On the Covenant

Rodge Glass

1 October 2023

After Joshua’s dad’s speech

It was a simple plan. I’d find somewhere to watch the service online, then get on the train from Glasgow to London. Be present, but not. Take part, but not. Arrive, just late enough to miss the service, then get to meet my new nephew, Joshua’s little brother. The timings looked like they’d work out, too. I gathered my things and breathed a whistle into the morning. Looked at the ground, and started walking. As I walked, I looked up a definition. It’s a word I used to know, but it’s been a while: ‘Covenant – noun: a formal and serious agreement or promise. e.g. a covenant with God.’ Well, that made sense, you were being inducted into the tribe. Some commitment! You were being named, eight days in. Better increase the pace, I thought. I had a way to walk.

I arrived at my usual café by the train station five minutes early – but what? I peered through the glass. Lights off, chairs still on tables. Maybe the staff had been wiped out? Or all caught Covid? Well, that happened. Sorry folks, what are we, the only café in the world? Go plug in elsewhere! Okay, but that didn’t give me long. It was rub-your-hands cold, runny-nose cold. My boots were covered in snow. I considered just joining from the street, cars and lorries rushing by in a whirl, then thought better of it. Instead I scurried up the incline with my overnight bag and laptop, through the whiteness and the sludge, looking for an alternative. All morning, I’d been on shpilkies. Ah, I thought, crossing at the lights and seeing a door flop open. Warmth! In I went, without asking to sit down. I was trying to log on through my laptop, and failing. What time was it? Nine thirty exactly. Right. Now where was that Zoom link? Fuck it, I’d have to just watch on the phone, if I could get the damn thing to…come on! The wee circle padded round, the long impossible seconds of waiting, waiting, waiting…and in. In! Colour flooded the small, splintered screen. A story with a happy ending.

Joshua’s mum and dad’s old place came into view, their main room with the French windows at one end, the couch, table, and the kitchen bit at the other. I don’t know what I was expecting – a scene from Fiddler on the Roof perhaps? Poor Reb Tevye anguishing over his daughter marrying some revolutionary in the village of Anatevka? – but I wasn’t expecting their flat. I’ve only ever been at two Brit Milah ceremonies before; my own in 1978; and maybe my brother’s in 1980, though it could be I was spared that one. So what did I know? I brought the screen close. With mask and glasses on, I was steaming up. Ah yes, there was my immediate family, standing around by the fridge, which seemed to have shrunk since I was last in London. Ah yes, there was my Mum, though I couldn’t see my stepdad, Ken. My Dad was close by, then my stepmum Babs drifted into view too, my sister and their daughter Georgie carrying in the new baby – it’s a blessing, she’d told me on the phone a few days before, to carry the baby in; though usually it’s someone married without children who does it. As if to say, Crack on, then luv! You next! God bless the Jews. Always making absolutely sure you don’t forget your purpose. To make more Jews! Safest approach, maybe, if you want to survive. But still. Next, I spotted a man I didn’t know who must have been the Mohel, another word I’d just learned. (Literally, The Circumciser. Like The Terminator. Just a very specific kind of termination.) The Mohel was either side of my Samsung cracks, a small man in kippah and white tallas wrapped around his shoulders and back, standing between where the couch usually was and the TV behind him, where maybe we online viewers were being beamed in. The Mohel was an unfamiliar figure, in familiar garb. If he was holding a sabre, it was hidden.

The night before, Joshua’s mum had sent the family group a video clip of a Jewish comedian, telling a version of a joke that must be almost as old as the religion itself. Delivered deadpan, it went something like this: ‘People ask me, like, why are Jews so socially awkward? Look, I can only speak from my own perspective but, the first party I ever went to, a strange man – who I had never seen before! – cut the tip of my penis off! So yeah, I’m kind of weird around new people.’ I imagine how that joke might have been worded in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Jewish homes of Persia. When circumcision is part of your heritage, you’ve really got to find a way to laugh. As the cameraman, a brother-in-law I think, panned around the space, I told myself it was probably a health thing. You know. Why they did it in the olden days. Maybe penises were different then. Or the world they were born into was. Sorry, what? Right, yeah, thanks. A coffee please, no no, it doesn’t matter what kind. And please, is there a problem with the Wi-Fi here? While I’m tuning in, or trying to, I’d love to look up the reasons for this service WHICH I’M PRETTY SURE I DISAPPROVE OF BUT KNOW I SHOULDN’T BE SUPERIOR ABOUT BECAUSE HEY FUCKSAKE WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT ANYTHING FOR SURE. I was holding up the screen, thinking about Wicked Sons, sneering, ‘What is all this to you?’ Behind my mask, I was steaming up pretty badly.

