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Tattoo spotting in a coffee shop

11/29/2009

Stopped in for a couple decafs for the adults & 2 old-fashioned frosted donuts for the kids. Spotted what I thought was a foreign language tattoo on the forearm of the guy working the cash register and asked him to tell me about it. Turns out the word was “faith”, written in Old English. Ooops, now I see it. Bonding, showing off – or both – I unveiled the “truth” on my own arm. That led to a spirited conversation with all 3 employees in the place about whether Jews could get tattoos.

There I was, a Jew with a tattoo, talking about Jews with tattoos when one of the employees rolled up his sleeves to show me small Hebrew words (with vowels, no less), one near the crook of each elbow — Adonai Yireh, God will see. And a large Jerusalem coat-of-arms up near his shoulder in full color.

Why these particular tattoos? His father is Jewish, his mother Puerto Rican. He doesn’t really know anything about Judaism, but his father is a kohen, a priest, and this is the symbol of his tribe. The words are somehow related to the coat-of-arms. Next year he’s getting his mom’s family emblem tattooed on his other shoulder: it makes him feel proud of his multiple heritages.

One small problem. The lion of Jerusalem belongs to the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, and God-will-see comes from Genesis: they are the words that Abraham spoke when the angel provided him with a non-human offering in place of Isaac. It’s sometimes translated as “God will provide”. I doubt that the expression has anything to do with the coat-of-arms, but I could be wrong.

Not that any of this matters.Like the guy with “faith” written on his arm, who said he felt close to his ancestors, this young man is totally invested in his connection to a history he doesn’t really know – except that it’s regal and glorious – and he wants that heritage marked on his body forever, somehow in lieu of the real (and illusive) thing.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeremy permalink
    12/02/2009 10:53 am

    How can someone be “totally invested” in something they don’t know much about? Interested, maybe. Curious, perhaps. Even intrigued enough to get a tattoo about it. But is there not a certain shallowness at play? Anyone can get a tattoo of anything, sometimes because the symbols are meaningful, and sometimes just because they look cool. I remember doing some moving work with a guy once who had Chinese or Japanese characters tatooed on his arm. I asked what they meant, assuming something deep and profound, but he just shrugged and said, “I don’t know, some shit about honor or something.”

    • sue swartz permalink*
      12/02/2009 11:43 am

      Yes and yes. People can be “totally invested” (which was my diagnosis, btw) in something they know little about AND there is also the potential for shallowness. The two seem related to me – the more you know about anything, the less likely that you’re unambivalent about that thing. Which may or may not have to do with investment, I guess. All I can say is that this young man was beaming when he talked about his heritage(s) and how he was part of a lineage(s); and the tattoos were a physical/visual manifestation of that connection. Would he feel the same way if the emblem of Jerusalem was a sheave of wheat? I imagine not.

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    12/06/2009 11:22 pm

    I felt sad too. If I take this young man at his word, his background (lineage?) meant something to him, but he didn’t seem to understand that being Jewish was more than a blood line. Maybe some day he’ll take his curiosity to the next place, maybe not. It sure would be a shame if he just left it at these amazing tattoos (they moved me, anyhow). In any case, this didn’t feel about “show” to me, but about a certain kind of belonging coupled with the cool factor of having a tattoo. Of course, I’d be a hypocrite if I said the latter shouldn’t play a part in the decision to get inked. It was sure there for me.

  3. 01/05/2010 1:30 pm

    More interesting discussions about Jews and Tattoos! I think the young man you encountered will have a long time to ponder the “meaning” of his tattoo and perhaps that will encourage him to investigate Judaism. Perhaps it will encourage him to contemplate what the symbol means to him outside of any Jewish affiliation — why he was drawn to it. Perhaps, when his is in his middle ages, he will look at it and wonder “What was I thinking?”

    • sue swartz permalink*
      01/05/2010 2:04 pm

      Yes, that tattoo will be a visible mark of what many of us are faced with. Okay, I’m Jewish, now what the heck does that mean?

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