Jul 06, 2017
There’s a lot of cultural baggage around tattoos in Jewish contexts, or with Jewish connotations. For some Jews, the idea of tattooing evokes identification numbers tattooed on prisoners during the Holocaust, and others still hold by the widespread notion that someone with tattoos can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, an idea over which Jewish movements have debated and issued responsa in recent years. In any case, taboo can’t be the end of the story. Lives and texts—and bodies, art, trauma, all of which, of course, are connected—are always more complicated than that. The truth of complication, and a curiosity about it, drew me as a writer, a symbolist, and a Yiddishist with tattoos, to the lived intersection of Yiddish and tattooing: each in its own way a subculture (only one necessarily subcutaneous), each weighted with history and meaning. What about Yiddish gets under our skin, both literally and metaphorically? What draws us to embody language, or to make explicit how language embodies us? I found other folks with Yiddish tattoos through friends and friends-of-friends, mostly on Facebook, and asked each person to write a bit about their Yiddish tattoo(s) in their own words:
Yosl Cutler, woodcut illustration from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s Di goldene pave.
I got this tattoo in 2006, during my parents’ divorce. It was a strange year for me: I worked as an office manager at a nursing home and spent a lot of time alone and with my parents, separately. I made various strange decisions that year; for example, I went to see The Squid and the Whale alone. I also decided that I wanted to get a tattoo to treat myself, and I looked around my poorly lit room for inspiration. My eyes stopped on my tattered, Kelly green cloth-bound hardback of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s second book of poems. In college, I had done some practice translations of a section from the book about a foolish character named Zarkhi who spends some time at the seashore (“Zarkhi bam breg yam”). The self-deprecation of Zarkhi’s cod-philosophical musings was strangely moving. The illustrations by Yosl Cutler scattered throughout the book were extraordinary, and I’m a sucker for high modernist woodcuts. In my ignorance, I figured that tattooing someone was probably pretty similar to chiseling or engraving wood. The choice of this particular image didn’t have any especially deep meaning for me –I liked the poems, I liked the idea of putting the image on the inside of my arm where I could always see it but could also hide it from others, I liked thinking about and being bam breg yam with fish jumping in the distance. I decided to take out the sailboat from the original image, because I don’t care about sailboats. The whole thing was a profoundly selfish gesture. So selfish, in fact, that I don’t remember the name of the parlor where I got it (though it was in the East Village), or, worse, of the artist who tattooed me. I deliberately went to the parlor alone. The tattoo was just for me, and I didn’t care what anyone thought of it. People can never figure out what the image is, and I don’t care. Still, when the legendary Adrienne Cooper saw my tattoo and said, straight away, “Zarkhi bam breg yam!”, I was very pleased.
This was my first tattoo, and I got it in 2014 at Cathedral Tattoo in Salt Lake City, Utah. I don’t remember the name of the artist who inked it, but I designed the style of the lettering myself, and I actually quite love how it blurred as it healed. I’d been thinking for a long time about the golem of Prague, who of course has emes or “truth” written on its clay forehead, and becomes lifeless when the alef is removed, transforming the word into mes, or death. I liked the idea of truth and death as opposites, the idea that words have power to give or take life from clay. And there’s a little Yiddish joke in it, just for me: rather than get the word tattooed on my forehead, where the golem has it, I included a little star inside the alef, since the Yiddish word for forehead, shtern, also means star.
My tattoo says mishpukhe, or “family.” I got it just after my grandfather died last year. Mishpukhe was one of the ten or so Yiddish words I knew growing up, and it was always my favorite. I love that it kind of overflows the connotation of “family.” To me, “family” says “nuclear family”, but mishpukhe means everyone. I guess that’s typical of Yiddish culture as I’ve learned it: everyone together, being loud, having a great time.I’ve been trying to learn Yiddish since he died, as a family thing, a Jewish thing, and a political thing. (I’m active in IfNotNow and think of celebrating the Jewish diaspora as the flipside of opposing the Israeli occupation.) It’s hard; I’ve tried classes and books, but so far YidLife Crisis has helped the most.
Right thigh. Art and tattoo by Jasmine Morell at Spirited Tattooing.
Beets are the land my family lived on before this one, they are my mother slurping borscht, hands dyed purple earthy red. Beets are diaspora: to grow a beet, you must nestle it into the earth, but to consume it and benefit from it’s growth, it must be uprooted. Beets are both from earth, and from no earth, from place and no place.
Bonus beet tattoo (also for diaspora, Ashkenaz, and rootedness, plus iron/blood/and some Polish Catholic barscz heritage too) recently acquired by editor Diana Clarke at Saint Tattoo in Knoxville, TN, design and ink by guest artist Oscar Filero Leon of El Filero in Monterrey, Mexico:
Left bicep. Art by J Brager, text by Daniel Kahn, tattoo by Eric Guntor of Spirited Tattooing.
I refer to this as my “emergency Trump tattoo” that I got mid-November of 2016. These words have been really important to my brother and me, Dan’s translation of a common movement chant (“No Justice, No Peace” is rendered “Nisht keyn tsedek, nisht keyn sholem”). It sits right below my t’filin each morning, and the words of Hoshea “I bind you to me with righteousness and justice…” resonate when they connect tattoo to t’filin. The plants inside the text are medicinal plants for protection, yarrow, poppy, and red chestnut. To have Yiddish on my body when it is not a language that flows from me feels bold, sometimes embarrassing, and proud. To put these letters on my body claims my Jewish body as mine, and commits it to the work of justice at hand. This tattoo is featured on the cover of the 5778 Radical Jewish Calendar, out in the month of Av.
Here’s a stick-n-poke tattoo (left thigh, sterilized sewing needle and India ink, shown here fresh) on and by me in honor of Celia Dropkin’s poem “Di moskite” [“The Mosquito”], translated by Faith Jones, Jennifer Kronovet, and Samuel Solomon (whose Halpern tattoo is depicted above) in The Acrobat (2014). The poem begins: “I might die,/maybe tonight,/if not for the little mosquito./She bites me, bites/and draws fear right out of me[…].” It reminds me to let in intimacy instead of loneliness, to stay porous.
If you have a Yiddish tattoo, and you’d like to tell In geveb about it, please email [email protected]