First novels can be dicey for any reviewer, but especially when the author is local (East Bay) and the subject is a procedure widely practiced since Biblical times that has recently come under close medical and cultural scrutiny. Courage is a word that comes to mind when considering what it must have taken Ms. Moss to write a story whose underlying subject is as delicate and controversial as circumcision. Fortunately for the reader, Moss writes with intelligence and heart. And, I suspect, she writes with the assumption that her readers have both, as well.
Moss wryly sets her story in Berkeley, Californian, a progressive and quirky enclave nearly as controversial as circumcision itself. Dr. Sandy Waldman, an endocrinologist, is married to Ruth, a nutritionist-turned-cookbook-author. They have one child, an adopted daughter. Amy has recently graduated from Berkeley High School, but has confounded her successful parents by refusing to apply to any college (even community college) and instead, moves out and takes a job with a UC Berkeley garden project. Such parental disappointment is not unusual, but Sandy and Ruth have the additional emotional stress of dealing with the sudden death of his father, the senior Dr. Waldman.
Sandy’s parents are Holocaust survivors and the burden of their experience has weighed heavily upon their son. The senior Dr. Waldman was a highly respected member of his community, yet a man whose son, a respected physician himself, never felt worthy of or accepted by his father. Sandy’s relationship to Judaism is ambivalent and adhered to mostly on high holy days. He does, however, let a close friend convince him to open his home to family and friends of his father to sit Shiva on the last day of mourning. It is here, in his own home, in the midst of his confused feelings of loss for a man who was loved and feared in almost equal measure, that Dr. Sandy Waldman experiences excruciating and frightening pain in his groin.
If nothing else, Waldman, a man of science, is determined to discover the root of his pain, whether physical or emotional. What he does realize is that the loss of his father has led him to grapple with an even more primal loss, closely related to his troubled relationship with his father, and that is the loss of his foreskin at his circumcision. His determination becomes an obsession of monumental mid-life crisis proportions. At first, Waldman is unable to tell his wife what is happening, but when he does, his revelation with its accompanying obsession becomes a wedge between them. Ruth, whose own mother died just the year before, is left, along with Sandy’s sister, to deal with his father’s estate and the continuing task of overseeing the care of his mother, who suffers from dementia and lives in a senior care facility.
Waldman’s research into the continued practice of circumcision has also jeopardized him professionally. While his obsession leads him to both medical facts and fiction, it also leads him into an unexpected and profoundly moving understanding of the faith of his Judaic culture. This is where Lisa Moss’s talent as a storyteller is most evident. The body of medical, social and religious information brought into focus parallels but never overshadows the basic story of a marriage and family in crisis. We care about these people whose humanity is our own and we root mightily for love, understanding and reconciliation.
Because circumcision is not just a Jewish practice but one performed, with religious and cultural significance, by ethnic and religious groups around the world, as well as performed for purely health reasons, it is a subject of great, but seldom admitted, interest to the general public. I read this novel in almost one sitting, but it will stay with me for much longer. We in the Greater Bay Area live in a rich literary environment. What a pleasure to recommend Lisa Braver Moss and her first novel, “The Measure of His Grief.”