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A Sign Upon Your Arm

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

Jonathan Papernick
October 16, 2012
(Sharona Jacobs)
(Sharona Jacobs)

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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Jonathan Papernick, senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College, is author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and There Is No Other.

Jonathan Papernick, senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College, is author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and There Is No Other.