A Sign Upon Your Arm
Will a new conversation about tattoos include my reason for getting one: Jewish pride?
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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The last chapter of the first tractate brings modern readers back to sex, bowel movements, and thunder