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A Sign Upon Your Arm

Will a new conversation about tattoos include my reason for getting one: Jewish pride?

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(Sharona Jacobs)
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Maybe my father was on to something when he thought I had tattooed numbers on my arm. In my first book, I wrote a story titled “Lucky Eighteen,” in which a crazed Holocaust survivor forcibly tattoos a number onto another man’s arm so that he will never forget. Nearly 10 years later, in my second collection of stories, a young Jewish punk rocker rushes to a tattoo studio to memorialize his late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor he has not properly mourned, by inking his grandfather’s numbers onto the young skin of his own arm so that he becomes a walking, living memorial for his grandfather and the 6 Million. Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary in response to the Times article, would have accused my characters of fetishizing Holocaust tattoos, their gestures “more like a futile provocation than a method of perpetuating the memory of this great tragedy.” Though none of my grandparents or even great-grandparents suffered in the Nazi death camps, I too have felt the burden of remembering the terrible tragedy our entire people endured in the middle of the most civilized century in the history of mankind. So, maybe, in a way, I felt with my tattoo I was reclaiming the arm, changing the conversation from one of horror and pain to one of joy and pride.

I myself am struck by the argument. In fact, I am friends with a sweet old man named Morris, a regular at my local synagogue, who survived Auschwitz and carries the awful mark on his translucent skin nearly 70 years later. He has never seen my tattoo, and he never will. I don’t want him to see it. The similitude in this case may in fact be too close for comfort. His pale blue eyes have seen too much in his time on earth, and I would hate to do anything that may upset him. But I believe he would agree with the sentiment of my honoring my boys so publicly, their Hebrew names a constant reminder that I am bringing up two Jewish boys. He knows my sons and treasures them because they are the future of the Jewish people, a future in which they are free to do what they wish with their lives, despite the past. And because of the past.


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I can read Hebrew and yet i am having trouble reading some of the letters to figure out what it actually does say.

Jon Papernick says:

Zev Yehuda Yishai Amichai

Great article. Almost 3 years ago, my then just-18 year old son and I both went and had a Star of David with our initials (My Father, my son, and I all have names that start with the same letter) tattoo’d on our arms. I too went through the conversations you point out (burial,etc) but its now accepted much more. Thank you for this article.

Papernick- years ago I was teaching Hebrew school and had a student who shared a birthday with Adolf Hitler. He seemed a bit uncomfortable with this fact- I encouraged him to reframe it and consider that his life is a beautiful testament to the fact that Hitler’s evil DIDN’T win- every Jewish child born today is a thumb in their eye.

Your tattoo is not a museum piece, not a memorial- the fact that it is the names of two vibrant wonderful Jewish boys makes it the anti-Holocaust tattoo- the flesh of your arms proclaiming the beauty of the flesh that you and your wife created.

Rock on, and wear it proudly


Brenda Rayman says:

Rabbi Marshal Klaven, Director of Rabbinic Services – Goldring/Woldenberg
Institute of Southern Jewish Life has also written on this topic. (“Full Exposure: A Revealing Picture of the Jewish Engagementwith Tattooing” by Marshal Klaven)

Ira Wolff says:

A far more appropriate way for the author to express his Jewish pride and his commitment for a Jewish future would be to stop eating bacon, start observing Shabbat, lay tefillin, learn serious Jewish texts in a structured, disciplined way and send his children to day school. A tattoo?? Please. He brings no honor to his people, Jewish tradition or himself.

