Never Touched By The Angels
By Keith Bloomfield
Jill's was a textbook pregnancy. We had giggled our way through Lamaze classes like the kids we no longer were. "Maybe we waited too long," she kvetched, as we cuddled in our darkened bedroom. Maybe we had, but now we were ready.
Sterling framed sonograms of our unborn son sat on our office credenzas. We availed ourselves of every test and screen medical science afforded us. Our Ashkenazi roots were not going to be a hindrance to ensuring that our offspring would be healthy. The news was better and better with each result. Jill went out on maternity two full weeks before her due date.
"How soon can you meet me?" asked the voice on my cell phone.
"It's a little late for lunch."
"It's not for lunch. It's the baby. I'm all packed and Sylvia is driving me to the hospital."
"I'll meet you in an hour." I was there in twenty minutes.
Jill was in the birthing room when I arrived. Surrounded by a bevy of medical professionals, I could only wave at her in the middle of the throng.
"David's here," she sighed.
Her doctor spun around and clutched my hand. "Excellent timing Mr. Goodman. If you'll put on a pair of scrubs, we can get started. Your son is ready to make his grand entrance."
The pale blue garment felt like paper and I feared it would tear when I put it on. Alone in the tiny lavatory, I wondered if we had done the right thing? I thought about the results of every test to which Jill and our unborn were subjected, the endless sonograms and the words of reassurance from her doctor. It was right. I finished dressing and swaggered through the lavatory door like a matador entering the ring. The crowd around Jill parted and I sat down beside her.
"There's no turning back now," she winced. I kissed her forehead and squeezed her hand.
"They're a minute apart," noted a nurse.
"This is your show honey. I'm just your coach."
The nurse caught the doctor's attention. "She's crowning."
Jill closed her eyes and whispered, "I know I'm going to look ridiculous. All that puffing and humming. And all these people watching."
"And each one of them jealous about what you and I are going to do."
"And what are we going to do?"
"We're bring a new life into the world. Someone who just might make a difference."
She breathed and pushed. I helped her as best as I could. It was everything we expected and nothing that we could have imagined. Under the glare of the birthing room lights he looked more alien than anything out of Hollywood. I could barely see his wrinkled and swollen face beneath a coating of vernix.
Dr. Brewster handed me the implement to separate my son from my wife. I cut the umbilical cord and held him up for Jill to see. Before we could decide whom he looked like, the doctor whisked him away for more tests
"How ya doing dad?"
"Just fine and you mom?" We started giggling again.
There was frenetic activity around our son. The doctor was on the phone. He looked over at us and then at the infant. He whispered something to the nurse and she rushed to join us.
"Now there's nothing to worry about," she sputtered. "The doctor found something he wants to check."
If she had only looked us in the eyes, maybe we would have believed her. Instead, she stared first at my nose; then at Jill's. It was as if she was looking for something on our faces that they had seen on the baby's. The doctor was on the phone again. Nodding his head and shrugging his shoulders he hung up the receiver and slowly walked over to us. I was shaking. My face was hot and my throat parched.
"First, I want to say mazal tov. He's a healthy little guy. High nines on the Apgar." It was unnerving to hear Dr. Brewster's attempt at Hebrew. "Initially, Mr. Goodman, I didn't even notice it. I always do a quick inventory -- you know: two arms, two legs, whatever, before we perform the other tests. If it wasn't for Mrs. Ginzburg, I know I would have missed it entirely. That's why I sent Miss. Warner over. I thought that maybe one of you was born without one also. It's quite an anomaly. No one on staff has even encountered it before. And it's nothing to worry about. In a few months, if you choose, you can have it constructed. I know a terrific pediatric plastic surgeon. No one will even know. That's what I was on the phone about. This is clearly one for the journals. If you don't mind?"
I interrupted. "What the hell are you going on about?"
Dr. Brewster flinched and cleared his throat. "Let me explain. Better than that, let me demonstrate. Put your finger on your upper lip. Right there under your nose. What do you feel?"
Many of my generation had spent a good deal of time and energy covering up that tiny piece of facial real estate with a variety of beards and mustaches, but we never knew why. I touched the spot beneath my nose and my finger immediately slid into the fleshy dimple above my upper lip.
"I've seen cleft palates, lip and jaw deformities, but I've never seen a child born without that little groove. I wasn't even sure if it had a name, but it does. It's called a philtrum. It really doesn't have a reason for being. It might help us to be a bit more expressive, but other then that, it's vestigial. Our ancestors may have needed it a million of years ago, but it means nothing to modern man. Nothing at all." Brewster pumped my hand in congratulations and promised to look in on Jill and the baby later.
