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.The actual prohibition in Leviticus 19:28 states "You shall not mark your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves." (There's another one in Deuteronomy that states, simply, "You shall not cut yourselves.") But in the classic way of Jewish law, these rules were debated intensely during the Talmudic era, when scholars pointed out references to tattoos in the book of Isaiah: "One shall say 'I am the Lord's,' another shall use the name of Jacob, another shall mark his arm 'of the Lord's,' and adopt the name of Israel."
It's also worth pointing out that there are plenty of Biblical laws that, these days, have pretty much been forgotten or disregarded, like animal sacrifice and stoning adulterers and other wrongdoers.
"There are so many more heavy commandments," Abrams says. "Keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher are much higher. In families who don't keep Shabbos or kosher, I can guarantee that the parents and grandparents are completely against the kids getting tattoos. What is it about tattoos that inspires this uniform reaction?"
He thinks it may have something to do with a tattoo's permanence. "There are places where I'm wearing a yarmulke and I get a look -- I feel that dirty, hateful stare. But I can take it off."
Ironically, Abrams does not have a tattoo. He has, however, been feeling the effects of the Jewish cultural prohibition against tattoos: Organizations who routinely offer funding to Jewish-themed films have passed his by.
So he committed what he calls the cardinal sin of the independent filmmaker: He invested his life savings in getting his movie made. That backfired last year when he got downsized out of his job at Yahoo! in LA and had to move back to St. Louis. Now he works out of an office in his parents' basement in University City.
He recently finished converting the video footage of Tattoo Jew into digital and transferred it to a hard drive, which he sent to his editor in LA. (He also made a trailer.) He thinks the movie might actually be done, but he won't be sure till he sees the rough cut. "I may do a few more interviews, depending on the money situation and what the story looks like to me."
Most of his interview subjects come from LA, San Francisco and New York where tattoo culture is more prevalent, but Abrams is on the lookout for tattooed Jews in St. Louis.
"It's like a group within a group," he says. "It's like choosing a synagogue: Do you want to go to an Orthodox shul or a Reform temple? But it's harder for people who use tattoos as an expression of their identity."