In Your Faith: Jews with Tattoos and Other Hebraic Aberrations

Many Jewish Gen Xers are Embracing Their Religion and Cultural Icons with Defiance and Bold Irony. But are the piercings and tattoos a fad or spiritual expression?

13 May, 1996 | Los Angeles Times | Jordan Elgrably

Marina Vainshtein (photo Justin Dawson)

Marina Vainshtein (photo Justin Dawson)

With her purple mohawk and pierced eyebrows, nose and lip, Marina Vainshtein is not, at first glance, your average young Jewish woman. But look further and you'll find evidence of Marina's obsession with the history of her people: a star of David tattooed on her inner left arm, a tattooed armband in Hebrew on her right wrist that reads, "And now we are the last of many." And these are only the first signs that Marina, a 22-year-old Los Angeles photographer, is defining her Judaism in unconventional ways.

Much of Marina's body is tattooed with vivid scenes of the Holocaust: a hovering angel of death in a gas mask; a row of naked bodies hanging from the gallows; and, on her left arm and shoulder, gruesome images of the Nazi medical experiments performed on children.

Jewish law, or halachah, bans tattoos as a desecration of the body; only Holocaust survivors are the exception to the rule that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if tattooed. But now there are members of a generation of young Jews in their 20s and 30s who, like Vainshtein, are observing their Judaism in unorthodox—not to say radical—ways.

Even as the Jewish community has seen a renewed interest in the exploration of Jewish spirituality, there is a discernible movement among some younger Jews to explore their Jewish identity with in-your-face defiance and bold irony. This smaller movement is claiming Jewish ethnicity and cultural icons much the way blacks, Latinos and Asians did before them.

An image from Art Spielgelman's "Maus"

An image from Art Spielgelman's "Maus"

Ironically, Art Spiegelman, considered by some the godfather of this movement for his unusual exploration of Jewish identity in the satirical comic book series Maus, expresses dismay at the idea that Jews are jumping on the multicultural bandwagon

"This is the problem with an America that has gone crazy, that's just gone into ethnic madness," Spiegelman says. "I think what you're seeing is a response to the Balkanization of America, where Jews who felt themselves too embraced in America's assimilationist arms have now started to desperately backpedal. It seems to me that America has entered into an age of competing victimhoods, and that the left has become sapped by the rise of multiculturalism. The energy that used to go into trying to create a generally more just society has been rerouted into competing claims of ethnic rights."

Still, young Jews like Vainshtein remain unapologetic. "I love tattoos," she says. "I think they're beautiful. If they're done right they can be art." Yet Vainshtein hasn't unveiled her tattoos to her parents. She's afraid they'll have a conniption.

When Vainshtein was in high school, a woman who had survived seven concentration camps gave a lecture to her history class. The seeds of Marina's Jewish identity were already planted, she recalls, "but her talk was the nourishment. She taught me that I could be a survivor too, no matter if it's one day or 80 years."

A new alternative Jewish quarterly called Davka (Hebrew slang for "in your face") hopes to appeal to just such a generation of unaffiliated young Jews, many of whom remain alienated by traditional forms of observance. Launched in February in San Francisco, Davka expects a national readership of 40,000 for its second issue. The magazine's intended audience, says Editor in Chief Alan Kaufman, may not go to synagogue or keep all Jewish holidays, "but we are seeing a Jewish cultural revolution, which is the activity of Jews facing a new millennium."

(While Kaufman explains that part of Davka's raison d'etre is to be a response to the anti-Semitism of the militia movement, the Anti-Defamation League has recorded a sharp overall decline in anti-Semitic attitudes over the last 20 years, says David Lehrer, Pacific-Southwest regional director. And the most recent ADL audit of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. reported a decrease of 11% in 1995 from the previous year.)

Artist Dennis Kardon prepares his installation of "Jewish noses" which was featured in shows at the Jewish Museum, the Hammer and elsewhere.

Artist Dennis Kardon prepares his installation of "Jewish noses" which was featured in shows at the Jewish Museum, the Hammer and elsewhere.

Kaufman* points to an explosion of Yiddishkeit (Yiddish culture) in the arts, to "a kind of new postmodern iconography" of Jewish painters, performance artists, writers and musicians who are celebrating Jewish culture with unprecedented enthusiasm and pride. A key show at the Jewish Museum in New York, "Too Jewish?" which opened in March, has sparked considerable interest and debate. Representing the work of 23 artists in a variety of media, "Too Jewish?" is a clear expression of those who have rejected the role of assimilated Jew and are claiming a place for themselves in America's multicultural crucible. The show travels to the Armand Hammer Museum in January.<

Says Irene Segalove, an L.A.-based artist included in the show, "Suddenly, the last few years, being Jewish has become this exotic quality, and my friends are wishing they were Jewish. That's been intriguing to me, a shock really, that these WASPs are coveting my ethnicity."

Norman L. Kleeblatt, the show's curator, says that for the first time Jewish artists are neither nostalgic about the past nor do they view themselves as victims. Instead, "Their use of overt Jewish imagery and themes is calculated, confrontational, highly politicized and, not least, humorous."

