This week’s New York Times story “With Tattoos, Young Israelis Bear Holocaust” has raised a lot of eyebrows amongst American Jews. The email I got from a friend alerting me to it called the trend “tasteless”; friends who responded all agreed. For my part, I didn’t say a word – mostly because I couldn’t figure out how I felt. A few days later, I still can’t.
But let’s back up. The story begins,
When Eli Sagir showed her grandfather, Yosef Diamant, the new tattoo on her left forearm, he bent his head to kiss it.
Mr. Diamant had the same tattoo, the number 157622, permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, Ms. Sagir got hers at a hip tattoo parlor downtown after a high school trip to Poland. The next week, her mother and brother also had the six digits inscribed onto their forearms. This month, her uncle followed suit.
Mr. Diamant’s descendants are among a handful of children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors here who have taken the step of memorializing the darkest days of history on their own bodies.
My first visible tattoo was a red star on my inner left wrist with the numbers 10:47 – like the time of day, in honor of a boyfriend who wrote a song by that title before he later committed suicide. Even now, looking at the tattoo serves as a daily reminder to value my life and to live it vibrantly, to push through difficult times and come out stronger. For nearly a year, though, every time I saw my grandmother, I wore a watch to cover up my tattoo and avoid arousing her inevitable disapproval. One day, my grandmother spotted a friend’s tattoo, similar to mine and in memory of the same individual. “That’s a wonderful tribute,” she told him, and to me, she said, “Kate! Why haven’t you thought about doing something like this to remember Dave?” And that’s how I came to reveal my tattoo to my grandmother – to no guilt trip at all.
My grandmother may not have taken issue with my ink, but as a tattooed Jew, I’ve often faced the ire of fellow members of the tribe who remind me that Leviticus 19:28 strictly prohibits tattooing for the sake of art and entertainment (medical tattoos and incisions are permitted). Upon spotting the tattoos on my wrist and foot, folks have exclaimed, “You must not want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery!” though it’s not true, strictly speaking, that my tattoos would disqualify me from such burial (except in Orthodox cemeteries, where I wouldn’t plan to be buried anyway). And because the tattoo on my wrist bears numbers, some have expressed their disgust that, given the horrors of the Holocaust, I’d have numbers permanently tattooed upon my arm.
Yet here are Israeli Jews who are not just tattooing numbers upon their arms; they’re tattooing Holocaust numbers upon their arms, visually replicating the most widely recognized physical sign of their our ancestors’ suffering. In “Fetishizing Holocaust Tattoos,” Jonathan S. Tobin writes,
It needs to be restated that the only proper memorial to the victims is a living breathing Jewish people determined to survive and thrive in a world still filled with anti-Semites who might like to emulate Hitler. Drawing a number on your skin may have meaning to individuals (or, as in one case, serve as a reminder to a young man to call his grandfather) but Jewish identity can’t be rooted in a vain attempt to relive a tragic past. Judaism is an affirmation of life not death. Seen in that light, the attempt by some secular Jews to grab onto a symbol of the slaughter as a way to connect with the past seems more like a futile provocation than a method of perpetuating the memory of this great tragedy.
He’s correct, of course. No tattoo can truly memorialize the Holocaust or prevent future such occurrences (God forbid). And yet, none of the individuals the Times profiles claims to have gotten inked in order to memorialize all of the millions who died – only to pay tribute to those they love who survived. Further, no one seems to be under any illusions that having a “Holocaust tattoo” is a significant means of practicing living, breathing Judaism – not culturally and, given Leviticus’s prohibition, certainly not religiously.
It’s a non sequitur, though, to insinuate that memorializing the past is somehow prohibitive of living a Jewish present or building a Jewish future; such commitments can and do exist together, both in individuals without such tattoos and likely in the case of those with them, too. You’d never hear anyone say that lighting a memorial candle at the Holocaust Museum is “a vain attempt to relive a tragic past” or that doing so prevents a person from living a committed Jewish life! Similarly, having his grandfather’s Auschwitz number tattooed upon his forearm doesn’t prevent or prohibit a young man from speaking out against anti-Semitism or present-day genocidal activities or any other pressing social justice issue. On the contrary, given these young people’s insistence that their tattoos serve as a visual reminder of their Judaism, such a permanent, visible mark may actually encourage one to further embody Jewish principles in his or her everyday life. And there’s nothing vain, futile, or tragic about that.