Reclaiming a Symbol of Destruction, Lawful or Not
by Natalie Buchbinder
It’s tough to make a horrific event that happened over 70 years ago relevant to young people.
It’s the struggle that Holocaust museums and March of the Living tours to concentration camps have attempted to address. A recent New York Times article profiled young Israelis who have found a way to keep the Holocaust alive, tattooing the numbers of their survivor grandparents on their young forearms.
Eli Sagir, 21, was inspired to get a tattoo of her grandfather’s number, 157622, after a high school trip to Poland. Her brother, mother, and most recently her uncle have followed Sagir’s lead and had the same done to their own arms.
“All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust,” Sagir told The New York Times. “They think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history.”
To some, the act of tattooing is a reclamation of an act of victimization. During the Holocaust, millions of Jews were crudely branded and tattooed as a symbol of Nazi ownership, a filing system of lives. Hopes, dreams, achievements, family were all erased in favor of a new identity. According to The New York Times, some survivors consider the tattoo a medal of valor, signifying their survival through harsh camp conditions. Only those selected for work at Auschwitz and Birkenau were branded with the numbers. Tattooing the number of a loved one in takes takes the sense of ownership and spins it in a positive way.
But the reclamation of the practice is not entirely kosher. “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves,” commands the Bible in Leviticus 19:28, as translated by Chabad. The Torah and Jewish law forbid any activity that alters the body, a supposed recreation of God’s image. According to the laws of Rambam, tattooing falls under the category of idolatry, one of the highest sins in Jewish culture.
“Torah clearly forbids tattooing and self-cutting as ways of mourning or memorializing,” Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada told Moment in 2009, in the “Ask the Rabbis” section. “However, Torah also implies that piercing can be opportunities for good or bad. The Israelite men donated their earrings to build the golden calf, but the Israelite women donated theirs to build the mishkan (Sanctuary).”
While it is unlikely that rabbis will be hosting tattoo parlor minyans anytime soon, the practice is slowly shedding its taboo in younger generations. The Conservative branch of Judaism discourages, but does not ban the practice. Tattoo restrictions are still covered under Jewish law, but do not eliminate a person’s burial in a Jewish cemetery; bubbes or Jewish mothers often preach and perpetuate this misconception in an attempt to squelch their daughter’s hopes of forever etching the name of a fleeting boyfriend, or better yet, a Jewish symbol, on her body.
The topic was re-opened briefly last year in London, when heavily tattooed (and taboo for unrelated reasons) singer Amy Winehouse was buried without incident in the city’s Jewish cemetery.
Tattoos are becoming an increasingly widespread phenomenon among American youth. According to data maintained by the Pew Research Center, 36% of 18-25 year olds and 40% of 26-40 year olds had at least one tattoo as of 2007. Tattoos are more prevalent than having a piercing on a place other than the earlobes, with 30% and 22% in those respective populations.
The number of Holocaust survivors declines each day. When the last person who experienced the terror firsthand no longer is among us, we will lose our connection to a historical event that is so unfathomable that future generations may have a hard time understanding how such a thing could happen. Sagir and others’ action against Jewish tradition will bridge the gap between history and reality for a few moments longer, so that the Holocaust is not just another page in a history textbook. It is real, and it is relevant.