Stunned by a sharp pain in his penis — “excruciating pain; searing, white-hot pain like no pain he could remember ever feeling before” — a man flees a crowded room to privately examine his tormented member. It looks fine. The man, a Berkeley doctor, ponders possible medical reasons for his agony, which ebbs and flows. Tests are performed. All prove negative.
The cause turns out to be not physical, but mental. Defying probability, the middle-age doctor is vividly re-experiencing his own circumcision. Overcome with a primal sense of outrage, he begins attending meetings of a group called the East Bay Foreskin Restorers.
That’s the basic thrust of The Measure of His Grief, a new novel in which Berkeley author Lisa Braver Moss examines an issue that has divided Jews and other groups for years. “I began writing articles on this topic in the late Eighties, after the births of my sons. We’re Jewish and they were circumcised, but that decision haunted me because while it reflected my tradition, it did not reflect my spirituality or, I later realized, my ethics,” said Moss, who will discuss the circumcision controversy on Friday, November 12, at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center (2071 Tice Valley Rd., Walnut Creek) as part of the center’s Jewish Books and Arts Festival.
The idea of broaching this topic in fictional form “started percolating when a very credible, well-educated Jewish friend told me he felt he had re-experienced his circumcision trauma while in a trancelike state,” said Moss, who then wondered: “What if a Jewish man had a flashback to his own circumcision? What if he then started to rail against this tradition — and thereby deepened his understanding of Judaism and his commitment to it? When it occurred to me to add in the phenomenon of foreskin ‘restoration,’ the deal was sealed.”
In The Measure of His Grief, protagonist Sandy Waldman adopts some of the restorers’ radical strategies, which start with sticky tape and progress to steel balls. Meanwhile, he challenges rabbis, Torah scholars, and his fellow doctors about a practice he has come to consider barbaric and unnecessary. Noting that penile cancer is far too rare “to justify routine surgery on healthy infants who had no say in the matter,” Waldman demands to know why most circumcisions are performed without local anesthesia.
“When I started tinkering with the topic of circumcision, my essay drafts were angry, tendentious, and condescending to anyone who didn’t see things as I did. It took awhile for me to forgo the outrage in order to be listened to,” Moss said.
Although she shares her character’s perspective on the matter, the novel is not quite autobiographical. “I am not now, nor have I ever been, male and fixated on my member. That said, Sandy Waldman does hail from Berkeley, as I do, and like me, he grew up assimilated and winds up studying for an adult bar mitzvah while immersed in his anti-circumcision campaign.” 1:30 p.m. (Moss is the final speaker in a program that begins at 10 a.m.), $15 (includes lunch). CCJCC.org