A couple of dabs of holy oil and a few drops of water gently dribbled on to your head, or a chunk of your private parts removed with a knife? Baptism or brit — which introduction to religion seems more appealing?
Put like that, it’s a close-run thing isn’t it? In the past fortnight I have attended one of each. The baptism was more picturesque and doubtless it ups a child’s status in the kingdom of heaven, but back on earth, rather like a barmitzvah, I suspect all too often it’s the last religious experience the kid ever has. So a brit may be the better bargain. After all, circumcision lasts forever and if you want your son to be a doctor, what better way to start than with surgery?
There’s quite a lot of debate about circumcision nowadays, but what’s not to like? Five minutes and a few brachot after the deed was done, and with the exception of the baby himself and an eminent criminal lawyer who felt a bit queasy, we were all tucking into smoked salmon bagels. Why so relaxed? Because we know that in our lives as Jewish men, a brit will be the least of our problems.
As for the baptism — I didn’t just attend it, I was actually a godfather. Now I know that isn’t a very Yiddishe way of going on. We Jews don’t really do godfathers, not even in the Mafia: Don Corleone was a godfather, Meyer Lansky was just a big-time crook. My ill-suitedness for the role had been made known to the priest in advance and he had charitably turned the other cheek. So there I was, fontside — honoured to be chosen by the child’s parents as a good sort who might at least have kind thoughts about the lad and slip him a few quid for his birthday.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been a Christian godparent – my guess is probably not. You are supposed to answer various questions and make several vows. The first question is “Do you turn to Christ?” Even if I’d wanted to answer I couldn’t have, because I have no idea what it means. The next question: “Do you repent your sins?” Well, who doesn’t? And “Do you renounce evil?” Well, of course. The other bits were far too Christian, so I kept shtum.
I was an outsider, a stranger in a strange land, admiring the beauty of the service (and it was beautiful), happy about the pleasure it brought to those involved, delighted for my godson who was slightly elderly for the occasion and so enjoyed it more (were he Jewish he’d be midway between brit and barmitzvah). I look forward to playing a minor role in his life. If I can’t be divine, I can at least be benign.
But can I ever be the real thing? The wonderful old Jewish joke about the newly-rich son who takes his mother to see his brand-new yacht and proudly tells her he’s the captain seems cruelly pertinent: “By you you’re a captain,” she says, “ by me you’re a captain, but by a captain are you a captain?”
By me I’m a godfather, by my godson I’m a godfather, but by God am I a godfather? Perhaps I should be told. Or maybe not.