Tattoo Jew. Now there's an oxymoron. By law, Jews aren't supposed to have tattoos. It's right there in the book of Leviticus, alongside the prohibitions against cheeseburgers (technically, a calf cooked in its mother's milk) and butt-sex.
But for the past five years, Andy Abrams, a nice Jewish 41-year-old boy who grew up in an Orthodox home in Creve Coeur and did some time at Epstein Hebrew Academy, has been obsessed with Jews with tattoos. He's been tracking them down, interviewing their owners and giving some deep thought to the ideas of history, religious symbolism, intertexuality and skin.
It's all culminated in a feature-length documentary, Tattoo Jew. Abrams and his friend and collaborator Justin Dawson wrote, produced and shot the film, which has now reached the editing stage. But will it ever get finished?
Abrams conceived the idea for Tattoo Jew when he met a girl with the Hebrew word shechina inked on her lower back. She was the first tattooed Jew he had ever met, aside from the Holocaust survivors he had known growing up. A shechina is when God interacts in the physical world, like with the burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea. To Abrams, it took on particular resonance as a tattoo.
"It's common to the three major religions to have a prohibition against tattoos," Abrams says. "But when it comes to the Jews, there's the prohibition by law and also the Holocaust [when Jewish concentration camp prisoners were tattooed by the Nazis] as a cultural memory. It's a heavy thing."
Many of the Jews Abrams found who had Jewish-themed tattoos didn't get them as an act of rebellion (or not just as an act of rebellion).
"So much effort went into choosing those tattoos," he says. "It's not like getting drunk and getting a butterfly as a tramp stamp. These tattoos are a result of taking a long time sitting and thinking. There's a guy who has the Hebrew word emet [truth] on his arm, and he says every time he looks at it, it reminds him to hold himself to a certain standard. Who would think that a tattoo would help someone hold to a higher level of behavior?"
One woman in the film, Marina Vainshtein, has covered her entire body in Holocaust-themed tattoos. "They're visceral, upsetting images," Abrams says. "A skull burning, a lampshade made of skin, a man playing a violin standing on a star of David made of bones. The idea that people would forget the Holocaust was so appalling that she decided to use her body as a way to remember."
Surprisingly, Abrams found that some Holocaust survivors weren't offended when they saw their grandchildren's tattoos. "Some of them think it's great -- because they were forced to get them. It makes logical sense. It's like, 'I didn't have the choice, but you do.' It's freedom, instead of being trapped in the idea of shame. It's a way to say, 'I'm proud and fuck you if you don't like it.'"
Then again, there's also the guy who has a tattoo of a pig, labeled "kosher," on the back of his neck.
How often do Jews, so often depicted in pop culture as clones of Woody Allen, get to be badasses?
Making Tattoo Jew has forced Abrams to delve into Jewish law and lore. He learned that the idea that a person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery is actually a myth. "It's a conspiracy between neurotic Jewish mothers and rabbis," he jokes.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.