For a while now, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a Jew with a tattoo. Those thoughts resurfaced last week when I read Jodi Rudoren’s New York Times story about the “handful” of Young Israeli Jews, children and grand-children of Holocaust survivors, who have decided to tattoo their older relatives’ death camp identification numbers on their own skin.
A number on my arm isn’t really my style, but the idea of getting a controversial and very Jewish tattoo is one I’m quite familiar with.
I wanted a tattoo from the moment I moved to New York and encountered thousands of young women showing off the delicate, indelible body modifications that were, at the time, finally becoming mainstream. I was 17 and didn’t know what my eventual tattoo would be, but making a permanent statement with an image both beautiful and meaningful to me instantly made perfect sense.
I went through several ideas in my head over a period of years. Each was personally significant and each would have looked nice, but for some reason I couldn’t commit to any. Then one day I overheard a girl working in a jewelry store explaining the Celtic pattern inked on her skin to a customer. “So I figured,” she said, “I’ll always be Irish.”
And that was it. My early tattoo ideas were personally significant, but a Jewish design was the only one that could be permanent. It took me about 10 years from my initial envy of those tattooed women I saw around the city to the day I finally walked into the parlor in Chinatown, but now — and forever — my back is decorated with a small design combining a Star of David and a hamsa.
I did ponder, for a short while, the traditional Jewish prohibition on tattoos. Though I wasn’t raised in a religious home, I knew somehow that this was something we weren’t supposed to do. And even if I didn’t necessarily follow every part of Jewish tradition, I respected it. I didn’t want to prance around doing blatantly un-Jewish things, as if I had some sort of rebellious point to make.
But a little bit of research rendered that a non-issue. If Leviticus 19:28 (“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord”) was so important, then why did no one object to pierced ears and nose jobs? Some Torah scholars interpreted the “shall not” as referring to idolatry. And it was unlikely one would be punished for altering one’s flesh; someone somewhere would disapprove of it, no doubt, but the notion that a tattoo would keep a person from being buried in a Jewish cemetery was mostly just a myth, one of those odd instances of a fragment of Jewish law making its way, like a game of telephone, into the public imagination.
The men and women interviewed for the Times article say the numbers inked on their skin are reminders of relatives who are growing old and an event that is fading into the realm of forgotten history. My own tattoo ties me to less specific Jewish experiences and people. The Star has obviously become an all-purpose symbol for the Jewish people, but I particularly like the stories that cast it as a literal shield — Magen — used in battle. The hand-shaped amulet, associated with Jews as well as others and dating from the depths of antiquity, is like a wish for protection from evils of a less tangible kind.
And those ties, ironically, are part of why I think it’s alright to be a Jew with a tattoo. “It’s not like I have a tacky rose or some guy’s name,” I say to an imaginary interlocutor. “It’s a Jewish tattoo. Doesn’t that devotion, that pride and commemoration, sort of cancel out the whole ‘shall not’ thing?”
They say that as soon as you get one tattoo, you want another. This is true. I’ve known what I would want my second tattoo to be for many years now. It’s something meaningful, and it would look quite pretty. But it’s not Jewish. And while I might change my mind, so far I haven’t been able to go through with it. At this point, I’m contemplating just taking the design and getting it made into a necklace.