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  June 5, 1998, from Jewish Bulletin of Northern California

Stroll past tattoo parlors recalls Jewish prohibitions

NAOMI GESCHWIND, Bulletin Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA -- At the corner of Monroe and South Fourth Street, my favorite natural grocery store, Essene, is marked by a massive neon sign in the shape of a wine bottle with a Magen David, the six-pointed Jewish star, as its cap.

That sign, and the names of the fabric businesses that line the next few blocks -- Grossman's, Adler's, Samuel Goldberg's and Kincus' -- are clues to the history of the neighborhood. It is only a short walk from the former shul on South Sixth Street that now houses an antiques market. B'nai Abraham, the Vilna shul and Society Hill Synagogue are also mere blocks away.

As one who regularly plans more crafts projects than I undertake, I often walk down South Fourth Street on Sunday afternoons when, in keeping with traditional Jewish shopkeeping, many of the fabric stores are open. Yet, on the way, I walk along another segment of South Fourth between South and Bainbridge, which is as far removed as it could be from the former character of the neighborhood.

The business that gives this block its character is tattooing. It has four tattoo parlors, the highest concentration I have noted in such a small area. Once sported solely by sailors and motorcycle gang members and the like, in recent years tattoos have become fashionable, even mainstream. Rockers such as Jorma Kaukonen and Axl Rose flaunted their tattoos and their fans followed suit.

Tattooing has also lost its macho image and become a fashion accessory as women's magazines tout the appeal of a delicate butterfly or rosebud discreetly placed where only a lover will see it.

Street fashion is even more extreme, though, and on South Street it is commonplace to see teens and young adults of both sexes bearing snakes, daggers, suns, esoteric symbols and words on calves or forearms, scalps or backs.

The tattooed lady of whom Groucho Marx sang, "Lydia, that encyclopedia," would be out of a job and lost in the crowd on South Street today. One possible reason for the popularity of tattoos is the rage for prison-inspired fashions.

Crudely executed, single-color tattoos done with ballpoint pens are often seen on present and former convicts. It's also possible that some of the burgeoning interest in tattooing developed because it is no longer an irreversible process.

After experimenting with skin grafts for many years, dermatologists now advertise laser treatments that can erase the momentary whim commemorating a former love, affiliation or taste.

Piercing, once limited in the Western world to earlobes, is now routinely done to lips, noses, nipples, navels, eyebrows, cheeks and any other fold of skin. Branding is only undertaken at present by those for whom tattoos are too mainstream.

Either as a fashion accessory or as a membership badge, all such practices are forbidden to Jews. The source is a brief verse in Deuteronomy 14:1 commonly translated as, "Ye shall not cut yourselves nor make any baldness between the eyes for the dead."

This prohibition on self-mutilation is specifically in response to pagan mourning practices of the time, some of which still survive today. It is also understood that, since we are made in God's image, self-mutilation is an offense against God.

Because Judaism tends to moderate many such decrees, it has become permissible for women in the West to pierce their ears because it is a common practice among the majority non-Jewish population. Men, however, may not pierce their ears.

Arguments exist on both sides that it might be permissible to pierce a nose or navel if one were living in a non-Western country where such adornment is widespread. Tattooing, however, is never allowed. This is, in part, because the practice is often associated with idol worship, which is also always forbidden. Because tattooing is as impermissible as idolatry, the Nazis tattooed concentration-camp inmates as an additional form of humiliation.

Tattooing is taken so seriously by many Jews that it can even be used as a reason to refuse burial in a Jewish cemetery -- although that rule is, obviously, never applied to concentration-camp survivors.

Years ago I had a friend whose parents had both been in the camps. David was a musician whose band played in many Boston-area clubs. Those clubs did what most clubs do to demonstrate that someone has paid admission or is otherwise permitted entrance: They stamped the back of the patron's hand with a small rubber stamp. David got stamped regularly and then always dashed to the nearest sink to wash off the marking. I asked him why he did this.

The rubber stamps, he said, left a mark that looked like a tattoo and because his parents had suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis, he couldn't look at tattoos without physical revulsion. I've never met anyone else with such an intense reaction to tattoos.

Even though David was raised in a secular environment and thought of himself as an American, the Nazi tattooing of his parents had guaranteed that in one area of his experience he would always react first as a Jew.

This article was previously run in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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