Tattooed Jew

It’s memorial day and the world is filled with Facebook posts, blogs, tweets, and news headlines honoring those veterans without whom I would not be able to sit here and write. It is good and honorable to talk about those vets who have given their last breath to make sure that I am free enough to be at Starbucks with my tattoos and Torah and laptop. The sacrifices they made push the boundaries of love.

I am a little disturbed, however, by what I am seeing and reading. I am disturbed by what I am not seeing and reading. There are pictures of flags. There are rows and rows of headstones. There are statues and memorials. They speak of death and loss, of the ultimate sacrifice paid by our soldiers. They speak to the men and women who died, who didn’t come back.

The loss of these men and women is horrific and I pray for a day when we will no longer beat “swords into plowshares and… spears into pruning hooks; (when) nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4). But I have to wonder if theirs is the ultimate sacrifice.

We hear daily about post traumatic stress disorder and its links to long term military service. We see pictures of the soldiers who have come home missing limbs, with head-wounds that leave them a completely different person. We read about soldiers who have had limbs blown off, who have had friends die in front of their faces, who have come home so psychologically scarred that they cannot relate to their family and friends anymore. And we say to them “at least you came home alive”. We assume that whatever sacrifice they made, whatever pain they are in, it is better than death. It is less of a sacrifice than life.

I’m not sure I believe this to be true. I imagine these men and women, so damaged fighting for us, and I wonder if their half-lives aren’t the most painful war stories imaginable. Death, I believe, brings us into unity with G…d. But a half-life of pain and anguish, whether psychological or physical, is torment. It is horror and night terrors and yes, it is also the potential for healing, but that healing is not promised to anyone.

I’m not saying we should not honor our fallen soldiers. I truly and deeply believe that we should. I know that the life I live is a privileged one, hard won by men and women who do what I cannot do. I know that I live free because of the deaths of millions of others. What I would hope, however, is that this memorial day, we do more than remember the fallen who have found the peace of death. Theirs is not the only sacrifice. Theirs are not the only lives lost. Let us also remember those who come home, alive but broken in profoundly painful ways, whose sacrifice is carried with them well beyond their time of service. They live each day without the peace that they fought so hard to win for us. They live each day continually sacrificing. These are the men and women who come home dead, though they still walk. They must be a part of our memories. They must be a part of our observances. Their sacrifices are not done, and it is shameful if we think we are done with them.

There are these two stories I want to tell, both of which happened on May 9th of this year.

See, I’ve intentionally waited for a while to write about the passing of NC Amendment One. I was hoping to find some peace. A place where my emotions and feelings were settled and I could pinpoint one feeling that overwhelmed all of the others. I feel like I have been broken up with. For better or worse, North Carolina and I were in a relationship, and the passing of Amendment One has caused all of the chaotic emotions that a painful breakup might cause – made worse by the fact that NC is now an ex I can’t avoid.

I am angry. I am heartbroken. I am so sad for North Carolina, which doesn’t know what it is losing. I am frustrated. I am feeling a little worthless in the eyes of my home state. See, NC Amendment one writes into the constitution the fact that my future marriage and the marriages of countless friends don’t really count for anything. They are shams. They are less than. Amendment one declares that marriage is between one man and one woman. It was a day of radical rejection for many people.

But there is this other story that happened that day. There’s a story of radical insecurity and radical love that happened as well. It goes like this. One of my brothers is getting married. Because I am who I am and I look like what I look like, I wrote to this brother asking if I should wear long sleeves to the wedding in spite of its being in July. I know that it is likely to be a more conservative wedding crowd, and they may not be used to someone who looks like I look. I don’t want to offend anyone, and to be honest, I’m always a little insecure about how I look on formal occasions. So I wrote to this brother and I asked what I should do and here is the answer I got: Come and be yourself. I wouldn’t want it any other way. If other people are uncomfortable, they’ll live. We live through enough shit in this world — at my wedding, you can be you, whatever that looks like on that day! My sibling knows that people will probably stare at me. He knows that he will have to field questions about who I am and why I look like I look. He doesn’t care. He wouldn’t have me any other way.

I almost cried. In the midst of Amendment One being passed, in the midst of rejection and hatred in my home state, my brother reached out to me with this radical love that still amazes me. People quote the bible in their arguments for the passing of Amendment One. They cite the laws of G…d and the biblical mandate.