Mrs. Ginzburg pulled me aside. "He's a beautiful baby. And I've seen thousands."
"Thank you," I nodded.
"You'll need the name of a good mohel," she said, thrusting a piece of paper into my hand. "He's the best and your son deserves only the best." She took another look at the baby and left the birthing room sobbing. I agreed, of course.
We decided to name him Mark -- after Jill's late Uncle Morris. A Hebrew name was another story. "Let the mohel help you with it," said Jill's mom. "You did arrange for a mohel?"
I hadn't, but I had the name Mrs. Ginzburg gave me. When I called him, the telephone rang only once, as if he was expecting the call.
"Hello, this is David Goodman."
"Mazel tov, Mr. Goodman. This is Reb Shlomo. Everyone calls me Reb Shlomo."
"Why did you say mazel tov?" I asked.
"When people I don't know call me on the phone, it's usually to arrange a bris. When was your son born?"
Reb Sholmo took down all of the information.
"We haven't chosen a Hebrew name," I added.
"Not to worry Mr. Goodman. I already selected one. I'll see you Friday at noon."
News of a death or a circumcision travels through Jewish circles like no other form of communication. Phone calls multiply geometrically so that even the most far-flung family and friends are aware of the event and its most intimate details. Jill and her mother made the calls to their carefully hewn network. In less than an hour everyone who needed to know -- knew.
I was uneasy during those days before the bris. Jill thought it had to do with the "procedure." A cute euphemism. True, even the most macho of the gender develops legs of jelly when knife and genitalia are used in the same sentence. I was no different, but that was not the source of my squeamishness. What chance does a week old infant have against a crowd of well wishing friends and relatives assembled to watch him cry and bleed, while his family hides their eyes and bloom in gradations of green? Some cultures tattoo or pierce their young as a badge of membership in their clan or tribe. It is not the baby who chooses to enter this world as a Jew. It is his parents who having brought him into the world; commit him to wearing this indelible emblem of our covenant with God and hope that he will accept the responsibility.
I had Googled the ritual and found out what I could about the milah knife, the metal magen that would guide the mohel's hand and the three steps that he would perform as my representative. And Abraham performed the first brit milah on himself. And he was ninety-nine years old no less! I was glad that Reb Shlomo was on our team.
For the balance of the week, Jill and her mom satisfied all of Mark's needs. I helped, occasionally; when they would let me. "Give mom a chance," said Jill. "Remember, she had three girls. You'll have plenty to do after she leaves."
Friday came all too fast. When I saw the crowd of well- wishers invited to share in our simcha, I knew Mark did not have a chance. Reb Shlomo was part of the throng. His eyes caught mine and he walked right to me.
"I can always recognize the abba," he laughed. "He's the nervous looking one, with the gray complexion."
"Do I fit the part?"
"To a tee. Please don't worry Mr. Goodman. I haven't lost a patient yet!" I knew he was trying to put me at ease, but his little jokes had no effect on my apprehension.
"I'd like to meet with you and your wife for a moment before we begin. There are a few things we are going to need. Have you selected a sanduk yet?" He could see the question in my eyes. "A sanduk is the person who holds the child's legs apart during the ceremony. It's a position of high honor -- at least it is for the sanduk," he chuckled. "We'll need a table and two chairs. One for the sanduk and one for Elijah. And on the table should be a cloth and a large fluffy pillow for the child." I padded off to find my wife and my father-in-law.
While Jill and her mom readied the dining room, I watched Reb Shlomo prepare my son. Mark was a feather in Reb Shlomo's hands. He unrolled a weathered leather packet containing the tools of his trade. He washed them in hot water and cleaned them with alcohol. Jill had dressed Mark in white and a tiny blue kipah perched on his peach fuzz covered scalp, held in place with a single strand of elastic.
Reb Shlomo tickled Mark and the infant's laughter filled the room. "The women dress them up like this all the time. Most of these clothes will have to come off. That's alright with you little one," said Reb Shlomo. "You already know that." The old man stroked the child's cheek and rubbed the flat area beneath Mark's nose. At the time, I paid no attention to it.
Everyone was waiting for us in the dining room. Jill and I presented Mark to Reb Shlomo. The mohel finished his preparations and lay Mark on the table so that my father-in-law could hold him still. Reb Shlomo surveyed the crowd and waited for silence. I was supposed to begin the circumcision myself as fathers had done in biblical days. No way could I do that to my son. As the ritual goes, I quickly appoint Reb Shlomo to perform the bris.
