Talking about tattoos and Jews was probably not the smartest topic of conversation to introduce at the Shabbat afternoon meal I was invited to. Still, I never anticipated that my hosts would react as if I was single-handedly attempting to bring about the downfall of my people.
It was perhaps my admission that I was considering getting a tattoo of my own that accelerated the downward spiral of the conversation.
I obviously misjudged my audience, conservative-minded members of a local Orthodox synagogue, one I belong to but hardly ever attend. (My devotional leanings are more liberal and I belong to two other synagogues that fit this bill.) Our views on Israel, the Obama administration, fashion, and Occupy Wall Street are utterly opposite.
True, I might have thought of another topic of conversation to introduce, but I was so restless (read: bored) by the conversation about an hour into the meal, that I thought it might be fun to muse out loud about the metaphorical meaning of tattoos and what image and/or words I would want emblazoned on my body.
In a thoroughly misguided move, I also thought that sharing my thoughts about marking up my body would open the way to an engaging conversation about the increasingly common sight of Jewish people with tattoos, breaking centuries of custom stemming from a biblical verse that prohibits the placing of marks upon one's skin: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:28).
Though they may not know the difference between Sukkot and Shavuot, the one thing people tend to "know" about Judaism is that Jews cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they are tattooed, which is, of course, false and patently ridiculous.
Finding a pause in the table chatter, I noted the high numbers of young women, located in the locker room of the local JCC, who were inked beneath their clothes. I further observed that an even higher number seemed to seek tattoos in highly visible places, wearing clothes that would reveal, say, a shoulder tattoo or a marking on the lower back.
I mentioned then-executive editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson, obviously a Member of the Tribe, who had gotten the paper's trademark 'T' tattooed onto her back. (Her recent firing does seem to drive home the point that it is foolish to put a permanent mark on oneself that one might regret later, though she claims she is happy with her tat, even with being publicly booted from her position at The Times.)
"That's totally new," I said. "Jewish women with tattoos?"
I spoke about the ubiquitous inking of skin in Israel among secular Israelis. I wondered about the symbolism of this act, not even a century after the Shoah when Jews were branded like cattle, marked for extinction by the tattooed numbers on their arms.
I talked about pondering the liturgical passage about the "covenant sealed upon our flesh," which refers to the brit milah (circumcision) that Jewish males have on their 8th day of life - and wondered about what marking Jewish women might have. I spoke about the metaphor of a covenant sealed upon one's body.
And then my husband urged me to tell the story of tattooed lady I spoke to at the Orange County Fair last summer. Thus encouraged, I commenced my tale, whose point was to communicate the value of getting to know, however briefly, someone whose aim in life was to accrue as many tattoos as possible, someone you might see on the subway and wonder about, someone you might not ordinarily get to know.
Perhaps two minutes into describing how I had entered the freak show tent just before midnight to check out the "freak" (an articulate young woman with a surgically forked tongue, ears that had been modified to form points on top and elaborate tattoos covering every inch of skin, including her scalp and nether zones), my hosts began waving their hands around and making faces to indicate that I needed to stop speaking.
My intent was to breathe some three-dimensionality into a caricature, talk about the hour-long conversation we had, the woman's choice to pursue body modification, her lifestyle, whether she truly considered herself a freak (she did), but this intention never bloomed.
The conversation was shut down with proclamations that such a person was "sick" and "disturbed" and otherwise not worth getting to know. I heard that they were made ill when they encountered people with tattoos in public and that they would never think of hiring someone with a tattoo. "Ugh. Why even talk about such a thing?" My hosts looked at me with horror.
There was more than enough horror to go around. My husband sat, silent. "Closed-mindedness is not a Jewish value," I said, fighting to keep my voice even-keeled, struggling to be as polite a guest as possible now that I had traumatized them by introducing a terrible topic into their home.
I've been thinking about this conversation, which took place about a month ago, and which I've been having internally and externally ever since. In a backward way, it helped me articulate why I keep thinking about the tattoo I would like to get... but likely will not for a variety of reasons.
Included in that bushel of reasons is the reaction that my children, my parents, my husband, and my community would have, which is probably not that different from that of my hosts. Another consideration is my uncertainty about putting a permanent mark upon my skin, different from the multiple ear piercings I have, for instance.
I have spent a year or two toying around with words, images, and biblical verses I would like to wear. As my name means "song" in Hebrew, I played around with various forms of the verse from Psalms, "Sing unto God a new song" (96:1). I struggled to see the word "God" on my skin and concluded it would be blasphemous. I considered using the original Hebrew, "Shiru la'adonai shir chadash," and came up with the same God problem.
I thought about the shortened form, Sing a New Song, but thought of The Carpenters.
Since the tattoo idea came into my mind, I have spoken with dozens of people about their own markings, hearing what the inked image means to them, how they feel about it, absorbing their satisfaction or regret. I am especially moved by the symbolism people choose, even when I find an image tacky or shocking. Last year, a punk rocker at my drum studio proudly showed me the likeness of his grandmother he had just put on his right bicep.
"She raised me. She just passed. This is my way of honoring her memory. Now she is always with me," he said.
And I loved hanging out in the freak show tent on a muggy night last summer, hearing out the tattooed lady -- a girl, really. In her case, the tattoos were her inner landscape; they were her sense of cosmic aloneness, her feeling of invisibility, writ large and inescapable.
But I am not a punk rocker who was raised by his grandmother and I am not a body modification artist. Why am I even thinking about a tattoo for the first time, at the age of 53, with grown children and aging parents and memberships to three synagogues on Manhattan's Upper West Side? Why do I keep on asking myself what sign, what image, which words, what message I would want marked on my body? Is this a sign of mid-life crisis? Is it a diversion from more important matters?
No, I think that my Jewish tattoo internal/external monologue is a reflection of the extreme introspection of this period in my life, when I find myself, a new empty nester, evaluating the choices I have made, the sum of my accomplishments, and that which I have yet to achieve.
It is a way of digging deep in an effort to discover and distill a nugget of truth, something I believe, a defining mantra, a boost of inspiration that is vitally necessary in order to carry myself from this place of discontent to where I truly want to be.
The trajectory of a Jewish woman, born into one family and raised in another in the latter-half of the 20th century, given a new name that means song, knowing herself to be a writer, seeking harmony between her nature and nurturing, struggling to retain herself through decades of daughterhood, marriage and motherhood, emerging into the latter half of her own century mark with a quest, a vision, a million unfulfilled dreams and ambitions - this journey deserves its own epitaph.
This effort deserves a parade down Main Street, spectators cheering from the bleachers, a slogan, signage, and an anthem.
And so, the tattoo I dream of getting (and will likely never get), unites my aspirations with my identity and avoids blasphemy, unless the very act of a Jew getting a tattoo is blasphemous.
Emblazoned upon the bicep of my right arm - the extension of my writing hand - I envision the words Be the Song.
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Need we say more?
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