A Mother-Daughter Exchange
Author Anita Diamant shares her thoughts on daughter Emilia’s tattoo – and Emilia responds.
by Anita Diamant
Emilia was a precocious kid. When she [was] about 8 years old we were sitting on a park bench people-watching, when a teenager wearing a belly-button ring passed by. She said, “You won’t have to worry about that.”
“No belly button piercing?” I asked.
“No,” she said and rolled her blue eyes.
You know where this is going. My daughter is 27 years old, and while she has no ring in her navel and has removed the industrial piercing through the cartilage in her right ear, she does have a tattoo.
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.
The Torah also tells us that picking up bread on the Sabbath and sassing our elders are punishable offenses.
In the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust, it seemed that tattooing would be forever associated with numbers burned into the flesh of concentration camp slaves – a mutilation of body and soul.
But those tattoos are no longer a primary point of reference for people under the age of 40. 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 the figure might be lower, it’s probably pretty close.
Tattoos on Jews include flowers and butterflies. But if you Google “Jews and Tattoos,” you’ll see stars of David, as well as Hamsas (a hand meant to ward off the evil eye), dancing rabbis, and one famous “Kosher pig.” A friend spotted a full-color diagram of the Kabalistic sepherot (mystical spheres) inked on an upper arm.
My daughter’s tattoo is on her shoulder blade; three Hebrew letters that spell out Chet, Zayin, Kuf, which spells chazak and means “strength.”
She told me she was going to get that very tattoo when she was fifteen years old and returned from a semester-long high school program in Israel. Ten years later, she did it.
Emilia says, “It’s the 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. 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 also about a sense of pride, a display of who I am that you might not be able to tell by just looking at me.”
Emilia’s tattoo makes me feel … wistful.
When she was four months old, I discovered a scratch across the bridge of her nose. It might have come from a toy or her own fingernail. It was nothing and it healed quickly, leaving the faintest of scars, invisible to everyone but me. But to me, it was a reminder of her vulnerability and my inability to protect her against the inevitable wear and tear of life. An early lesson in letting go of what wasn’t mine to keep.
by Emilia Diamant
I knew when I went to get my first tattoo that the hardest part wouldn’t be the pain (although it did hurt quite a bit), it would be telling my mother. I had the idea when I was living in Israel, where I fell in love with Hebrew–it’s twists and turns and calligraphy were captivating to me. Chazak, strength, meant to me that I would always be strong, even in moments of weakness or distress.
Despite the importance, I knew it would be a challenge to tell my mother. When she saw it for the first time she basically sighed and said “well, okay.” So, that’s where we are with it.
Its funny though, because I forget (quite frequently) that my tattoo is even there. I don’t frequently look at my shoulder blades in the mirror, and when I do it’s almost startling to see the ink there. In summertime I am more aware of my tattoo, when I go to the beach or wear a sundress–thanks to a parental predilection for sighs and tongue clicks.
But the most unexpected byproduct of my tattoo has been that it is a teaching tool. As a Jewish educator, tattoos are a bit of an iffy situation. One of the reasons I inked in a spot that could easily be covered was to avoid questions from teens, bosses, or co-workers. But as I thought about it more and more I realized that my tattoo story was not one of impulse or drunken stupidity, but one of thought and meaning. I had the idea when I was 16, and didn’t get the tattoo until I was 23. I found the design, made an appointment, and brought friends for support. We had dinner to celebrate after–it felt like this hugely adult moment.
So, I can use this story to talk to my teens. About the important distinction between impulsivity and planning. I’ve seen kids get tattoos that are ugly/tacky, misspelled, or not important to them. They regret it later. The thing they all have in common is they didn’t think about it. From a modern Jewish perspective, I think the key is thought, planning, and meaning. I don’t have a need to be buried in an Orthodox cemetery, so why not choose to make careful choices with my body that might preclude me from that? I should be able to do what I want to my body in this life, in a way that doesn’t sully or harm me.
I know my mother disagrees–a tattoo is, after all, done with a needle. The skin is altered. But for me it’s almost as if Chazak was always supposed to be there.
Next up? A giraffe outline on my foot, to remind me always of my grandfather, Maurice, who loved the majestic silent creatures. Maybe she’ll like that one?
About the Author
Anita Diamant is the Boston-based author of 12 books, including the bestselling The Red Tent. Her other novels include Day After Night, Good Harbor, and The Last Days of Dogtown. She has also published a collection of essays and six nonfiction guides to contemporary Jewish life, including The New Jewish Wedding, and Choosing a Jewish Life. Her writing has appeared in such publications as he Boston Globe, Real Simple, and Hadassah Magazine. She was the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim, Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center, in Newton, Massachusetts. (www.mayyimhayyim.org) Visit www.anitadiamant.com.
Emilia Diamant is currently the director of programming and initiatives at Prozdor of Hebrew College, where she works to corral teenagers into loving social justice and unicorns as much as she does. Before that, Emilia was the community educator at the Genesis program at Brandeis University.