Peaches and Stars
According to one suburban mom, getting tattoos that represented each of her kids inspired fascinating discussions with other Jews.
by Susan Sperling
It began with a small peach. For years I’d wanted a peach to represent my fruit-nicknamed daughter Rachel. I didn’t give it much thought, the Jewish thing, the sin thing. I thought more about what a tattoo would say about me in the workplace, about what my friends and family and colleagues would think, and about whether it would hurt. I thought about where on my body it would go, considering the implications of different body parts. Some seemed too cliché, some too exposed, some too painful. Finally, around Mother’s Day when Rachel was 9, I got a small peach on the inside of my wrist.
It did hurt, but it was soooooo cool, even if, at a certain angle, it looked less like a peach and more like an old man’s butt. My daughter was thrilled with it, and my elderly Jewish mother thought it was awesome. My husband wasn’t repulsed, and none of my coworkers looked at me differently. Even the butt resemblance was just a fun conversation starter.
But then, while wrestling one day, my daughter turned to her brother David, five years younger, and said, “Mommy loves me more than she loves you. Look, she has a tattoo of me on her and not one of you.” The resulting tears made me promise I would make a tattoo appointment the next day.
In fact, I’d thought about it for a long time but had been unsure what to get to represent him. A Tasmanian devil seemed somehow wrong, but not as wrong as the obvious choice, a Star of David. When I made the appointment for the following week, I started to think in earnest about what to put on my wrist next to the peach, and I kept coming back to the Magen David. After all, my brother had his children’s names spelled out on his arm in Hebrew, with a Magen David in between them, and his daughter had a small Jewish Star tattooed on her wrist.
But I still felt uncomfortable about it; it seemed somehow blasphemous. I understood at the same time the irony of this line of thinking, that tattoos are forbidden in the Jewish religion anyway, and that I already had one. So what was different? The Magen David, though, the ultimate symbol of my people, my community, my faith…it seemed like a double sin.
I had never been particularly concerned with sin. I was raised in the Conservative movement, going to shul a few times a year, until my father, by far the more outwardly observant of my parents, left my mother for a non-Jewish woman and it all, as they say, went to hell in a hand cart. The synagogue membership lapsed, the plates got mixed together, and bacon magically appeared in our fridge. Make no mistake, though; I may not be religious, but I am very much a Jew. My Jewishness is an intrinsic part of my identity and an essential part of the lens through which I view the world.
I talked to people throughout that week, asking friends for their opinions, which led to some interesting discussions, from the profound to the profane. We talked about the meaning of the biblical prohibition – “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28) – and about what else was included in that. We read through the 613 mitzvot and found, at number 348, “not to tattoo the body like the idolaters.”
We talked about Holocaust survivors, who’d been marked against their will in the most horrific and vile way possible, and about whether tattoos were disrespectful to them.
And, of course, the Jewish cemetery discussion came up. One of my friends suggested that in order to be buried with the rest of my family, I might have to have the tattoo cut off my dead body, but that, of course, contradicted the first part of the Leviticus passage. This led to the question of organ donation, which led to me saying that “that cannot be what G-d meant by that,” which got me pissed off about some of the more literal, and to my mind arbitrary and arcane, interpretations of halakhah. One Shabbos, for instance, I witnessed a woman refusing to press an automatic door button, preferring instead to struggle with the door and her elderly husband’s wheelchair. “That cannot be what G-d meant by that!” I said then, too. All in all, these musings made me say “screw it, I’m getting the Magen David,” which, of course, I’d always known I would get, but the righteous indignation helped settle my doubts.
Still, I was relieved to find out that it is not Jewish law that prohibits a tattooed person from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, but rather the decision of certain burial societies to exclude people. If we excluded everyone who’d transgressed in some way, my friend reasoned to me, wouldn’t the cemeteries be empty?
And so my small, blue Magen David, the Star of David for my own star David, is forever on my wrist, along with its sister tattoo, the peach (which, by the way, was fixed and no longer looks quite so much like a butt).
About the Author
Susan Sperling is a mildly neurotic and somehow relatively successful communications hack currently working as a communications manager for a large public sector organization in Toronto. She lives in the burbs with her husband and two kids and is embarrassed to admit that every time a suburban mom gets a tattoo, she feels a little less cool.