When our house burned down in the big 1961 Bel Air Fire we lost almost everything we owned. Most important however, we saved our kids, Cindy and Dan, and the child Elayne was carrying at the time. She was in her fifth month, and despite the trauma of the fire and her escape, she wasn’t the least bit concerned about her condition. I, on the other hand, insisted that we go see her doctor to make sure she was ok… The report was good; everything checked out. The OB assured her that she could expect to deliver a healthy baby on schedule.
Well, not quite on schedule… in fact, the baby came a couple weeks late. We were living in our Malibu Colony rental at the time, and I was commuting every day to my office in Los Angeles. There were no cell phones of course, and I was a very concerned husband and father. What if she went into labor and couldn’t reach me?
“Don’t worry,” she said, “If I start to go into labor I’ll just call Jack. He’s home every day and offered to drive me into the hospital anytime day or night.”
‘Jack’ was Jack Warden, a movie actor friend who was between pictures and living down the street. As happens Jack’s wife, Vanda, was also pregnant at the time.
Elayne’s doctor practiced in Inglewood, and the baby was scheduled to be born at the Daniel Freeman Hospital near his office.
Daniel Freeman is a Catholic Hospital run by nuns. It’s a good forty minutes away from Malibu and longer during the rush hour. Why she chose that doctor and that hospital, I will never understand.
The labor began late in the evening of March 6, 1962. I was home at the time, so Jack was off the hook. Thanks to better planning, Jack’s son, Chris was born a few months later at St. John’s in Santa Monica, also Catholic, and just twenty minutes away.
“It’s a big boy!” the nun announced when she came into the waiting room. All three of us jumped up (I shared the waiting room that early morning with two other nervous fathers-to-be). “It’s Baby boy Nathanson” she said.
“That’s mine!” I replied. “How did it go? How’s she doing? Can I see her?”
“Follow me,” the nun ordered. “We are all very excited. He’s a big one… thirteen pounds and out of that little mother. He was a late-comer, but he is beautiful. You will be very proud of your wife, she was a real trooper.”
“He’s a big boy,” Elayne said with closed eyes when I walked into her room. “They were wonderful,” she said referring to the hospital staff.
I asked a bunch of questions; “Was it tough? How long did it take? Who does he look like?”
“The nurse will take you to see him. He’s in the room where they take new babies and…” she drifted away.
The nurse led me down the hall to a viewing window. I had no trouble identifying my own ‘Baby Boy Nathanson 13lbs 2oz’. He dwarfed the other kids in that nursery. But he was beautiful, red face and all.
I found my way to a telephone. It was early, no later than 7:00 am, but I called my folks and Elayne’s parents to tell them the news. A couple hours later I called my grandparents who were visiting in town from Minnesota for the winter.
“It’s a boy, grandpa,” I announced.
“It’s a boy,” my grandfather repeated to my grandmother, and to me he said “Wonderful… Mazeltov Mazeltov…” Then after a pause he asked, “When’s the bris?”
“The bris, grandpa? The bris? Ummm, the bris… well I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
‘Uh oh,’ I thought to myself. ‘He means the circumcision.’
Now as happens we had some history at this hospital. It’s where our son Danny was born, and I sure didn’t remember any bris. I knew he was circumcised, but I didn’t remember any formal ceremony.
Remember it was early in the morning and I hadn’t slept all night. I found the office of the head obstetric nurse. “Excuse me,” I said. My name is Nathanson, and my wife had a baby boy a few hours ago, and I wanted to ask you about his circumcision.”
“Baby boy Nathanson,” she said. “Let me check.” She made a call and said “You will be pleased; it went very well. You have quite a boy there; thirteen pounds. He’s something else.”
“It went pretty well,” I repeated her. “You mean the birth… I was wondering about the circumcision.”
“That’s what I meant,” she said. “The circumcision went very well.”
“So he’s already been circumcised?” I choked out.
“Of course; we do it immediately. We’re not barbarians,” she said proudly. “Is something wrong?”
“No, not really,” I replied… though I knew darn well I would have a lot of explaining to do.
