We've all heard the admonition: If you get a tattoo — if you desecrate your body in this way — you will not be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Such phrases filled Jewish childhoods in mid-20th century America; and yet, who would have imagined way back then that this standard parental admonition would provide the lead for a story in The New York Times, even if it was in the hip, looser Style section? It did happen on July 17 — but the minute the supposed edict was stated, it was immediately refuted.
"The eight rabbinical scholars interviewed for this article," wrote reporter Kate Torgovnick, "from institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, said it's an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time, their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine."
The article spoke with various members of a family — Roberta Kaplan, her daughter and granddaughters — and looked at how the generations worked out the problem of whether to be tattooed or not. At first, Nicki Carnes, a granddaughter, said she listened to her parental units and feared that if she even went near a tattoo parlor, she'd never make it to heaven. But then, as she matured, she did some research. She spoke to rabbis and found out that each one thought differently.
Wrote Torgovnick: "By the time, three years ago, she had an abstract rendering of her cat tattooed on her wrist, she wasn't sure she was in the wrong. After all, she had figured out on her own what has yet to become commonly known among Jews: that rabbis disagree just how bad it is to get inked.
"Still, you try confronting your grandmother. Instead Nicki Carnes hid her abstract cat for months, until one day her sleeve rode up. 'My grandma grabbed my arm and just stared,' she said. 'She gave me that blank, "You broke my heart" look.' "
As Torgovnick pointed out, these old myths die hard, and many Jews in their 20s and 30s told the reporter that they've been criticized by other Jews, both relatives and strangers. "Some, like Nicki Carnes and her sister, Rebecca, who now also has a tattoo, say that being permanently marked was just something they wanted. Others say they were tattooed to rebel or, surprisingly, that they wanted a Jewish tattoo as a way of connecting with their religious and cultural identity."
Torgovnick then spoke about Andy Abrams, a filmmaker, who's spent five years making a documentary called "Tattoo Jew." Noted the reporter, "In his interviews with dozens of Jews with body art, he's noticed the prevalence of Jewish-themed tattoos — from Stars of David to elaborate Holocaust memorials, surprising since one reason Jewish culture opposes tattoos is that Jews were involuntarily marked in concentration camps." The filmmaker said these people just want to connect with their roots or with God.
No doubt, it's a brave new world out there.