I have no idea what they are talking about. I felt G..d that day. I felt the love that I believe G…d has for all of us. It wasn’t in the protection of marriage. It wasn’t in the hatred and rejection that was written into the constitution that day. It was in the kindness of a sibling who wouldn’t have me any other way than the way G…d made me. It was in the radical love that my brother holds for me, and his knowledge that I am a creature of G…d no different than he is. It breaks my heart that I found it in Virginia and not in my own home.


I read all of these articles about religion and modesty laws, and usually I scoff. They are always filled with explanations of why women should cover up, about how the very sight of our hair will cause some man to lose all control and ravish us. I’m a pencil skirt, tank top wearing girl and I generally have found modesty laws to be silly and irrelevant to my life.

Increasingly, however, I am beginning to wonder. I have noticed a disturbing trend towards the idea that bodies are public domain, towards the idea that we have a right to understand, poke, prod, and examine the bodies of others without regard to their wishes. My pregnant friends complain of people – complete strangers – coming up and touching their bellies without having even said a word to them. My friend with a prosthetic arm constantly bemoans the people who want to touch it, see what it feels like. Daily I have people who try to touch my tattoos, who attempt to move my clothes out of the way to see what the rest of them look like.

We have become a society that expects all information to be in the public arena. Nothing is held back. Nothing is personal. Google and Wikipedia have given us the sure and certain knowledge that information is at our fingertips, and we expect this to be true in the rest of the world as well. We no longer believe in knowledge that is not ours to have, and this includes knowledge about other people’s bodies as well. We share all the information about our ailments; our sex lives, our physical attributes; we expect other people to do this as well.

I think that bodies should be sacred. We should choose when and where we choose to share them, and when and where we keep ourselves private. When did we move away from a society in which it was ok to say “no, I don’t wish to share that with you”? When did we become a society that has a hard time saying “please, don’t touch me”? If our bodies are temples given to us by G…d, then when did we become so covetous of other peoples? And how do we return to a place where my body was the only one I had a right to?

The great sages and rabbis of our past used to write their commentaries on Torah pages. Scribbled around the margins could be found comments, comments on comments, and comments on comments on comments. Rabbis would hold entire discussions with their predecessors through the marginalia that could be found around a verse or two of Torah.

Now, don’t get me wrong. No rabbis have scrawled their marginalia as tattoos on my body. There isn’t a dialogue between the great sages of the past going on in my inked words. And my skin isn’t an ancient page from the Torah.

But in some ways it is. The rabbis were hoping (I believe) to have conversations that revolved around G…d, that were in some ways *with* G…d. They were seeking understanding of passages of holy scripture that could only be found in dialogue with other people. They understood the need to write down their thoughts, to write down their lack of understanding for the whole world to see.

We all carry with us scars; we all wear our pain and hope and lack of understanding written on our bodies. They are in our burn marks. They are in the scars from old injuries. They are in the wedding ring we can’t take off or the bracelet that was a gift from a lover long ago. We all carry with us our joys, in the donning of tefillin, in the binding of our chests or joyful moments when we realize we appear on the outside the way we feel on the inside. We mark our bodies in deeply meaningful manners, tattooing no less meaningful than any other of the markers.

Now imagine a world in which our bodies are as sacred as a Torah scroll.  Imagine the tattoos of millions of people as conversations, dialogues between our hearts and our bodies, between our bodies and those who gaze at them. Imagine all of those tattoos as conversations that we are having with G…d, written out on the body so that thousands of others can see, comment, and involve themselves in the dialogue. Imagine that every drop of ink, every letter so carefully inscribed into the skin is a message to G…d, carrying all the hopes, fears, pain, and joy that the bearer of the tattoo feels.

What if we could make them sacred? What if we could make them holy? What if we could recognize them as the conversations with G…d that they truly have the potential to be? What if, instead of asking what a tattoo said, we asked what it meant?

I can’t speak for everyone else.  I certainly do not want to speak for the wide array of tattooed people. But I do believe our bodies are sacred. I believe we can use them as tools for dialogue in so many powerful ways. There are some conversations that are so powerful, so painful, so heartfelt that we are too shy to speak them aloud to G…d. These are the conversations that become written on the body. They are no less a sacred form of communication than the rabbis who dialogued through the marginalia of Torah pages.