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The Complicated Relationship Between Jews And Tattoos

This article originally appeared in The Forward on July 4, 1997.

The first tattoo, speculates Peter Trachtenberg, was the mark of God placed on Cain “lest anyone finding him kill him.” In other words, muses the author of “7 Tattoos,” “From the very beginning tattoos were associated with wrongdoing.” but that was not their only implication: “People often think of Cain’s mark as punishment,” he writes, “but it was also a token of divine protection.”

Image by Forward Montage

For Mr. Trachtenberg, the decision to have his skin permanently imprinted came with its paradoxes. He was well aware of the injunction against the process in Leviticus; he also had seen the tattoos on relatives who survived Auschwitz, where his paternal grandparents died. Indeed, he craved tattoos for years before he got one, at the age of 34. “Part of the impulse was the feeling that this enormous chunk of my life had passed with nothing lasting,” Mr. Trachtenberg told the Forward by telephone from his Manhattan home. “I was very aware of how transient my life had been.”

Mr. Trachtenberg, 44, is the author of “The Casanova Complex,” a book about male promiscuity; he currently makes his living as a freelance writer and also does performance art based on “7 Tattoos.” He grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, where his Russian—born, Vienna—bred father, who abandoned socialism after the Holocaust, imparted his dark view of the world: “You want to know what happiness is?” Mr. Trachtenberg quotes him saying in the book. “I’ll tell you: father dies, son dies, grandson dies. That’s happiness.” His mother, born in Finland to Russian parents, suffered many illnesses — real and imagined — as well as great mental anguish she didn’t hesitate to share. One day, Mr. Trachtenberg recounts, he came home wearing a particularly ostentatious pair of bell bottoms.

“You have to make yourself so ugly?” his mother said. “You can’t see what is does to me?…You’re stabbing a knife in my heart!”

While he doesn’t deny that one impulse to be tattooed was rebellion, Mr. Trachtenberg didn’t confront his parents directly with this particular transgression: his father was dead of cancer by the time he got his first tattoo; when he visited his mother, he always wore long sleeves. Six months before her own death, he recounts in his book, he finally decided to reveal his secret. “Mom, I’ve got to tell you something,” he said.

“Is there something wrong? Do you have a disease? Please don’t tell me you have a disease! I don’t need to hear that.”

“Ma, I’m fine. I don’t have a disease. I have…I have…tattoos.”

After seeing a pattern on her son’s left bicep adapted from a tribe in North Borneo, his mother pronounced herself “Disgusted, maybe. But not shocked.” He had, however, elected carefully, keeping the more scandalous images on his skin — like the stigma, inspired by the wounds of Jesus, on his left flank — to himself. “I figured, give the lady a break,” he said. “She got the idea.”

Mr Trachtenberg’s aesthetic choices, which also include the archangel Michael, might also seem to imply a rejection of Judaism, but he says that isn’t the case. “I carry my community in my head and my blood,” he says. “I see myself very much as a part of Jewish tradition, but as the skeptical tradition of Freud, Einstein, Woody Allen.” He has his own theories about Judaism’s censure of tattoos, one of which involves the line in Leviticus that says, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” According to Mr. Trachtenberg, the wording reflects the fact that other cultures in the ancient Holy Land marked their skin as an offering to, or commemoration of the dead, a practice also seen in New Guinea. “If there is one thing that is consistent about our God, it is that he does not like idolatry of any kind,” says Mr. Trachtenberg. The ban on tattoos, then, was a way to set the Israelites apart from their neighbors that also fit in with the iconoclastic sensibility of their religion. “That’s implicitly in our consciousness,” he says, “even for those who didn’t grow up so religiously.”

Ultimately, Mr. Trachtenberg came to view his tattoos less as a confrontation with his heritage than as a way to make peace with it. When he went to get his fifth one, he recounts in the book, he took pictures of his father with him. “I want to tell you that I’m a man now, and that I’m safe,” he told the photos. “I’m safe as you wanted me to be. And what I’m doing now I do with love, and in remembrance of you.”

Robin Cembalest was the Forward’s arts editor from 1994-98.


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