Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Story of Ritual Abuse

By Leland Traiman © 1994

My earliest memories are of terror, pain and helplessness. At first, these feelings were never attached to any particular time or event. Between the ages of four and five I had nightmares and daytime fantasies which somehow were related to these feelings. Between the ages of six and eight I had a recurring nightmare of a long bearded goat eating its way through the wall of the bedroom I shared with my older brother. I somehow knew I was the ultimate target of this bearded beast and that he was coming to take bites out of my flesh. Images of this goat followed me into the daylight hours. Although I felt close to my parents, especially my mother, I never felt I could or should talk to them of these terrors. I imagined them saying that these images were only from my imagination and had no basis in reality. So, I kept silent for a long time. Finally these images became so disturbing that at about the age of nine I told my mother about the goat. Although she was very sweet about it, she only confirmed my fear, telling me that it was "only" out of my imagination.


I was standing in the middle of the party terrified - in pain - and screaming.
But nobody seemed to notice me. 


It was during this time that these feelings of terror, pain and helplessness took on a social context. One evening my parents hosted a party for a social club they belonged to. My brother and I were sent to our room early and told that the party was for adults only. Of course, we were curious and sometime during the evening we sneaked out of our room, into the hall and peered around the corner into the living room. We saw a group of nicely dressed adults snacking, drinking and engaged in conversation. Of course, we were spotted by one of the guests and our parents were alerted. My father came over and, to our surprise, was not angry. With warmth and good nature he firmly ordered us back to bed, for it was way past our bedtime. That night I dreamt of the party. However, in my dream I was standing in the middle of the party terrified - in pain - and screaming. But nobody seemed to notice me. Everyone went on as if I was not there. Finally, one of the women turned to my mother and said, "I think your son is having a little problem." My mother answered, "Don't worry, it's nothing really. He'll get over it soon." That recurring nightmare haunted my nights and daytime fantasies for 12 years.

My maternal grandmother, Celia, was the acknowledged matriarch of our family. She had seen her first two children die in "Russia" (now known as the Ukraine). One died of starvation and the other she accidentally smothered to death trying to keep the infant quiet while the family was hiding during a pogrom(1). My mother was born a year after my grandparents arrived in New York City. My mother, the first child born in their new, free country was bathed in milk as soon as they brought her home from the hospital. The believed this would give the new baby beautiful skin, and no doubt was a symbol of the new relative wealth they enjoyed in their new home, where they did not have to fear for their lives simply because they were Jews.

During Passover(2) the young children in our family were given grape juice instead of wine to drink. From the time I was nine years old my grandmother would try to sneak some wine into my grape juice. My brother and my cousins welcomed the wine as a symbol of maturity, but not me. I would cough and spit out the wine and sometimes loudly complain how disgusting alcohol was.

"I remember your bris...I was so worried because you would not stop crying."

When I was 21 my grandmother Celia died. After the funeral, family and friends gathered at her home for food and remembrances. She had shared my aunt and uncle's house during the last 14 years of her life. In keeping with Jewish custom, no alcohol was served. But for the first time in my life I wanted a drink. I got into my uncle's liquor cabinet, found some gin, and got drunk.

The gathering went on for hours and when I was finally sobering up I found myself sitting next to my great-aunt Sara, my paternal grandmother's sister. She sat crocheting, not looking up from her work, talking at me, not to me. She was comparing this occasion to other family gatherings. I was not really listening until I heard her say,

"I remember your bris(3)."
On hearing this I sat up and leaned toward the old lady. She did not seem to notice my change in posture but kept crocheting. Without looking up she continued,

"Oh yes, that was some family occasion. Your grandmother, Celia, had insisted that the ceremony be done in her house and not your parents' home, which was customary. Of course, it was only eight days after you were born and your mother had felt ill for a few days and was not really up to leaving the house. Nonetheless, she bundled you up and readied your brother and father and dragged all of you across town on the subway to her mother's house. When you got there Celia was trying to have the bris done quickly. Her brother, your great-uncle Isaac, was still in the hospital and Celia wanted to visit him as soon as possible. He had had a cancer operation the night you were born and he wasn't expected to live." (Isaac died over three decades later.)

"And then you began to cry. They put the wine-soaked cloth in your mouth as it usually knocks the baby out, you know, like a sedative. But not you. You kept on crying, and of course, your other grandmother, my sister, was no help at all. She was never any good with crying babies or blood. So she was getting sick in the next room. Then Celia started saying, 'Why is the baby crying? It did not hurt him!' So I started arguing with her. 'Of course it hurt him,' I said, 'If you cut your finger doesn't it hurt?' We kept arguing until she left to see Isaac. Everyone was crowding around you. They wanted to see the new baby. You kept crying so I took you and put you in one of the bedrooms alone and I said, 'No one can see the baby now, he just had an operation.'"