The whole process was surprise after surprise. I’d been looking for the rabbi, but he wasn’t leading the ceremony, or even present it seemed - that face I’ve gotten to know well in these last five years, in person and on screen. I expected him to be there, soothing everyone with his smile. I thought, This poor boy! His Covenant with God! And where’s Joshua’s rabbi? I know the man has a whole congregation. But that’s who he is to me, Joshua’s rabbi, surely a full-time job. Eternal, unresignable-from. In the glitch and delay of my feed, I watched the faces in a way that’s only possible when you yourself are unseen. There were my sister-in-law’s parents, smiling. There was her brother, cracking jokes. Stuttered laughter cut through the virtual room. These events are rare enough that it’s a novelty for nearly everyone present. Guest lists are not extensive. If you’re there, you matter. Meanwhile, my picture was freezing in and out, in a way that reminded me of one of those old flick books. Each slightly different picture hovered frozen on the screen, unconnected to the sound, before being traded for a new locked image. The sound was pretty good though, no breaks in that. Consistent, and clear enough for me to hear every word through the old headphones. I held my phone up so I could see in the light, though I kept myself on mute, camera off. The change in angle caused my i-dent to flash up: a long-gone, smiling, bearded me taken at the beginning of March 2017, photographed under Alasdair Gray’s Òran Mór night sky, for a newspaper. In early March of that year, we all knew Joshua’s chances of survival. Less than 10%, though you wouldn’t know from the photo. Nothing about it looks haunted.

With my free hand I kept trying for a while, but I couldn’t get the laptop to connect – ‘It must be your system, ours is fine’ said the manager, in a way that suggested she’d been doubted before – so I abandoned the prospect of a bigger, unshattered screen, and ended up giving in to watching the whole thing on my phone. My headphones were threaded through my mask. My bags, ready for the journey south, were piled around me. The sound of the coffee machine came and went. Froth, bang, crack. That’s for table 4! Down in London, the crowd had shushed while Joshua’s dad and the Mohel were standing across from each other. The Mohel reminded him that strictly speaking, in Jewish tradition, the father is supposed to do the circumcision himself. Would he like to do the honours, perhaps? Hey, another joker over here! Well, you’ve got to laugh, right? Or else you’ll cry. Joshua’s dad declined the opportunity to take charge, the small audience laughed, then suddenly it was obvious. The business end of this particular meeting was near.

After it started, I tilted the phone screen from my eyes. Were they going to show it? Surely not! Then the silence turned into screaming; I tried to listen, and I did for a while, though usually the only crying children I can listen to are my own. I thought of it like a test for uncles, one you really shouldn’t fail or else you get sent to Siberia, banished from future duties. But on it went, on and on. There’s no anaesthesia in a Brit Milah. Apparently, nerve endings aren’t fully developed at eight days old, so says www.chabad.org, a religious website with a nifty Ask the Rabbi feature, which likes to get its excuses in. 3,700 years ago, when Abraham circumcised himself, age 99, who knows what his nerve endings were like, am I right! This is what I was thinking about when the tears came. Then all I could think about were the other tables of customers in the café, the young boy at a nearby table looking at me, asking his mummy why that man across there couldn’t stop crying. The boy seemed to be sitting too close. I thought, I’m now one of those people who cries all the time. You can’t take me anywhere. At the moment I realised I wasn’t going to be able to stop, I went into a state that reminded me of that last asthma attack, when I didn’t trust myself to breathe in and out. What was I doing? Why wasn’t I there in person? Why couldn’t I just show up? I imagined my brother sitting down at the seat opposite me, putting a hand over mine and saying, Bruv. This is getting embarrassing. Even for you, this is a bit mad. But of course he was in London, having been perfectly reasonable about me saying I’d be more comfortable coming down after the service, if he didn’t mind? When we’d discussed it, I didn’t quite say ‘you people’. I didn’t really feel superior to these traditions; I don’t feel superior to much at all. Though still. I couldn’t just hold my breath and be there. I told myself it was the tears. That really, it was nothing to do with circumcision at all. Rather, that I simply feared being surrounded by all that family, in the presence of a new baby boy, unable to stop myself crying about Joshua. Being a downer on a day of joy. Making it all about me.

