by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)
My daughter and son-in-law pray in an old-fashioned synagogue where women sit in the balcony and the pale yellow wooden pews are creaky. As their new baby’s grandfather, I feel a little creaky myself. Still, there is in the high ceiling, blood-red velvet ark cover and the long length of the room an elegance, a sense of awe, and none of the modern chic found in many suburban houses of worship.
I like this fine.
The congregants are a mixed group. They wear black hats, crocheted yarmulkes, and those pale blue satin ones which many nonorthodox seem to favor. Most of them are smiling, anticipating the large kiddush afterwards, perhaps. Few are as excited as I to welcome another Jewish soul into our fold. Some are just happy today simply because something out of the ordinary will take place, a change in routine, an event.
I am greeted with shabbat shalom, or good shabbos, or, less commonly, git shabbes. Regardless of dialect, I know that each person wishes us a mazal tov and a peaceful, enjoyable Sabbath. My eight-day-old, very cute grandson will have his bris this morning. To them, it is not so much my grandson that is special, but the occasion. For me it’s all of it, especially the newly-formed family: my beautiful daughter, her sweet husband, and this new bunch of deliciousness that is my grandson.
My son-in-law’s brother leads the morning shacharit prayer, my own son leads us in musaf. I am transported by all of it, as well as by my own prayers and gratitude that my daughter is well and past the pregnancy, the family is all here in good health, that all present will meet my newest grandchild for the first time as a full-fledged Jew. I am amazed and excited at seeing the magical line come glittering to life, the line connecting this baby to his and our eldest forefather, Abraham.
From the moment that my daughter and son-in-law had called several days before to ask me to be the sandek, I bawled like a baby at the honor, the specialness and this precursor of closeness I prayed for to be between my little grandson and me.
This marks the first time in my life that I have been asked to be the sandek, meaning that my infant grandson will be placed on a pillow on my lap while the mohel does his thing (oops).
Being the sandek is a great honor in our Jewish tradition.
Sandek is a Greek word meaning “don’t look at what the mohel’s doing or you’ll turn green, hurt the mohel, or both.” Just kidding. Actually, sandek comes from the Greek word, suntekos, which means “companion of child,” which is what I want to be for him, as I hope to always be for all of my grandchildren.
So here I am, sitting in this plush chair to the right of Elijah’s Chair on the Ark platform. The little munchkin is placed on my lap, and I lovingly look only at his eyes, his forehead, and his quivering mouth. I watch the teal-blue pacifier near his lips bob like a buoy as he alternatively screams in pain and gasps for air. I whisper cooing, encouraging words to him, but they are not honest words. What I really want to say is, “Give me a second, Bud, just hang on while I stiff-arm these people like an NFL pro and run for the door.” I check all the exits and see that the one behind me is my best bet. In my brain’s image I scoop him up before the mohel feels the downdraft from my moving blur, and we are out of there, no pain, truly no gain. My protectiveness is fueled by unbidden imagery of what is about to happen and I wish for Samantha-types of blinking power to teleport us out of there.
I stay, of course.
I can feel him straining hard to break free from my hold. It’s crazy, but I want to help him. I’m his grandfather, for crying out loud, I’m supposed to help him with all the fun stuff, not allow him to suffer. Let his parents deal with all the have-to’s, that’s their job. I know I’m conflicted, this is part of what the human family calls meshuga time. I know that I’m one of his peeps who is the transmitter of traditions such as the one we are all gathered here for. But I think: if he looks like me, then perhaps his tastes are like mine. I therefore formulate a plan to take him to the nearest Starbucks because we are so in sync, my baby grandson and I. So we’ll have a cup of coffee and schmooze about the scrapes we escaped from together.
Again with the fantasy, I know. What’s with me? Where are my personal prayers? I can’t. He has to endure this ceremony, no matter how painful for him, no matter how painful for me. So I steel myself for the task before us and hold his feet immobile, as the mohel has instructed me.
The wine-soaked gauze-pad they will place in his tiny lips will not fool him for a second, and I know that what he really wants is chocolate with almonds, or maybe a muffin, with that fresh hot coffee.
Soon, my eyes fall on the mohel’s tray, and when I see a little blood near the mohel’s instruments, it takes all my self-control not to perform a bris on the mohel himself for what he was doing to my grandson.
But the truth is, it is all just so moving and meaningful.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all the way to my grandfather, then my father, me, and now my little grandson. A long line down through time, all obeying our Father’s request, all part of the same family.
I tell you, it’s enough to make you give up coffee.
For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. Three of his poems, “The Shul is Dark,” “Mr Blumen,” and “Unlikely Pair” have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and an early short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne. He is currently working in several genres and is hoping to share a larger selection of his work in the future.