"I could see that your mother wasn't feeling so well so I went to her and told her to go home and take care of your father and your brother and I would take care of you and I would bring you to her the next day. So your parents took your brother and left. I was so worried because you would not stop crying. You cried for 18 hours, through the night. You know," my great-aunt emphasized, "a new baby is supposed to sleep 18 hours a day, not cry for 18 hours. I remember because you were circumcised around noon and you finally fell asleep at 6 the next morning. I was so grateful when you finally slept."
My great-aunt told me this with hardly a glance in my direction, concentrating mainly on her crocheting.

I was finally able to recognize the actual event responsible for the nightmares
that had haunted my entire life. 



The effect on me was immediate. I was finally able to recognize the actual event responsible for the nightmares that had haunted my entire life. My fear of the bearded goat who wanted to bite off my flesh was the mohel(4) who, like all orthodox Jews, must have had a beard. It was the mohel who cut off a part of my body.

They never asked my permission to do this; what right did they have?

I realized my revulsion of alcohol was related to the wine forced on me as an unsuccessful sedative. I saw how ironic it was that I had gotten drunk only after my grandmother's death. I associated my grandmother with alcohol all my life and now I knew that this association had begun with the ritual abuse that took place in her home. Other things started making sense for the first time. I had always remembered at age three or four, long before I began nursery school, trying to pull the skin on the shaft of my penis over the glans at the end. I never knew why I had done this. I also came to realize why at my Bar Mitzvah(5), when I was again the center of attention in a Jewish ceremony, I was upset, angry and fearful that whole day even though all I had to do was read from the Torah(6) in Hebrew. This was totally out of character with the verbose joker I had become. I usually enjoyed being the center of attention. In my late teenage years I began to feel very badly about the fact that part of my genitals was missing. This, despite the fact that almost all the other boys in the locker room were also circumcised. I began to ask myself, "Why did they do this to me? They never asked my permission to do this; what right did they have?" And I also asked myself, "Am I a self-hating Jew because I ask these questions?"

Questioning barbaric acts on one's self and on innocent babies is valid.
It is an inherent act of self-love.


It took a lot of struggle and over 20 years to answer these questions, but I finally have. They did this to me out of ignorance. As an oppressed and ancient people struggling to keep its identity, most Jews falsely believe that continuing the tradition of male genital mutilation will help Jewish culture and beliefs survive.

The only "right" they had to do this to me was a legal one, not a moral or ethical one. A legal right based on the notion that children are more like property, cattle to be branded, rather than human beings with their own inalienable human rights. And finally, the question of identity and self-loathing or self-love. My questioning the authority of previous generations does not mean I hate them, nor that part of myself that comes from them. Rather, it is the appropriate task of every person to examine, question and change. Questioning barbaric acts on one's self and on innocent babies is valid. It is an inherent act of self-love.

This ritual abuse not only scars children physically and emotionally, but some children die as a result. How many have died over the centuries is unknown. This is one of the facts obscured by those who practice it. I know that the pain and the deaths were unnecessary. As more people openly question circumcision, more information is coming to light about the pain and death it has caused.

I want to be very clear, I am not equating Naziism and circumcision.
...I am saying that there are lessons we should have learned from the Holocaust.
And one lesson is that using the excuse "I was just following orders" is no excuse.


In my history classes at school and at home, when I was a child, I was nurtured on the lessons learned from the Nazi atrocities and the Nuremberg trials that followed. I was taught that "I was just following orders" is no excuse for committing crimes against individuals and against humanity. I want to be very clear, I am not equating Naziism and circumcision. That would be a silly comparison. I am saying that there are lessons we should have learned from the Holocaust. And one lesson is that using the excuse "I was just following orders" is no excuse. It does not matter if the orders come from a president, a pope, a prime minister, a Muslim cleric or a Rabbi. Some people claim God commands them to harm, mutilate or kill. Many people have killed Jews in the name of their God. Yigal Amir, a Jewish Israeli law student, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin because, he claimed, God told him to do it.

In light of this, everyone must question what I heard one rabbi say at a forum on male infant circumcision, "We do it because we have been commanded to do it." How can we, as Jews, condemn the harm that others wish to do to us in the name of their God and not condemn the harm that we do to our own children in the name of our own God?

Amir did not have the right to kill Yitzhak because "God commanded him" to do it. Abraham did not have the right to sacrifice Isaac(7), nor any part of Isaac's body(8), because he was commanded to do it. Jews have paid a very high price in the 20th century to understand the value of human rights. It is sad we still have so much of the lesson yet to learn. All children should be welcomed into our world bathed in the milk of human kindness, not in their own blood.





