My little girl sat on the bench beside me. It was summertime; we were on vacation near the sea while waiting for the clock to chime our dinner reservation table. This would be one of her first grown-up restaurant meals and we were excited at the prospect.
We were people-watching and the newly-popular belly-button ring was on display. My daughter looked up at me and said, “You won’t have to worry about that.”
She was only 8 years old if that, but there was clearly a conspiratorial edge to her comment.
No belly button piercing? I asked.
“No,” she said and rolled her blue eyes.
You know where this is going. My daughter is now 24 years old, and while she has no ring in her navel, her ears are severally pierced. On the left, there is what is called (appropriately, unfortunately) an “industrial” post, which is threaded through cartilage. Every time I see it, I want to wail, “Ow-ow-ow.”
When she called a few weeks ago and said, “I have something to tell you,” I guessed right away.
Jews are not supposed to get tattoos. It’s in the Torah, Leviticus 19: 28. “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves” followed by the words, “I am the Lord,” so you know this rule comes from the top.
Of course, the Torah also tells us that eating scallops and sassing our elders are forbidden. (The rules about earrings are debatable.) That’s not my issue.
In the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust, the Jewish association with tattooing focused on numbers burned into the flesh of concentration camp slave. What was it like to undergo such forced mutilation of the body and soul? Did some uniformed goon hold them down while their skin was seared? Or did they have to extend their arms and hold still, for fear that that some other goon would shoot them on the spot if they tried to resist?
But those tattoos are no longer a primary point of reference for people under the age of 40, and my daughter is a creature of her time and generation. According to a 2007 poll of 1,500 people conducted by the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds have at least one tattoo. I haven’t seen a survey of Jewish 18-40 year-olds, and while I’d bet the figure is lower, it’s probably pretty close.
Tattoos on Jews include flowers and butterflies and fairies. But if you Google “Jews and Tattoos,” you’re going to see lots of stars of David, as well as Hamsas, dancing Hassids, and one much-photographed “Kosher pig.” A friend tells me of spotting a full-color diagram of the Kabalistic sepherot (mystical spheres) inked on an upper arm.
My daughter has the Hebrew letters, Chet, Zayin, Kuf on her right shoulder blade. This spells Chazak, which means "Strength."
She says, “I like this because it’s a word used when you finish reading one book of Torah and go to the next. It reminds me that we go from one thing to the next in strength.” She’s been planning this tattoo for nine years, since she was enrolled in a semester-long high school program. “Israel was a time of transition for me, and I feel like it reinforces that message of strength that is inside me forever and ever.
“It's more than just a tattoo,” she explains. “It's a sense of pride, a display of who I am that you might not be able to tell by just looking at me.”
Tattoos are a 21st century industry, a fashion statement, and a fad. When I see women in their 50s and 60s with big ink on their shoulders or chests or ankles, I look away, embarrassed. It’s like they’re wearing tube tops – always a bad idea -- only this is a mistake that stays with you to the grave. But tats on pretty young flesh makes me wince, too. What will they look like in fifty years time as skin weathers and wrinkles and ultimately withers? Will the future hold regret and laser removal?
Clearly, I don’t like tattoos. But disapproval aside, hearing the news of my daughter’s tattoo made me feel … sad.
When my baby was four months old, I picked her up after daycare and found a scratch across the bridge of her nose. It might have come from a toy or her own fingernail or from a small oversight by her caregiver. It was nothing, but there it was -- red and already starting to scab over. And it made me sad.
The scratch healed quickly but it left a faint scar, invisible to everyone but me. And to me, it was a reminder of her vulnerability to the world. It proved that I was unable to prevent the inevitable wear and tear of life. It taught me that we were two separate bodies living separate lives, after only a few months, but forever and ever.
The lessons of parenthood come in many flavors: joy, pride, gratitude and sometimes, sadness.
From strength to strength, we go in strength