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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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Even after my father had seen my new tattoo with his own eyes, he would have sworn in a court of law, bursting with disappointment and disgust, that I had marked numbers, Holocaust-like, forever on my arm.

In fact, I had done nothing of the sort. I had the first and middle names of my two sons, my father’s only grandsons, inked in a tasteful modern Hebrew script along the tender inside of my right forearm. I asked my father how he could have mistaken the delicate curves of the Hebrew aleph-bet for the harsh certainty of cold German-issued numbers. He told me he thought I had tattooed their birthdates, not their names. He’d refused to look directly at my forearm as if he were afraid he would turn to stone, as his mind focused on something that did not exist, something so burdened with meaning and pain as to be almost unthinkable.

My wife had a similar concern before I’d gone to the tattoo studio, and though she thought it would be sexy for me to mark the boys’ names on my arm, she was afraid it might look too … well, Auschwitz-y. She had asked if I would consider a different part of my anatomy. “First of all,” I told her, “Holocaust tattoos were on the left arm, and on the top of the forearm, not the underside. They had numbers, not letters, and they were blue not black, and much smaller than the lettering I chose. I can’t imagine how anybody would make that connection.”

I wanted them to see proud, bold, Hebrew letters announcing that I am Jewish and not ashamed

After I got the tattoo, I found out that I was wrong, my own mind failing me once again; prisoners were, in fact, numbered by the Nazis on the underside of their forearms as well as the outside, the indelible numbers a silent testament to a terrible legacy. But still, I figured letters are letters and numbers are numbers, each with entirely different intentions. And I chose my right forearm and not some other, more private part of my body, in part because it’s the one I greet people with, make a fist with, gesture with as I speak; I wanted people to see my boys’ names, and I wanted them to see proud, bold, Hebrew letters announcing that I am Jewish and not ashamed. I had gone through years of self-loathing and denial as a teenager, and I felt this somehow helped even the score.

Tattoos, however, remain taboo among many Jews, for reasons both religious and cultural. And tattoos like mine, which so many people seem to conflate with the numbers marked on concentration camp inmates, are simply too much for some people to handle.

***

It’s interesting how mere acquaintances, near strangers, feel it is their place to paraphrase scripture to me, citing the passage from Leviticus in which the Lord forbids Jews from tattooing themselves; a colleague of mine this summer, half-jokingly, but only half, insisted I was going to hell because of my profligate ways. Usually, before I have a chance to respond that Leviticus also promotes the burning at the stake of prostitutes and stoning to death of blasphemers and wizards (!), I am informed I will not be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Typically, my socially inappropriate inquisitor seems to be bursting with schadenfreude, because not only have I fucked up my life, an assumption that places my interlocutor’s own peccadilloes in stark contrast with my own, but I have also apparently ruined eternity for myself as well. He seems to be both overjoyed and disappointed in me at the same time—and most important, wrong. Nowhere in the Torah does it say Jews with tattoos cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, despite the ancient ban laid out in Leviticus. It is nothing more than a bubbe meise, an old wives tale that persists despite the fact that a growing number of Israelis, both young and old, are getting inked, so much so that the Jerusalem Post wrote an article in 2009 titled “Tattoo Crazy Israelis.”

So, why is it that many Jews are so bothered by my tattoo, taking an almost personal offense that I, as a representative of the entire Jewish people, have publicly broken an ancient prohibition? I also don’t keep the Sabbath, I eat bacon (because it is as close to heaven as I may ever get), and I have taken the Lord’s name in vain thousands of times, but none of that seems to matter. Maybe it’s because my specific tattoo seems to remind many people of the Holocaust. Twenty years ago, I might have gotten a very different tattoo. I don’t imagine people would be as upset by Minor Threat’s iconic black sheep inked into my skin, underscored with the words “OUT OF STEP,” or the near-basement-dwelling Toronto Blue Jays original logo, complete with the cheesy cartoon profile of a bird’s head. There is something visceral, almost pathological, in the aversion some Jews feel toward my tattoo in particular, as if they can already see my skin stretched across a lampshade, that puts into clear focus the fact that for Jews, the past is never past, and we as a people must bear the heavy burden of history on our narrow shoulders forever.

In fact, as Jodi Rudoren recently reported in the New York Times, there has been a recent trend of young Jews deliberately tattooing numbers on their arms, provocatively inking their grandparents’ concentration-camp tattoos on their bodies to remind their generation that the Holocaust is not ancient history like the Exodus from Egypt. In her article, Rudoren tells the story of 10 such tattooed descendents of survivors who want to shock and incite conversation so that the mantra “Never Forget” is never forgotten. My own tattoo is also about remembering, but it’s not about suffering. It’s about honoring the living.

Or so I thought.

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

-Shimstu

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

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