"Nicely done," he whispered in my ear and turned to our guests. "We praise You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who instructed us to perform the rite of circumcision." With surgical skill, speed, and flare, Reb Shlomo performed the procedure. It was over before I realized it. Mark hardly cried. Jill stood at my side; face flushed and tears rolling down her cheeks.
Reb Shlomo pointed to me to read from the prayer book. "We praise You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who instructed us to bring our sons into the covenant of Abraham."
Reb Shlomo gestured to the guests to read from the sheets that were handed to them: "Just as he entered the covenant of Abraham, so may he enter on the study of the Torah, the sacred state of matrimony, and a life of good deeds."
The mohel picked up a cup of wine. "We praise You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine." Reb Shlomo took a long well earned sip.
He picked Mark up and continued the ceremony. "We praise You, O Lord our god, King of the Universe. You sanctified the faithful Isaac while still in the womb by ordaining the rite of circumcision to seal the covenant with you in his flesh, and the holy covenant is sealed as well in the flesh of his descendants," he intoned. "Do you, O living God, you who are our Portion, our Refuge, grant us deliverance, your faithful people, for the sake of the covenant sealed in our flesh. We praise You, O Lord, for the covenant you formed with the children of Israel." With Jill and I standing next to him, he concluded, "Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child to his father and mother. May his name be known in Israel as Yadan ben Dovid. Give praise to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever. This tender infant Yadan ben Dovid will, under your providence, thrive and grow to the fullness of his strength. As he has been initiated into the covenant. So may he be initiated into a life of devotion to the Torah, to his nuptial canopy, and the performance of good deeds. Amen."
"Amen," echoed our guests.
Reb Shlomo sipped again from the cup and then Jill and I sipped too. Reb Shlomo dipped his finger into the vessel and smeared some wine across Mark's lips. Mark licked his lips and cooed at us. Jill and her mom took turns holding Mark, as the line grew to four deep around the buffet table.
I found Reb Shlomo, seated alone in one corner of the dining room. Perched on a pants leg, shiny from wear and perhaps an overzealous iron, he balanced a paper plate piled high with lox and herring. He held a cup half filled with scotch in one hand. Seeing me approach him, he waved to me with a fist clutching a bagel troweled thick with cream cheese. "L'chaim," he toasted with a huge grin.
"Thank you," I responded. "The fee for your services."
The smile dropped from his face. "It's all taken care of," he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
"That father-in-law of mine."
"He had nothing to do with it. This was a personal honor. Performing a bris on a Yadan -- one who knows, that is a privilege. Perhaps it will earn me a place in heaven."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
Reb Shlomo raised his finger to his mouth and tapped the space beneath his nose. Everything suddenly came together. Mrs. Ginzburg at the hospital knew all about my son's "deformity" and she was the one who put me in contact with Reb Shlomo.
"I know that you do not understand," said the mohel. "There is a legend that says the soul of an unborn child the nefesh - knows the entire Torah and all the wonders of shmayim the heavens. Before the soul enters the body, an angel hushes a child so that it forgets what it knows." Again, he raised his finger to his lip.
"What's the point?"
Reb Shlomo smiled. "If that soul, knowing what it does, entered this world brimming with insanity, it would soon go mad. Instead of learning Torah, we simply remember what the angels helped us to forget."
"So what are his first words going to be - - mommy or in the beginning?"
"B'resheet. That's very good. We don't know. But I would love to be there to find out. If you believe the legend, as I do, your son knows now what a poor Rebbe like me would spend a lifetime trying to learn and live, and never master. There are three ingredients to life, Mr. Goodman." Tipsy perhaps from the scotch or some sense of personal triumph, he wiggled three fingers in my direction. "Like a tripod whose three legs give it greater stability. Nefesh is the soul. Each of us has a soul. Sometimes you wouldn't believe it, but it's true. Then there's ruah. You gather ruah through study and living according to Torah. Finally, there is neshamah. When you achieve neshamah, you are truly linked to the divine. I envy your son, Mr. Goodman. He may already have accomplished what I still strive for." Reb Shlomo finished his scotch and stood up. He clutched my hand. "You are blessed Mr. Goodman. Truly blessed."
