Outside, with sun shining brightly and birds singing
gloriously as they hopped from branch to branch of green-
leafed trees, Rivka was able to forget that it was winter.
But inside her Bnei Brak apartment, it was a different
story. There, despite the kerosene heater that burnt all the
time and the layers of sweaters that she always wore, she
never stopped shivering. Everyone kept telling her that it
was just a matter of time till she got used to winters
without steam heat, but it was already three years since her
family had settled in Israel and Rivka was still freezing in
the winters. There was a knock at the door. Before she could
answer, Rivka's top floor neighbor, Rutti Glick, pushed her
head inside and said in a rush, "Rivka, are you ready?
Hurry! We'll be late for the Bris."
"But I'm not even dressed for a simcha," Rivka
moaned, feeling like some Russian Cossack in her thick, long
woolen stockings, woolies, high fleece-lined boots, scarves
wound around her neck, layers of sweaters and a wool knit
hat that covered all her hair.
"Just put on your sheitel. No one will notice the
"But I wasn't even invited," Rivka protested unhappily.
"No one gets invited to a Bris," Rutti said. "An
announcement is made. Everyone comes. It's a
The house was already crowded when the two of them arrived;
the living room with bearded men, the women in the hallway,
where they'd be able to hear, if not see, what was going on.
Chana, the mother of the child, smiled weakly to each guest
as they entered and returned their mazel tovs. Then
there was a loud hush.
The father of the eight-day-old infant wrapped his
tallis tightly round him, pinched his eyes closed
tight and recited each word of the blessings in deep
concentration. "...Who made us holy with His mitzvos
and commanded us to enter all males into the Covenant of
Avrohom Ovinu." "Blessed... for giving us life, for
sustaining us, for bringing us to this time." Everyone
cheered their "Amen."
The mohel, knife in hand, bent over the child.
Everyone strained forward. A little girl kept asking her
older brother, "What's he doing? What's the mohel
doing to the baby?" but her brother maintained a stony-faced
silence. Except for the drip of the faucet in the kitchen
sink, there was total silence. Then, after what seemed like
a long time, the baby started to cry. Everyone let out a
sigh of relief and those on the front lines began a search
for the baby's pacifier.
The mohel, an elderly man with a white beard,
straightened up and called out, "May the father rejoice with
what came forth from his loins. May the mother be gladdened
with the fruits of her womb..."
"In your blood shall you live!" the assembled echoed and
happy shouts of "Mazel tov" rang out in the room. The
men all rushed to the child. The women surrounded Chana,
grasped her hand, embraced her and someone brought over a
chair for her to sit on. The little girl was still
complaining, "I keep asking what they did to the baby but
nobody wants to tell me," and the ladies all smiled.
The baby was brought to his mother. She kissed him gently;
the tears fell on his cheeks. Then she laid him in his
carriage and wheeled him to a quiet corner of the house. The
father washed his hands, made the blessing and cut into a
tremendous challa. He sent slices all around and the
meal began. The men sat in the living room, the women in a
side room, making a lot of noise while they shoveled
spoonfuls of food into their own and their children's
mouths. In no time, the faces of the little children were
smudged with multicolored ices, cake fillings and cremes.
The child's father stood up to speak. The men stopped
singing. "Rejoice ye with the fruit of your womb," he began
slowly, "for you have given life to a creature that is
greater than angels. Of all creations, only man is capable
of hallowing the clay from which he was formed. And how does
he do that? Not only by contemplating Hashem's greatness,
not by thinking esoteric thoughts. We become holy simply by
doing mitzvos. Our religion is not a philosophy; it
is a religion of deeds. I pray that just as Hashem, in His
bountiful goodness, has granted me to begin my newborn's
life with mitzvas mila, so may He grant me to see
this child grow up to be His devoted servant, consecrating
his most powerful strengths to Hashem's service."
Chana urged all the guests to eat. Rutti heaped more food on
Rivka's plate. "Nu, tell me," she asked, "aren't you happy
you came? A Bris is such a happy occasion; such a big
mitzva to attend. How do they celebrate a Bris in the
"Well..." Rivka said haltingly, "I guess it looks the same.
You know, the way the men all stand around in their beards
and black hats and jackets, clenching their eyes closed in
concentration, swaying, humming, singing... And the mother
looking so worried and so happy at the same time. Almost
ethereal... the seriousness of it all. But..." she added
hesitantly. "It's different too. Underneath, I mean. You
have to realize," she paused, groping for words that would
crystalize her thoughts, "that it's simply not possible for
a Jew who has lived in a goyish world all his life
and has been exposed to goyish sights and sounds all
the time to think and feel and react to a mitzva in
the same way as someone who's never been exposed to anything
but Jewish impressions and Jewish frames of reference all
Rutti was just then called away and Rivka was left sitting,
alone with the thought that she'd tried so hard to express.
She wondered if her Israeli neighbor had understood - or
even listened with half an ear. Very often, especially at a
Bnei Brak simcha or funeral, Rivka had experienced
that squashy feeling that she was an outsider, that because
she'd been exposed to secular thought, culture and
influence, she was defiled and contaminated, that she would
never be able to have the purity of thought and belief that
came so naturally to her Israeli-born neighbors and friends.
She was often filled with envy; jealous of all those young
people who'd been born, bred and had lived in the bubble of
Bnei Brak all their lives, protected, insulated, never
exposed to the world outside.
She had no doubt that Chana's thoughts that day were far
different than hers had been on the day of her son's Bris in
America, three years before. With a shudder, she forced
herself to remember. The family had been so happy that the
Bris would take place on Sunday, when none of them worked
and they'd be able to attend without rushing back. But
instead of waking with excitement and joy, Rivka woke to the
ringing of church bells.
To be continued...