I called my grandfather maybe a half-hour later. “Grandpa,” I said, “You know the Daniel Freeman is a Catholic hospital. They do things a little differently here. As it turns out they circumcise newborn baby boys shortly after delivery, which means that…”
“Are you saying,” interrupted my grandpa, “that my great grandson is not a Jew? He’s not a Jew?”
“Of course he’s a Jew Grandpa. He’s my son and Elayne’s son and your great grandson… of course he’s a Jew.”
“No bris… he can’t be a Jew. My great grandson is not a Jew. It’s a shanda (‘shame’ in Yiddish). My great grandson, your son, is not a Jew.”
“Grandpa,” I pleaded, “You’ll love him. He’s beautiful. You’ll love our little Tommy.”
“What’s ‘Tommy’?” he asked, “Tommy for Thomas? Of course, what else?” he said, answering his own question. That is no name for a Jewish boy. That’s a Christian name from Thomas, the Christian saint, like where you went to school. (I spent a year at St. Thomas Military Academy.) I don’t know what I’m going to tell your grandma.”
“Grandpa, come with me to the hospital,” I pleaded. “Tommy isn’t the first Jewish child to be born there. They will explain why they do it so soon. They claim it’s more sanitary and healthier for the baby boy.”
There was a lull followed by a long exhale. “No bris… my great grandson is not a Jew.”
Nothing I or anyone else could do or say helped. We had our Rabbi call my grandfather. It didn’t move him.
“What do you expect from a Reform Jewish Rabbi?” said Grandpa when I called to see how the conversation went.
Elayne and I discussed it when she came home with the baby. There was nothing we could do. You can’t reverse the procedure. Then one Sunday about 11:00 AM, we got a call from the Malibu Colony guard gate. “You have a visitor, a Mr. Weinstein.”
“Elayne, it’s Grandpa. He’s coming in the gate,” I called to my wife who was in the nursery at that moment. “I’ll bet he’s coming to see the baby. Is he awake?”
To describe what happened in our house in Malibu that morning is classic. Driving down with my grandfather was a very serious man in black with a beard and a Yarmulke (Jewish skull cap).
“Where’s the boy?” asked my grandfather as he and his companion walked in the door. “It’s time he had a proper bris.”
“A bris Grandpa?” I asked. “You mean like a real bris… like a circumcision? He already had that.”
“Don’t worry… we’re here to make a Jew out of my grandson. Do you think I would hurt the little boy?”
The man in black was a mohel, a person who specializes in Jewish ritual circumcisions. He opened his black bag and took out several scary looking tools.
“What’s he going to do with those?” asked Elayne. “He’s not going to hurt my baby, is he?”
“No, no,” I replied. “There’s nothing left to cut.”
Well the mohel didn’t do any cutting, however he sure did everything but. He performed a mock bris. He waved those tools over the baby, chanted some prayers in Hebrew, went through the motions of circumcising the little boy. He and grandpa bowed up and down many times, and then it was over.
Through all of this, Tommy had what seemed like a big smile on his face. He must have known what was going on; that this was a bris for show, for the record, if you believe God keeps records. And that was it. We all broke for lunch.
My grandfather assured us that now our son, Tommy, was a Jew. “But no Tommy,” he added. “That’s not a name for a Jewish boy. We will have to change my great grandson’s name. You will call him Israel Nathanson. That will be fine.”
“Israel?” I asked, “but grandpa?”
“It’s a perfect name for a Jewish boy,” he continued; “same as that famous British statesman.”
“Israel… British statesman?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he said, “after Benjamin Israeli.”
“You mean Disraeli, with a ‘D’, right?” I asked.
“Spelling is not important,” he said. “He was a fine man, and God-willing my great grandson, Israel, should grow up to be such a fine man.”
With that we had the lox, bagels and cream cheese he had brought along for lunch, and that was it. Our son Tommy, or Israel or whatever, became a Jew that morning in Malibu. To my grandfather however, he was always ‘Israel’. Like Shakespeare wrote: “What’s in a name?”
Every year until he passed away at age 93 Grandpa sent U.S. Government bonds to our three kids on their respective birthdays. When it came time to cash in his bonds, which was long after they reached maturity, Tommy or Tom or Tomas (as some call him) had no easy time convincing the bank that he was indeed the Israel Nathanson in whose name the bonds had been drawn.