At some point, I heard the Mohel say the word ‘Yosef’, a Hebrew word meaning ‘to add’. I thought, Everyone thinks I’m crazy. I thought, I’m not even a decent uncle to my living nieces and nephews.

At some point, I heard the word ‘Chaim’, which is Hebrew for ‘life’. I don’t remember birthdays well, or put others first, or do anything at all for my godson. I’m one of those people who feels entitled to freedom but won’t do anything to work for it. And I can’t seem to be part of any rite of passage without finding a way to be full of shame and distance, unable to just shut the fuck up and belong.

What is this to you people?

At some point, I heard the word ‘Tuvya’, which is Joshua’s dad’s Hebrew name. It landed and I whooped to the canvas. I gripped the side of the café table with my fingers and lowered my head, as if that would stop the boy in the café staring. All this happened before anyone even said the word ‘Joshua’, though of course it was coming. His dad always makes a speech. The speech is always in part for he whose name must be spoken, again and again, at any time it might go unmentioned, his spirit whispering in ears all around the room – So, you’ve forgotten me. Already?

The crying went on. Eventually, I turned down the volume. Say what you like about Zoom, I don’t like it any more than you do. But at least there’s a bloody mute button.

When you’re crying in public, you don’t take everything in, nor the order it all happens in. I started writing drafts for this piece very soon after the events, but already I catch myself wondering if I’ve jumbled everything up. I can’t be trusted to tell a true story to anyone. At what point did my dad hold the baby, standing next to Joshua’s dad, the new baby boy’s other grandfather seated in tallas, kippah and mask on a seat to the left? Was that before or after the Mohel explained the tradition? When did he do his bit on the symbolism of it all, the boy’s first mitzvah, his first blessing? His bit on a Jewish education, a Jewish marriage – one day please God, under the Chuppah! – though let’s leave that for a while, eh? Give the poor boy a chance! He’s only just arrived on earth, must we set him about making more Jews already? I remember the camera panning round the room for the benefit of us joining online, so we could see the room react, but don’t remember if it was Joshua’s dad who announced the name in English, though I do remember seeing his mum holding Joshua’s little sister, kissing her full on the cheek. Kisses, I remember. Acts of devotion, I remember. I don’t remember when someone passed the new baby to his dad, or when he stopped crying (he’s a leaking tap too, since Joshua), or if someone else was holding the baby when he gave his speech. At the time, I was better off out of the room. Hiding behind my cheery i-dent, muted, as far away and as close as I’ve ever been. At least, not making someone else’s rite of passage about me. This is getting embarrassing, bruv.

At some point Joshua’s dad said, ‘Welcome to the world…’

He said, ‘I’d like to talk about our choice of name…’

He told the story of his new son’s families on both sides, spooling back 130 years, then down through the generations again – the man who gave his first name instead of his second when he got off the boat from Iran, like so many did; the baby’s great, great, great Grandfather on our side, who arrived from Lithuania. I felt it coming, then.

He said, ‘It’s impossible to go through today…big brother…our eldest son Joshua, whose greatest legacy will always be...’ I heaved. He said, ‘Joshua’s bris couldn’t have been more different to this’, and at that line, I became dizzy, because I was forced to think about something I’d either not been told, maybe should have known, or perhaps had known but simply blocked out. Anyway, it was like remembering something. I realised this ceremony must have happened after Joshua died, too. His dad said, ‘..the day Joshua was born…where we are now…five years later.’ The words in between were swallowed by the sound of myself at a café table, 400 miles away. He praised his wife and talked about pride, and the future, and only supporting decisions his children make if he agrees with them. Another dumb punchline. Another laugh from the room, doing its job, which is to puncture the tension. He said, ‘And a final word to my son…You make our family as close to complete as we will ever get’. He said, ‘We can’t wait to’. He said, ‘love you unconditionally.’ Then he repeated the name and toasted, ‘L’chaim! To life!’ In the coffee shop, I raised a burning-hot Americano to my lips.

