Tattoo or not Tattoo

By Donna Jacobs Sife

Leviticus Chapter 19 outlines the way to holiness. It tells us how to relate to our parents, our wives, our children, our neighbours, our strangers, our bodies.

Chapter 19 verse 28 says: “ Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”

I have always been aware of the perverse irony - that those in camp had to endure permanent markings in the form of tattooed numbers on their body, when it is in fact against Jewish practice to be marked in this way.

So imagine the myriad of emotions that rose in me when my son told me of his determination to get a tattoo, and that he wanted my blessing. Initially I panicked. “We don’t allow that. Look!” I said, and grabbing the well worn Tanach started flipping through the pages. He said he knew that. He had nevertheless decided it was something he wanted.

“Will the Chevra accept you with a tattoo? Can you be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” He rang them. The Chevra will bury you, despite the flesh bound transgression. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved, or angry.

“Why.” I asked.

He is good boy, my son. He tried to put into words what it meant to him, but was unconvincing. “They look good”, “I like them”, “Everyone has one” - these reasons did not warrant a blessing.

“It has to be more than fashion or whim” I told him. “If you can convince me that it has meaning beyond the superficial, if the image gives you strength, and sustains you in some way - marks a new way of being - then perhaps I can at least accept it.”

What is this thing about piercing every piece of skin that will allow a needle through it? I teach students and watch them fiddle with their tongue studs, and roll their brow bars, and readjust their belly rings all day. At the beach this year, tattoos were as common as pierced ears. I remember when I was at school. It was only the Italians who had their ears pierced.

I imagine it is a sign of the great global conglomerate that we have become. We are all now a little indigenous. We wear sarongs like the Balinese, hang dream catchers like the native Americans, pierce ourselves like the Katahari, tattoo ourselves like the Maoris, learn belly dancing like the Middle Easterners, practice circular breathing for when we play the didgeridoo.

We are learning a new way to treat the earth, a new way to view the People of the earth.

On one level I welcome this movement towards embracing humanity. We share one planet, it follows that we celebrate each other, and incorporate elements that we are drawn to. Traders have done it for thousands of years. It speaks of tolerance and an openness of spirit towards each other.

And yet, not at the expense of our own individuality, our uniqueness. I don’t relish a future in which we have become “World people” - like “world music” as celebrated in Adelaide this week. Unlike John Lennon, a world in which we are all the same - without our own religions, or cultures or traditions - seems very bland to me. There is a place for the blending of cultures in music and story, where the different sounds complement each other. Fine. But only in addition to, not in place of the pure expression of a people that has existed for thousands of years. I don’t want to lose the differences that give us colour.

And one of those differences is that Jews don’t get tattoos. If we compromise on this, we compromise ourselves.

Meanwhile, my son had been doing his own research. He came into the kitchen recently, pencil and paper in hand, flushed with excitement, had me sit down and receive the Big Sell. He reminded me of one of those door to door guys who try to sell you a new roof, or better still, like a Jehovah’s Witness who know that my salvation is imminent. Just when I had thought he had forgotten about the whole thing.

“Sife in Hebrew means sword. I want a sword, with the word Sife in Hebrew written along it, like this. To cut away the unnecessary stuff, and only keep whats important.” He was creating a diagram. “And look” (that’s not all!) Yod, yod. Inside my name is the symbol of God. I have God in me and this will be my reminder.”

Sneaky boy! He knows his mother. Such talk melts her heart. I look him in the eye, smile with all the love a mother knows. He leans forward to kiss her forehead to seal the deal.

But - wait a minute. Can you actually separate the two letters like that? Does it not imply that there is something divisible in God? And where is this tattoo going? What part of the body? How big? And if you change your mind, you will be lasering off the name of God? Do we Jews not wear tzitzit to remind us of God?

“Mum, its just a tattoo.” “No, you are a Jew. It is not just a tattoo.”

He still waits for my blessing. But says he will do it with or without it. I still struggle with the implications. But one thing I am clear about.

“Hey mum, will you help me pay for it a bit?”

I smile sweetly, place my hand upon his head as if in blessing and tenderly reply

“No way!”