Friday, May 18, 2012

Tattoos and Jews

For most of the year that I've been in Israel, I've been careful to cover up a particularly shameful part of my body that doesn't lend itself to snius: my right upper arm.

Yes, you read that right. When my right upper arm is exposed for all the world to see, naked as the day it was when I was born, I feel embarrassed, disgraceful, indecent. "Don't look at me!" I want to yell, as though I've been caught masturbating. "This isn't for your eyes!"

This overly dramatic reaction is all thanks to my tattoo, and my stupid 18 year old self who consciously decided to permanently deface my body in a fit of youthful defiance. My upper arm is adorned with a Chinese dragon and the word "trust" in Chinese. Yep. White girl with a Chinese tattoo. And no, I don't speak or read Chinese. I've been to China...for what it's worth (which is exactly nothing, in this case).

It's not unusual for people of my generation to have tattoos. Even my mother has a tattoo, which still blows my mind to this day, because she's about the last person in the world that you'd expect to have one. Seriously, everyone and their mom has a tattoo, it seems. They are about as common and mundane these days as having more than one piercing in your ears. We are all so rebellious in our conformity.

In the Jewish world however, tattoos are another story. Based on Leviticus 19:28 which states, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead, or tattoo yourself. I am the Lord," Jews are clearly prohibited from tattooing themselves. This is likely a law that was intended to prohibit Jews from behaving as pagans did (cutting yourself for the dead, perhaps indicates a pagan mourning ritual), and distinguishing ourselves from the heathens, so to speak. In general, the Bible looks down upon self-mutilation. God is not fond of emo teenagers.

Tasteless cutting jokes aside, Jews and tattoos don't really mix. Sure, there are plenty of Jews who see this passage as outdated and archaic; it's not like we have to concern ourselves with the influence of pagans these days (I mean, usually. Who knows, some of us might decide to become Wiccan or something). In a modern context, tattoos are a part of mainstream culture. Assimilation issues aside, an argument can be made for non-halakhic (or loosely halakhic) Jews who see no problem in getting one.

That's not my issue, though. I got this tattoo well before I joined the tribe, when I was young, rebellious, and brimming with stupidity. I've never forgiven myself for it. If I could travel back in time and change anything in my life, it would be not getting the damn thing. I would love to go back and punch myself in the face. Hard. This is a scenario that I've often fantasized about, and every time I think of the impact of my fist hitting my younger self's shocked, anguished face, a gentle, placid smile comes to my lips.

Tattoos are not for everyone, and I mean no disrespect towards people whom they are for. I've seen plenty of people with impressive art adorning their body, which was clearly well thought out long before the needle went anywhere near their skin. I am one of those people who is not cut out for tattoos, which is something that I should have thought about for a few years before I ran off to the tattoo parlor. I also pierced my nose that year, and the year before that, at age 17, I convinced my body-piercer-in-training friend to pierce my navel (much to my parents dismay, when my mother caught a glimpse of it, months later). Apart from my ears, piercings also turned out to not be for me, but that's different. I can take the jewelry out. I can't cover or easily remove the dark black ink embedded in my skin.

I've disliked my tattoo for years, and decided that I would wear sleeves that would be at least long enough to cover it while here in Israel, partly because I'd like to blend into my Jewish existence a bit more, and partly because I don't want to talk about it. Ever. You see, here's the thing with tattoos; once you get one, when people see it, they are going to want to know the story behind it. What does it mean? What does it symbolize? Then you have to get into a discussion about it, and as you listen to yourself describe the like, so totally deep metaphor on your arm, you realize that you sound like bloody idiot. I don't want to tell you what my tattoo means. Today it serves as a ghastly reminder that one should think a bit before making a decision that will make something permanent in her life. But you can't really sidestep the conversation by just saying, "I don't like it anymore and I want to get it removed one day" without getting into an obnoxious conversation with someone who doesn't realize that it's rather unfortunate to have this thing on your body, and it makes you self conscious and embarrassed. A typical conversation can go something like this:

Acquaintance: Hey, nice tattoo! What does it mean.
Me, resisting the urge to run away: Um, trust.
Acquaintance: Oh...what does that mean?
Me, cheeks heating up: Well, it's um, complicated. Look, I don't even like the damn thing.
Acquaintance, apparently amused: Aw, you regret it, huh?
Me, getting really annoyed: Yep.
Acquaintance, not picking up on my discomfort: Then why did you get it?
Me, trying to resist urge to kick this person in the shins: Well, I was 18 when I got it. I was a very different person back then.
Acquaintance, thinking that insulting me is fine in this case: It's Chinese. That's so typical.
Me, beginning to hate Acquaintance: Gee, thanks.
Acquaintance, thinking that I'm an idiot: That's why you should think before you ink.
Me, suddenly feeling like a deformed freak: I'm aware of that.
Acquaintance, mistaking insensitivity for cheekiness: Are you sure you know what it says? How do you know what it says if you can't read Chinese?
Me, holding back tears: You look it up...just like we look up Hebrew every day in the beit midrash.
Acquaintance, now way out of line: What if it means "Butt humper" or "I'm a dumb white person with a Chinese tattoo?"
Me, feeling fiery rage burn within me: Yeah, I'll bet it says "Butt humper."
Acquaintance, not getting the hint: Ha ha! Well, I bet you learned your lesson.
Me, feeling small and inadequate in my existence: Will you please leave me alone about it? I'm feeling self conscious enough about it as it is (puts on sweater to hide the shame, despite it being 90 degrees).
Acquaintance, certain that I'm retarded: You know that Jews aren't supposed to get tattoos, right?
Me, about to explode: Seriously, I don't want to talk about it...
Acquaintance, now thoroughly hateful: I'd never get a tattoo. They're so stupid.
Me, turning into the Hulk: WILL YOU FUCK OFF ALREADY?!
Acquaintance, chuckling condescendingly: Okay, okay. I'm just messing with you. It's not that bad. No, really.
Me, sobbing: ...