After this, the Rabbi I’d been missing surprised me by appearing after all, on my Zoom screen, not in the room but beaming into it, full of that smile, holding up a whisky, the brand of which he recommended highly to everyone. Immediately his appearance reminded me of his own son and daughter, beating those chairs in prayer, the last time I was at a Jewish service. All my services are with Joshua’s rabbi now. He might as well be my own.

The Rabbi said a few words, then, and I felt like I’d been listening to Joshua’s dad and this Rabbi for years, taking turns, by gravesides, in synagogues, in homes. The Rabbi talked about the Hebrew version of the name – Yosef Chaim ben Tuvya – Joseph Hymie, son of Tuvya. Out of us all, I’m the one most culpable for treating my brother like some kind of saint. He’s nothing like a saint. No one is, though ‘Tuvya’ translates directly as ‘Goodness’. It’s right there, in his Hebrew name, daring you to disagree. The Rabbi said, ‘My prayer and wish this morning is that your little boy can do two things – ‘to add life’, ‘Yosef’ to add, ‘Chaim’ meaning life – he should also add life to our world, contribute to our world and make it a more complete place.’ Then he broke out into a grin and said, ‘Well done Mohel, sharp as ever!’

I laughed and thought to myself that if I saw that Rabbi in Tesco I’d probably burst into tears, or want to hug him, or both. I wondered if there are other people that feel this way about Rabbis, of any kind. I paid and left the café without saying thank you or goodbye, which isn’t like me. The least people can do, I think, is be polite. Then I made a call from the cold of the street. I was heading back down the incline to the train station, where I’d be starting my journey to London, to stay in that same flat, sharing a bedroom with Joshua’s little sister, in the room that was once intended to be his. Was I okay? No, not really. The word ‘Brit’ means ‘covenant’ in Hebrew. The word ‘Milah’ means ‘circumcision’. I don’t speak that language, though I feel like I’ve always been soaked in it. Trying, somehow, to get dry. As I tried to talk I caught the bug again, and couldn’t speak for the wetness leaking from my icy cheeks. I stopped on the street, bent over. What was this for? What was this for? Who did this help? This is getting embarrassing, bruv. ‘I’m fine,’ I said to the phone, again and again. ‘I’ll – be – f-fine.’ Then I put the phone away, and approached the station ticket machine, making sure not to look up, in case anyone could see me.

I was nearly on my way.

This is from the Book of Genesis, on this business of the covenant:

And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.’

On the train down to London, I kept thinking of my brother’s speech. Of what Joshua’s Brit Milah must have been like, though of course I could have no conception of it. I thought of how his body remained with his mum and dad, after he died, for a while. I wondered what good that can come from doing an impression of someone who was there. Then I blocked that out.

So I arrived in London, after it was all over, though this new life was just beginning. I held my nephew as much as I could get away with and held him close. I kissed his little head and clutched him to me while the family moved around me welcoming and serving and eating delicious Persian food and cracking yet more jokes. I held him like I’d never held a baby before, like I’d forgotten holding my own children, what you’re even supposed to do. That night over dinner I knew I would have no sons of my own, and knew how grateful I was for my daughters. I knew – I know - that every child is a blessing, no matter who they are, even when that child isn’t Joshua’s baby brother. And yet, I was jealous. Love you, little boy, I whispered, as I passed him back to his mum. Sentimental like an old Disney classic. Soft as a bag of marshmallows.

The morning I left London, I cleaned blood off the sheets I’d slept on at their flat. Trying to hide my nosebleed. A ritual often repeated, but somehow still shameful, especially here. Thinking, thank god the baby is alive and well. Thinking, as complete as we’ll ever be. Thinking, I can’t go on like this for one more day.

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