Source: NOHARMM Progress Report 3, August 1994



13 comments:

  1. What a powerful story. Very well said.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This essay should be read to an audience. When it ends, there should 3-5 seconds of silence then a 3 minute standing ovation.

    Leland Traiman is a light unto the nations. The Biblical tradition of prophecy lives on through him and his ilk.

    Circumcision, religious or secular, can result in major psychosexual damage; this essay is a dramatic case in point. Sigmund Freud gently warned of this in certain passages he wrote late in his life, but nobody seems to have taken him seriously. Circ can diminish a wife's enjoyment of sex and damage her marriage. So many of us have our eyes resolutely closed to these possibilities.

    I wonder if circumcised men are more likely to become gay and to be vulnerable to paraphilias.

    For related thinking by a Jewish wife and mother, read Miriam Pollack.

    There is more to Jewishness than the Torah and obedience thereto. Bris has collided full force with Jewish medical and sexual sophistication, and the Jewish heritage of nonviolence and humaneness.

    To circumcise a child without anesthesia is barefaced sexual violence.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. CORRECTION TO THE LAST LINE ABOVE:
      to circumcise a child in any way, shape or form is barefaced sexual violence.

      Delete
  3. I wish I had seen this during my pregnancy. Both my younger sister and I had our sons within twenty days of each other. My son was not circumcised and hers was.
    If I had seen this I would have sent it to her.

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  4. I think this should be mandatory reading for every person who uses the tired excuse of "he won't remember it later". So sad, and so avoidable. This needs to end.

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  5. So messed up. Someone did that to these guys. The whole thing is obviously sick. It's just like the image of the women holding down the girls in Africa during a circ. There's no diff except one is still legal in America and one isn't

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  6. I have often wondered why merely questioning something equates to disrespect/antisemitism/disbelief in other peoples eyes. Very powerful indeed....

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  7. I wonder how your doing now. If you have been able to make your peace with this. Released the painful memories. Memories serve us but can also haunt us. I realize this from my own traumatic childhood (rape) Until traumatic memories are released they muck up our existance incredibly. It took me yrs but eventually I found a way. Once traumatic memories are released, healed they become just a distant, insignificant part of the past. It can be done, otherwise the past can hold you hostage, emotionally. With all the new trauma techniques, it is now possible to heal emotionally. I pray youv'e released this, healed. Namaste

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  8. This is the true published story of my late friend Mark:

    MARK'S STORY: Below is the relevant part of the magazine article we had been discussing, which was published by Personality Magazine:

    Mark said: "I think it is terribly important that people should know about the pain and trauma experienced by a baby during circumcision. I was born into a family who circumcise their infant sons for traditional reasons and, until fairly recently, I never questioned the practice.

    "However, throughout my childhood I had a 'waking nightmare' that I never understood. I would see myself lying helplessly, gazing up at a group of smiling monsters who were standing around me and staring down at me. I was completely at their mercy and I knew they were going to torture me - but I never found out how.

    "Then some years ago, while I was undergoing psychotherapy, I began to spontaneously relive the nightmare in its real context. The 'monsters' turned out to be the male members of my family. They were holding my penis and were about to cut it and I started to actually relive some of the pain, shock and, worst of all, the terrible sense of betrayal of my circumcision.

    "I was having psychotherapy because of sexual problems which made it almost impossible for me to have a relationship with a woman, but I never guessed where the problems had originated. After reliving the trauma of my circumcision I had my first successful relationship with a woman.

    "What horrifies me more than anything is that my well-meaning and smiling relatives had no idea of the pain they caused me or of the scars it would leave on my mind. I don't have a son, but if I ever do have one he will not be circumcised. I have promised never to do to a son of mine what was done to me."

    Mark is one of a growing number of people who are questioning the practice of circumcision.

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  9. This is a powerful testimonial and we need more like it. How depressing to think that the pro-circumcision crowd manages to dismiss and minimize stories such as this. No wonder Merrell Markoe recently observed that there are "so many socially acceptable ways to exhibit a pathological lack of empathy."

    I must call out Anonymous's comment of January 28, 2010 for implying that being gay is pathological and even akin to paraphilia--that is a tremendously insulting and erroneous point of view.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In no way did I assert or imply that being gay is pathological or in any way akin to a paraphilia. Replace "and" with "or". Moreover, to suffer from paraphilias is not a desirable state of affairs; that follows from the definition of paraphilia.

      Delete
  10. I'm totally heartbroken by this old outdated dogma. I've has similar dreams, and after reading this I believe the dreams were a result of my circumcision as well. In my dreams I was sitting on a small box alone or by the side of my mother while she was sewing. A scary hand would reach out from under the box, the horror paralyzing. I hope all people take the time to educate themselves about this old outdated dogma that harms countless babies, boys, then men.

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