chosen :-)

  7. Oh jeez, what a post! I've gotta admit, I was a little worried about you losing that half inch or so. Great story!