My Jewish tattoo
(A stylized sephiroth with a Hillel saying at the base in Hebrew) was years in
the making conceptually and design wise, a work of devotion I guess you could
say that left me oddly more centered in my Jewishness than anything I’ve done
before. That it is visible most of the time opens me up to connecting in public
places with other Jews, something I’ve not experienced as an adult. It has also
prompted conversations (and in some cases challenges) from non-Jews, strangers
and friends, that have created and/or deepened friendships. All in all it’s been a positive experience and has enriched my own, very personal, Jewish experience.

i recently got my 1st and last tattoo on my 36th bday last week. even my gentile friends cite the apparently well known “jewish cemetery” thing. it’s a good thing i was sent this piece and many others. big misconceptions. my tattoo is of a greasy bicycle sprocket stain that most get on their right inner calf, so it eventually looks like a good mistake.

i am a jew and my parents are both foreign based jews (hungary and egypt). we were raised progressive/orthodox or Conservadox, a great mixture of new and old. i only give my parents Passover and Rosh Hashanah but do not practice.

my view is if I don’t believe in god (i don’t), then i don’t have to abide my fake decrees written by man. ’nuff said.

Kerry Swartz says:

I am the first born, first generation son of survivors. I was raised in a Kosher home and went to an Orthodox day school until my Bar Mitzvah. I then went to public school and, as such, my world opened up to new friends and different streams of thought and Judaism.
During my adult life I had no real connection to Judaism except through secular connections, rarely went to Shul except for weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s and funerals. I pursued a number of vocations over the years, eventually becoming a motorcycle mechanic, restorer and builder. That world is full of tattooed types, including outlaw bikers, so it inevitable that I would become tattooed. Over the years, I’ve developed ‘sleeves’ where most of bare arms are covered with different symbols associated classical Japanese skin art, nothing Jewish.
My father passed away on Yom Kippur five years ago and I was fortunate enough to witness his Tahara. I was a Shomer for much of the time. The experience, briefly, became a turning point in my relationship with Judaism. I am now deeply involved with two Chevra Kadisha Tahara teams, one Frum the other conservative. And I retuned to Shul.
I recall the first time I attended Sacharit services and rolled my shirt to wrap Tefillin. I even shocked myself about how others there would react but continued to don them without hesitation. One member of the Minyan (Conservative) asked if she could photograph my arm as she works with substance abusive kids; tattoos (representative of the kids she works with)and Judaism were the two most important things in her life. The Rabbi even said he liked my sleeve.
Things were a bit more nervous-making for me when I began attending daily Shacharit services at the Modern Orthodox Shul I joined. For the past six months, nobody has commented about it at all, even the 15 or so Lubavitch and other Orthodox Rabbis who Daven with me.
My tattoos are part of me, they tell a story of my life and a roadmap of who I’ve been and where I’ve come from. They are a source of pride, including the last one I had done which was a tribut to m father.

When my soulmate, who happened to be a Holocaust survivor 40 years my senior, was dying, I held his hand and wondered, then wrote, the following:
“The tattoos drive the remembering. All those school programs and museums are nothing compared to the power of the tattoos. People see them on wrinkled arms placing soup cans onto grocery checkout belts. They see them on arms making fists in preparation for routine blood tests. They see them and they remember. Who will remember once your tattoo is gone? When you die, whether today or some other time, that symbol will be buried with you. The numbers will decompose. You will come unmarked. Eventually, all the tattooed arms will disappear. Then the forgetting will truly commence. How would the numbers look on my arm? I could get the same tattoo in the same place. 141324. Whenever people asked what it meant, I could tell them about you. Then they’d remember again. Oh yeah, they killed Jews once. And I’d get to keep you skin-close.”
I still haven’t put his numbers on my arm, mostly due to the outrage people express when I suggest it. Right now, 141324 is engraved in a tiny bracelet I wear every day.

AriShavit says:

love the script.

evalunta says:

I’m thinking of getting a similar tattoo. What script is that?

dansblog says:

There’s an elephant in the room here, and it isn’t the Holocaust. Fifty years ago, even a completely non-observant Jonathan Papernick would never have gotten a tattoo of any kind–not because of Leviticus, but because it would have had a very different significance, indicating an unflatteringly downscale association with the lower working classes, the criminal underworld, or at best the military. Today, on the other hand, tattoos are as often as not trendy fashion statements, and Papernick’s tattoos thus express most of all his embrace of the popular secular, mainstream American–that is, Gentile–aesthetic they represent. That he’s added a Jewish touch to his Jewishly-forbidden tattoo only emphasizes its (and by implication Papernick’s own) trivial, superficial association with Judaism: like matzo ball soup with diced ham, his tattoo practically screams, “sure I’m Jewish–but, you know, not *Jewish* Jewish!”.
At which point, one feels obliged to ask: why not just get Chinese characters, like a normal Gentile hipster, and be done with it?

