At first, I was just going to ask if you have any tattoos, and if so, what’s the story behind them. But why limit it to tattoos? Do you have any body modifications that are considered edgy by your family, loved ones or mainstream society?
I’ve got two tattoos–Calvin on a surfboard, designed by my ex-girlfriend and I on my left upper arm; and a dark green (almost black) Celtic abstract design that snakes from my right mid-thigh up to my belly-button.
The latter is a cover tattoo, and there’s a story behind it.
Anyone out there familiar with Jewish law will know that tattoos and body modification are forbidden—even pierced ears are frowned u[on by some religious Jews. Which is another reason Holocaust concentration camp tattoos were so dehumanizing and offensive to Jews.
Knowing this fact full well, I decided to get my tattoo on a Saturday afternoon in 1980 or 81 just around sunset as Shabbat was coming to an end. I raided the kitchen cookie jar household fund, and without telling my ex husband where I was going, left our 2-year-old daughter in his care and drove across town to Geary Street in San Francisco.
I entered a somewhat sleazy tattoo parlor—is there any other kind?—and scanned the pictures of tattoos lining the walls. I decided rather quickly that I wanted a small, red rose, to be located in the crook of my right thigh. What I would have called back then, “my bikini line.”
I entered the back room accompanied by a world-weary older tattoo artist, climbed up on the table and—I think I was wearing a skirt—hiked it up and bared the skin to be shaved. I kept my undies on, just pulling the elastic to one side. Nonetheless, I felt very brazen and the whole experience felt…risqué. Naughty. Out of character for the frum Jewish housewife persona I’d been living the previous 3 years.
Which was, I think, the whole point. That persona and life were fraying. I’d converted to Orthodox Judaism after contemplating the decision and studying for a number of years and living on a kibbutz in Israel for 9 months. There was—and is—much about Judaism that I admire and which attracts me. The emphasis on family, learning, tradition, and law. Most of all, I liked that it wasn’t dogmatic. I even told the rabbis I didn’t think I believed in God, and that was ok. What mattered was that I agreed to keep ha’lacha—live by Jewish law.
Which was what I liked. In my opinion, at its best Judaism is about infusing meaning into every daily decision, making life thereby a thoughtful and holy sort of meditation. It’s not about doing (or not doing) something now to attain an eternal paradise, but rather doing something now to make your life meaningful.
Aw, if that was the extent of it! Unfortunately, Judaism is also a pretty sexist religion. And that was what undid it for me in the end.
For I would bust my ass before every Shabbat and holiday—the latter were often celebrated for two days!—to make sure that my ex and I didn’t have to lift a finger during the actual days, because work was forbidden on Shabbat and holidays. No driving, lighting or extinguishing fires—which means, turning lights, the radio or TV, hot water, or the stove on or off, Meals for the entire time had to be prepared ahead of time, and either timers set to heat stuff or a crock pot arranged for, or eat it cold. No housework during, which meant mega housework before and after.
And it all falls on the shoulders of the women. The guys just have to show up and daven. Not a bad deal for them! What really finished it off for me was that one of the prayers the men say everyday is, “Thank you, God, I wasn’t born a woman.” I kid you not.
A measure of my growing feminism was how much this unfair arrangement began to eat away at me. From my perspective, it seemed like the women did all the shit work and the guys got all the glory. I honestly didn’t realize how pissed off I was until I found myself in that tattoo parlor—almost breaking Jewish law by driving to it!—and then back at home with my new rose tattoo.
My ex was furious when he saw it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end for us. And my first, baby steps on a path that would eventually lead me to where I am now: a feminist, queer radical leftist FtM expat American living in Dublin.
Oh, as the tattoo needle was whining and buzzing and the tattoo artist was drawing the rose, San Francisco was hit by a pretty strong earthquake. Mid-tattoo. Strong enough that artist had to stop what he was doing—everyone in the shop stopped and froze, in fact. Nothing fell off the walls or shattered or anything, and after several seconds, the rocking and swaying stopped. We all laughed heartily. And then he finished my tattoo.
A message from the Creator of the Universe? If so, was she approving?