It was only then that I realized how large a man he was and how his huge hands so deftly carried out a tradition that spanned the thousands of years since the start of our people. For him, this was a shining hour. I was at a loss to truly understand why. By mid afternoon our home had returned to normal, but Reb Shlomo's words had struck a responsive chord.
Soon after the bris the dreams began. My misspent years in darkened movie theaters or watching television helped me to conjure up a diverse cast of angelic characters from tiny winged cherubs to Ruebenesque creatures in diaphanous gowns. In each instance, Mark approached an angel. Sometimes he was carried, sometimes he was wheeled in a cart, and at times he walked alone, but he always looked right at me, straightened his body, threw his head back, and smiled. He smiled as though he knew exactly what was going to happen. When he approached the angel, at the last second, the angel would turn away from him. Each dream was different. Once the distraction was a strange rumbling sound. Another time, the angel was touched on the shoulder by another angel. The strangest occurrence was when the angel turned and saw me and missed Mark. He was never touched by the angels. At that point, I usually sat up in bed and rushed to his crib to make certain that he was still there. The dreams lasted for weeks and ended as suddenly as they had begun.
Life had to go on, but life was different. I shared late night feedings and changing responsibilities with Jill. A garden of photographs bloomed like flowers on my office credenza. Each Monday, the guys in the office came in to view the weekend's latest crop. I no longer joined them at lunch. "I'm going to catch forty winks. The kid kept us up all night," I usually told them. Instead of sleeping, I slipped away for a sandwich in the park near my office. Concealed in a newspaper was the copy of the Torah I received for my bar mitzvah. I read it covertly, like a kid reading a comic book hidden behind some boring text. The first time I opened the book the spine creaked with newness. The glue that secured the bookplate to the cover had dried out and its corners curled. It read:
Presented to David Goodman on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah by the Officers, Trustees, and Members of Congregation Beth Shalom.
I read each sacred word through fresh eyes. I completed it from cover to cover as I had never done when I was a child. I was looking for what Mark may already have known.
I convinced Jill to take an early vacation. "We can rent a car and drive west. Visit your sister and fly home," I told her. I knew the coasts, but not the land in between. She agreed far too easily and I made the arrangements.
The trip was a magnificent experience, punctuated by scenes straight from the Torah. We were delayed in Kansas by tornadoes. While the police held us at a distance, the growl of the whirlwind was deafening and our rental car shook violently. I thought of Elijah on the mountaintop when "A great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake."
Further west, prairie fires blocked our path and again the prophet came to mind: "And after the earthquake fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice."
"A small voice," I muttered. "Like the voice of a child."
Approaching the Sierras, Jill spotted a towering thundercloud hanging menacingly over the mountains. Bolts of jagged yellow lightning flashed between the cloud and the top of the pinnacle. Crashing thunder answered the lightning. I wondered if this was the sight seen by the escaping slaves at Sinai, when God spoke to the nation of Israel. I looked at Mark and wondered if God was to speak through him and if so, how and when?
Surrounded by incredible scenes of beauty and power, I turned to my son, and listened. I heard cooing and laughter, not scripture. When frightened by lightning or a loud noise, his tears reinforced that he was only special to Jill and I. With this strange odyssey behind us, surely there was one thing that I knew - the most important preoccupation that a member of our species can have is the search for self.
At seven, Mark was aggressive on the soccer field and knew more about NBA player stats than any adult I knew. He was a precocious student in public as well as in Hebrew School. Jill and I grew closer to him and to each other. We shared our lives in ways we had never done before and always at the core of our experience was the search we were set upon on the day of Mark's birth.
None of our new friends or any of Mark's ever passed a comment about the blank space on his upper lip. None of his teachers either at school or at Temple suggested a medical remedy or special training. We certainly heard nothing out of the ordinary from Mark.
If my son's role in life was to enlighten those around him, then his mission had been successful. By simply being himself, Mark has helped Jill and I to see our Jewishness from a new perspective. We found a spirit that had passed us by long before Jill and I had ever met. Mark was the catalyst to our rediscovery. We had touched the nefesh Reb Shlomo talked about at the bris. Traditions and feelings long dormant, we relished handing down to our son. Was this the ruah that nurtured our souls and would bring us closer to neshamah? Each day he learned from us and we from him.
Which was more important -- the journey or the destination: the knowledge or the learning? Mark, like the rest of us, had to answer those questions on his own. He helped us to answer them for ourselves. There was no line of Tzadiks waiting on our doorstep anxious to study at Mark's feet. He never quoted from Genesis or the Talmud. It did not matter to us. Jill was expecting again.
from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine