Nathan Cohen faced a profound dilemma ahead of his Jewish coming of age.
The youngster, who attends King David High School in Liverpool, explains: “My dad isn’t Jewish and my family isn’t observant, so I was not circumcised as a baby. Before the big day my mum and I agreed that if I was to have one for my barmitzvah it had to be entirely my own decision. Other people just have it done at eight days old and it’s forgotten about. I actually chose to do it, so I feel like it’s more special in that way.”
Nathan says he always felt like he was different, especially among his peers at a Jewish school. “People would talk about it and I would feel left out,” he says. “I kept quiet, though, and no one knew I wasn’t circumcised. But I had this uncomfortable feeling that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t properly Jewish.”
Although he never converted, Nathan’s father, Anthony, underwent a circumcision in recent years to encourage his son to do the same.
But it was a chance encounter on a plane five years ago with Berish Dresdner, a Belz Chassid from Manchester, that finally convinced Nathan to take his first steps towards having a circumcision.
Dresdner introduced Nathan and his family to the wider Belz community and he began to learn more about the religious significance of having a brit milah. “My dad definitely inspired me, but I also learnt so much about Judaism from Berish,” he explains.
“I felt like I owed it to myself and him.
I thought, ‘It’s just a simple surgery, I can do this.’”
Last year, Nathan decided to undergo a circumcision, but the procedure had to be halted when the local anaesthetic failed, leaving him in pain.
He waited another year before attempting a second surgery, performed this time under general anaesthetic.
“I went from 100 percent to 65 percent sure, but I told myself I may as well just do it, it’ll be over and done with. Plus it coincided with my barmitzvah.”
Despite overcoming his reservations, Nathan admitted he experienced extreme anxiety before the procedure. Although the surgery went well this time, it was a week before Nathan, a keen swimmer, could even get out of bed.
“It was really difficult,” he recalls. “I started walking and running after two-and-a-half weeks, but only restarted swimming two months later.”
He does not regret going through the procedure and advises others in a similar situation to “just do it and don’t put it off, because it’s more painful the older you get”. He adds: “It’s definitely worth it, because you become part of the covenant with God. You can literally feel the difference afterwards and not just in a physical way.”
Nathan’s spiritual journey continued over Passover during a holiday to Salou, Spain, with his family, where the other guests at Hotel Best Negresco found out about his amazing story.
“I didn’t have a proper barmitzvah, so they decided to throw me a massive celebration. I was just expecting to say a few prayers!” he laughs.
Back in Manchester, the Belz Chasidim rallied round the teenager, lavishing gifts, speeches and good wishes upon Nathan, who is now also known as Moshe. “It was a bit weird as a non-religious boy to meet the important heads of the community,” he admits.
Nathan received shocked reactions from his friends, who were astounded he had never had a brit.
Today he is proud of his decision and since his brit he wears his tzitzit and kippah every day. He is also making efforts to improve his Hebrew reading.
“I was disconnected, but now I’m reconnected,” Nathan says proudly. “I’m part of the Jew crew.”