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Unsafe Tattoo


(First, a pre-script: it seems that I jumped the gun with my commentary & poem on last week’s Torah portion Shemini, actually read this coming Shabbat. Seems that there was a special reading in honor of Passover I forgot about. Ooops. If you haven’t yet seen what I had to say about strange fire, scroll down the page or click here.)

So Spring has sprung, more or less. Heavy sweaters have been hauled up to the attic and I’ve been wearing my Crocs for 3 days straight. Without socks. Life is good: short-sleeves and tank tops can’t be far behind. It’s tattoo-in-full-view time — every single day, and not just when I’m in the dance studio (where long sleeves are too dang hot). And this simple change in seasons reminds me of our last visit to Israel almost a year ago, where it’s different walking around with a good-sized Hebrew word on your body.

We showed up for Shabbat dinner at the cousin’s digs in Herzliya and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn my way. I needn’t have worried about religious objections to the ink – they had none. Nor did anyone comment on possible Holocaust imagery or the fact that one of the letters is a little messed up (in retrospect, I should have gotten my tattoo in Tel Aviv, but who knew?). The under-35 crowd were uniformly positive. Turns out that young, mostly secular, Israelis dig tattoos. Our cousin Noam, may he rest in peace, had 2 or 3, some self-designed. Yuval had at least one, and there were others. Cool was what they said. Really cool, as their tattoos were mostly hidden under clothes, perhaps hedging bets.

Granted, I’m a bit more conspicuous than most. And this is what Rina – a few years older than Bruce & I, and the one we’re closest to – was concerned about. Aren’t you worried, she asked me, to be seen with Hebrew on your arm in the U.S.?

Translation: Aren’t you worried the goyim will figure out you’re a Jew? Translation: There is only one safe place for Jews in the world, one place without anti-Semitism – and you’re there right now.

No, I thought to myself, I’m much more afraid of the Jews. Much more worried about judgment from within the tribe and our seeming inability to keep our loving and helpful opinions to ourselves. No, I told Rina, I’m not worried. Unlike my Israeli cousins, I’ve spent my whole life in a non-Jewish country. I’ve gotten used to Christmas being a national holiday (though I don’t like it) and I’ve had people say some downright stupid things in my presence, but I know that I’m basically safe from random strangers. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in the U.S., and racism and gay-bashing and misogyny and all the rest of those fine institutions, but – and maybe I’m being naive here – chances are slim that I’ll be on the receiving end of nasty words or ill-treatment because someone sees Hebrew on my arm.

That evening with the cousins made it easier for me to walk around Tel Aviv on Shabbat and Haifa in the days after. I saw other tattoos, mostly designs or one sort or another, and relaxed a little. I thought about the gift of living in the diaspora, of the challenge and satisfaction of being able to move back and forth between multiple worlds, how I don’t belong anywhere 100%, not in America and not in Israel. How that’s a really good thing.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. judith rose permalink
    04/05/2010 3:14 pm

    great weather, the garden calls — and I’m inside with my nose in a book all weekend. ‘Cutting for Stone’ by Abraham Verghese is the best thing I’ve read in a long time – and it is all about crossing worlds. Set in Ethiopia; it’s written in an accessible, contemporary style yet infused with spirit and wisdom. One of the most original books I’ve read in a long time. Over the passover seder, our midrash this year was bashert — and we each spoke of bashert in relation to survival. Cutting For Stone uses the explores bashert in a new and unique way. Put it on your lists.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      04/05/2010 4:54 pm

      Funny you should mention sitting inside while the garden calls… I spent the better part of the weekend reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, in which journey plays a major role, also garden(ers), also dispersal. Wanna swap?

  2. Sarah Rubin permalink
    04/05/2010 9:49 pm

    Wow. Two reads it looks like I need to add to my stacks.

    Thanks for the reflections on not fitting 100% anywhere. That has been a huge part of my personal story/journey. Your tattoo may be obvious. I think about the old saying “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve,” and how I worry that if people should actually see “me”/my heart, they would turn away from me. Foolishly, then, I hide. Your words here, as they so often do, inspire me to be more open, to put my אמת (emet / truth) out there.

  3. sue swartz permalink*
    04/06/2010 8:18 am

    Thanks, my dear rebbe. On reflection, it’s clear that I let my tattoo say things about me that I sometimes would rather not say myself. It’s both crutch and advertisement. I’m still not great at being completely genuine – such success feels like a life’s project.

  4. Herb Solomon permalink
    04/06/2010 12:52 pm

    Hi Sue: You don’t belong anywhere? I find it curious that you periodically revisit the subject of your tattoo. I suspect there are those who have demonstrated the ability to abstain from expressing their views about it.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      04/06/2010 4:01 pm

      You got it (almost) right. I don’t belong (100%) anywhere. That’s my little old subjective feeling, anyway.

      Not to be obtuse, but: why wouldn’t I return to my tattoo on a regular basis? It is a rich source for philosophizing, experiencing, and writing.

  5. Heather permalink
    04/07/2010 9:10 pm

    Cheryl hates my tattoo. You want to talk to her about that?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      04/07/2010 9:14 pm

      What is your tattoo? Tell me a little bit about it. I can take it from there…

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