We strongly support everyone’s right to express themselves through body art. Tattooing is an art form that dates back 5,000 years. This piece is a reminder that many people have deep personal meanings associated with their tattoos.

It is a wonderful thing that there are so many ways to “be” Jewish. Eat your bacon, swear up a storm, enjoy your tats, this Jewish grandma Loves YOU!!

marjorie ingall says:

Such a thoughtful piece. (And I too love the font! I don’t find it hard to read at all. Have been waffling for years about getting my kids’ initials in the typeface El Lissitzky used in his Haggadah.)

StefanoNBelinda says:

There is no prohibition against burying a tattooed person in a Jewish cemetery. This is another one of those weird rumors like screwing thru a hole in the sheet (which is not done even by the ultra-est orthodox) that crop up either to discredit authentic Judaism or to make it seem more exotic. So, while all your life you will be violating a biblical commandment, you can still die and be buried as a Jew.

perot junk says:

Feh !

Lenny Bruce use to joke that his tattooed arm wasn’t a problem, it could be buried in a Christian cemetery.

An even better way would be to advocate for the poor and suffering selflessly.

It’s articles like this that help me self-identify and keep me watching this online zine every day, just as every day I look forward to to it’s list of new articles in my email box.

Another thoughtful and fantastic piece – and such great comments to boot. Love it. Absolutely love it.

I too have a tatoo – that is rather intricate, (I have several actually, mostly hidden on my biceps and across my back) – and they all start with symbology of the 3rd (4th now?) Reich(s) – Aptly it is – Pandora’s box of holocausts. So I will not forget – as though I ever could at this point.

This is mad. Seriously. I respect your wish to display your love for your kids and to affiliate with your Jewish identity but isn’t it a little bit weird to do it by doing something so taboo and reviled (and culturally sensitive) in Judaism?

KHarper says:

Firstly, I think it is a bit presumptuous, based on this article alone, to assume Jon does not advocate for the poor and suffering, attempt to keep the Law, or live in a manner that seeks to honor Judaism. If anything, his honesty about some of his failings in this regard (candid as they may be) reflect a more realistic level of self examination than many Jews who keep the Sabbath and eat Kosher out of duty but do not live out the spirit of the Torah in any other regard. I think Jon’s piece, as such, shows an honest and healthy attempt to truly understand the meaning of the Torah; marking one’s skin was once a practice of pagan worship, and thus not becoming of the people of God. Many of the commenters have even spoken of it in a modern sense as a Gentile practice, which by many interpretations is warranted. But by marking himself in Hebrew, with the names of his sons whom he has dedicated to raise as Jews, he has taken a practice which once distanced men from God and has used it as a means of binding himself visibly to Him. Certainly, this is an issue of contention, and I would never presume to alone have to answer to it; I would only suggest that to judge Jon so harshly in his pursuit of understanding and living out the Torah brings less honor upon such tradition than his tatoos do.

both my birthday, and a boy at my shul about to become bar mitzvah share the same birthday as Hitler…and we both agree…we are a testament that Hitler didn’t win.

Ronald Zaslavsky says:

The ultra orthodox actually believe that wearing ANY clothes during sex, let alone doing it through a hole in a sheet, is a sin.

You should have rolled him a joint and said “hey, at least your birthday is 4/20!”… Or, if he were too young – you could have told him “Wellll, once you’re a bit older, you’ll realize that 4/20 has a FAR different, muuuch more positive meaning for another large segment of the population: the stoners.I’d kill for that to be my birthday, and trust me, I hate Hitler as much as the next (sane) man.


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A Sign Upon Your Arm

Will a new conversation about tattoos include my reason for getting one: Jewish pride?

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