Okay, so that was a dramatization, but you get the idea. Most people don't mean any harm. They're just curious, which is totally natural. And some people think that they are just harmlessly teasing you like friends are prone to do, and I admittedly go along with it to avoid looking like a baby. It is a bit of a touchy issue, though. That's why I hate wearing tank tops and swim suits. I've been forcing myself to get over that at this point. Once everyone has had some form of the above conversation with me about it, they generally lose interest and don't bring it up again. So, the sleeves have come off. I'm tired of t-shirt tans. They really aren't so flattering. Also, it gets hot here, it being the Middle East, and all. How the Haredim put up with it in their usual attire, I don't understand. I'd be willing to bet that crowded Meah Shearim apartments don't always have air conditioning, too.

Haredim in the Middle East: Apparently superhuman, and immune to the heat of the sun.
Well, I should stop being sensitive about it and just deal with it, like it's just an unsightly scar that you eventually grow accustomed to. People aren't going to treat it as such and just pretend like they don't notice it, of course, because the whole point behind tattoos is for them to be noticed. Perhaps if I make up elaborate stories about it, each one different every time someone brings it up, I could make into a fun game of self amusement.

Acquaintance: Hey! You have a tattoo!
Me: Hmm? Oh, that! Yes. I got it in prison ages ago. Sometimes I forget it's even there, haha! I once shanked another inmate for asking too many questions about it. (chuckling with fond nostalgia) Man, those were some crazy times, you know what I mean?
Acquaintance, slowly backing away: Right...

Or, how about this one:

Acquaintance: I didn't know you had a tattoo!
Me: Well, everyone in the biker gang had to get one, whether we wanted it or not. It was either get the tattoo, or be dragged behind Wild Hog Jimmy's bike into the next county. Isn't that messed up?
Acquaintance: Oh...that's...unfortunate. Listen, I've gotta go...

Oh, or this:

Acquaintance: Is that a tattoo?
Me: That's exactly what I said when I first saw it! Man, you pass out in a Tijuana bar one night, and wake up the next morning with a tattoo and a marriage certificate to some guy named Enrique. I'm still not sure if the marriage has been annulled or not. Poor Enrique. I never meant to break his heart, but with his English and my just wouldn't have worked out.
Acquaintance: What the hell is wrong with you?

Or, I could just act bewildered when someone brings it up, as though I have no idea how it got there. Or I could claim that it's a birth mark, and I was just born with it. I do love telling stories.

In the end, I suppose it doesn't really matter. This is the way my body looks, so...I should really just embrace it...even my upper right arm. I think the nicest reaction I've gotten to it (outside of sincere compliments that always blindside me--you mean you think it looks nice?) was when it was revealed for the first time to a certain special someone:

Me, feeling nervous, shrinking away: Ummm...I have a stupid tattoo, and I got it when I was 18, and I hate it, so let's not talk about it, because I hate talking about it, and, and...
Charming Fellow: Can I see?
Me, shying away: Ummm...
Charming Fellow: I won't ask you about it, I just want to see it.
Me, slowly turning to my right: ...
Charming Fellow: A dragon?
Me, bracing myself for an unpleasant conversation: Yes...
Charming Fellow: Huh.

...and it was never brought up again! And he's still my certain special someone to this day. How could I not be wooed by such a conversation? I practically melted.

So, having a tattoo when you don't want it anymore isn't the end of the world, but it takes some time to fully accept that you're forever branded by your youthful indiscretion (unless you have a few thousand extra dollars lying around to get it removed). A rabbi that I know once told me a story about a convert who became ultra-Orthodox, and even a rabbi eventually, and he had a very striking tattoo from before he became Jewish, which was of Jesus on a crucifix, that ran from the top of his chest, down to his waist. Imagine the stories that guy has to tell at the mikveh. And just think of the conversation he must have had with his bride on their wedding night! Sure, it might be a cautionary tale made up by rabbis and Jewish mothers to scare Jewish youngsters into not getting a tattoo. The moral of the story in any case, is that it could always be worse.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.