The Mixed Emotions Of Attending A Bris In A Place Where Many Jews Died

The Mixed Emotions Of Attending A Bris In A Place Where Many Jews Died

This essay was written in November 2019.

As I was chatting with the security guard at the synagogue I currently attend, a woman carrying a tiny baby in her arms entered the building.  The guard told her it was nice that she brought the baby in. She responded, “he is going to enter the covenant today, to be part of the Jewish people.”

I was about 40 minutes late to synagogue but still hoping to catch part of the service and had been hesitating whether I should bother going so late, but felt drawn by the need to be back in a communal prayer space once again.

When I entered the second floor room where the morning service was taking place and heard the resounding sounds of the end of the Aleinu prayer marking the end of the service, I was annoyed that I had missed the Torah reading which I’d thought I might catch, but started praying to myself. Even if I could no longer pray with them since they had finished their own prayers, I was glad to be in the presence of 99-year-old Moe Lebow (who will turn 100 in 2 weeks and was not feeling well the morning of October 27 which is why he is still with us), and 98-year-old Moshe Baran, who fought with the partisans during World War II.

But I was also there a year ago, October 28, 2018, the day after my husband narrowly missed being killed in the worst antisemitic shooting in US history, for the 8 AM minyan.  I do not usually rise before 9 or 10 if I can help it on a Sunday, but I could not sleep that night and my daughter, who was in Israel for the year, called at 7 our time. At 7:40 I told her we could talk more later because I had decided to go to synagogue for the 8 AM service.

The room was packed that day.  The person I was most moved by then was our neighbor’s three-year-old daughter who shares a name with one of my daughters.  As little Ada intoned the Shma prayer in her childish voice, sitting between her parents, one of whom is a Jew by choice, I felt hope for the future.  Jewish children were living Jewish lives and being educated as Jews. And would continue to let the tradition be a guiding and enriching force for them.

Today, I prayed the service to myself and was finishing as the ritual circumciser, the mohel, laid out his equipment.  I had met Rabbi Elisar Admon, in March 2017 when he officiated at a bris in the New Light space in the basement of the Tree of Life building for the grandson of one of our congregants.  In October 2018, as part of the Chevra Kadisha of Pittsburgh, Rabbi Admon did the holy and arduous work of cleansing the building of the human remains left behind once the corpses were removed to assure all pieces had a proper burial.  That grandfather, killed where his grandson had his bris, was among the slain.

B’dmaiyech hayeich.  In your blood, you shall live.  These words from Ezekiel 16:6 are chanted in the naming part of the brit milah ceremony.  That smiling mother with such love for the mitzvah she was about to do, to bring her son into the covenant – why should it be tinged with blood?  Why should we think about blood and sacrifice at the moment of joy with a newborn baby?

When I had lunch with my husband, Rabbi Jon Perlman, of New Light Congregation, who has officiated at many brit milah ceremonies in his 27 years in the rabbinate, though we are parents of girls ourselves,  I asked him what those words meant to him. He replied simply, “blood is the covenant. If it is not spilled, it is not a covenant.”  And this is true in terms of the Bible, as we read in the Torah portion of Noah for this week that we do not eat flesh with “the soul of blood” in it because of the equivalence of life and blood in Genesis 9:4.  I am also haunted that my husband, who was fortunate to escape death and performed funerals for three of his congregants who died as martyrs, is able to say and believe this.

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Poalei Zedeck told me by email that he believes these words mean two things.  “In spite of our blood— notwithstanding what we are called on to sacrifice, Hashem[ed. God]  promises us that we will live.” Rabbi Yolkut went on to add that the other possibility is “BECAUSE of our blood— in other words, that the mesirat nefesh and Kiddush hashem is what creates the merit and determination.”

Mesirat nefesh is literally “turning over or giving over the soul” which can mean both self- sacrifice and doing a commandment that is difficult to do.  Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God, includes martyrdom.  Merit and determination to be in the covenant of the Jewish people stems from the need sometimes to shed blood for this value.

And yet, despite the possibility that as a Jew, this child could potentially be slated for martyrdom, what I remember this morning is the face of the mother shining with joy as she brought her baby into this building, a building now shared by a synagogue (New Light)  whose congregants were martyred. The mother explained that her son’s first name in Hebrew would be “Ariel,” meaning ‘lion of God’ because it was a name of strength.

Over the last year, I have found strength precisely in that place where others lost their lives, in the synagogue.  Hearing the words, “ki li’olam hasdo” (Psalm 107:1) that the person bestowing a name on the baby says and the congregation repeats as part of the brit milah ceremony, I understand that their meaning, “God’s lovingkindness endures forever” has been true for me this year.  Our family has been the recipient of so much kindness and support – from a delicious potato kugel dropped off hot just before Shabbat, to friends dropping by to check in on us over the weekend, to the Shabbat dinner with flowers and wine provided to us by Jewish Family and Children’s Services, as well as the many calls, letters, texts, emails and Facebook messages.

I believe that God gives humans free will to do good or evil, and when evil is done, humans have free will to do kindness to those who are vulnerable and in need of kindness. Harm has been done, but hesed, lovingkindness, has helped to heal and endures longer than any evil. Seeing a joyful mother, ready to bring her newborn son into the covenant when I came into synagogue today, empowered me to believe we are not just going to continue but to thrive as a Jewish people.

Also at the brit milah were two young Israelis doing their year of national service here in Pittsburgh who had been invited by Rabbi Admon to attend. I had met them two weeks ago in a meal at the Admon’s sukkah and they told me they are from Nof Ayalon, also the home of Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel whose son Naftali was murdered in 2014.  They got to the brit after it was over, since there are many doors to the Beth Shalom building, but only one is in use now for security purposes, and they could not locate the correct entrance.

There is irony that a building designed to have many exits and entrances but can only use one now, kept out Israelis who are friends with Frankel siblings who are their own age. The spirit of those who helped support the family of a terror victim coming to a brit, a new birth, a renewal the day after the anniversary of a horrible tragedy also lifted me to feel more optimistic than I felt when I entered the building in the morning and to remember the words of Rachelle Fraenkel, “no one is defined by tragedy” was helpful to me.

On the week that we read the Torah portion of Noah(Genesis 6:9- 11:32) we learn of the destruction of the world in a flood and also of a rainbow covenant(Genesis 9:13-17) forged not in blood but in the sky with light.  Perhaps one day that covenant will be the only one we have. In the meantime, it was a privilege to be at the entrance to the covenant of this young man who I hope will grow to be as strong as the name he was given.


Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel Questioning Return and the editor of anthology Reading Genesis. Her writing has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, New York Times, Jewish Week, Slate.com, Tablet, the Forward, Haaretz and elsewhere. Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.

Leave a Reply