Central to both the work shown in "Too Jewish?" and in Davka is an inquiry into modern attitudes about the Jewish body. Several of the artists, for instance, celebrate the "Jewish nose" in ironic ways. No plastic surgery here: These self-references are not about dissimulation and disguise, but acceptance and affirmation, as in Dennis Kardon's "Jewish Noses," a sculptural piece, or Deborah Kass' "Jewish Jackies," an ironic take on Andy Warhol's silk-screens of Jackie Onassis with Barbra Streisand representing a positive idealization of Jewish female beauty.

In her videos recently screened at Jewish film festivals and at the L.A. gallery Strange Fruits, Cal Arts graduate Rachel Schreiber examines the Jewish body—her own—in an effort to understand "how the genealogy and cultural memory [of the Holocaust] make itself part of your body, and how to look at it not in terms of victimhood." Schreiber, 30, the daughter of a rabbi, has provoked hostile responses from Jewish audiences for a scene in which she shaves her pubic hair and writes the German word for Jew, "Jude," on herself. "A lot of what I do," Schreiber says, "is perceived by the Jewish community to be very shocking."

Another radical image of the sea change in Jewish self-reference can be found on Davka's first cover: a young woman with short, fuchsia-dyed hair and tattoos is wrapped in a tallis (prayer shawl); with her body piercings and defiant stare, the image challenges the Jewish mainstream to sit up and take notice.

The reason for the tattooed woman on the cover, Kaufman explains, is that "a majority of young Jews have tattoos, ear-rings, nose-rings—this is a fact of life today. Ask any parent. So it hit me suddenly, of what use is this halachic law if it's going to exclude an entire generation from Jewish ceremony and tradition?"

Davka's subtitle is "Jewish Cultural Revolution." Says the 44-year-old Kaufman: "A revolution seeks to overthrow an old order. And I really think that what we want to do is overthrow old perceptions."

The impetus for Davka came about a year ago when Kaufman, active in the beat-poetry revival and spoken word scene in L.A. and New York, and editor Danny Shot put together an anthology titled It's the Jews (Long Shot Productions, 1995)—a not-so-veiled reference to the historical scapegoating of Jews.

A compendium of underground Jewish writing, the anthology was launched in April '95 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York and at Place Pigalle in San Francisco. Kaufman and Shot, both children of Holocaust survivors, were stunned when both events attracted sellout crowds. These weren't your strait-laced Jewish yuppies homesick for a little Gemutlichkeit, recalls Joe Berkofsky, a reporter from Northern California's Jewish Bulletin, but "hundreds of hipsters in their 20s and 30s, a whole different milieu."

Aimed at the cutting edge of Jewish culture, Davka's first issue includes a photo essay of eccentric rabbis, an essay about the Jewish bachelor on the prowl, a profile of a mandolinist who plays Jewish bluegrass and klezmer music, and new poetry from Alan Ginsberg and Marge Piercy.

Among the eclectic mix in the second issue, due in June, is an article by Doug Century of New York's Jewish Weekly Forward about Jews and hip-hop. Given the number of Jews entrenched in the music business, it's no shocker to find them involved in the black music scene, but how do you figure rappers like M.C. Serch and the Beastie Boys? "That's quite a different story," Century writes, "a saga of misfits and miscreants and the just plain meshuggah." An L.A. launch, Challahpalooza (get it?), is planned for late June.

Reform Rabbi Steve Robbins of Congregation N'Vay Shalom in Los Angeles views Davka with seeming bemusement, yet wonders, "What kind of depth will the magazine have on an ongoing basis? It's one thing to be Jewish, defy <em>halachah</em> and have tattoos, but what does it really mean on a spiritual level?"

Martin Peretz, the influential editor of the New Republic, bought three subscriptions to Davka—one for himself and one for each of his kids, who are in their 20s. Describing himself as a "freethinking traditionalist," Peretz says he has been unable to pass on a strong sense of Jewish tradition to his children. "It seemed to me that Davka was one of a range of Jewish phenomena which shows that Jewishness and [mainstream] culture need not be segregated in one's life. Any creative Jewish effort engages my interest."

Berkofsky suggests that <em>Davka</em> is reaching out to unaffiliated young Jews who may be unclear about their religious beliefs but who nevertheless share cultural interests of the ballyhooed Generation X.

Berkofsky coined the phrase "Generation J" in an article for the Jewish Bulletin. It's a moniker that seems to fit, for example, performance artist Josh Kornbluth, whose "Haiku Tunnel," a satirical, autobiographical look at the life of a Jewish male secretary slaving away in a big corporation, is in pre-production at Miramax Films

A former TV critic and reporter, Kornbluth, 30, turned to live performances with a one-man off-Broadway show called "Red Diaper Baby," a hilarious monologue about growing up in New York as the son of a devout Marxist-Leninist who "believed there was going to be a violent Communist revolution in this country—and that I was going to lead it. Just so you can get a sense of the pressure."


* Alan Kaufman published the memoir Jew Boy,
a few years after interviewed for this story.