My nineteen-year-old son Ben called us from college and said, “I want to get a tattoo. What do you think?”
What did I think? I wanted to puke.
The idea was abhorrent to me. Hot needles filled with dye scorching his beautiful skin?
I tried to stay composed. I sought facts. “What kind?” I asked. “And where?”
“Just a small one,” he said, “on my forearm.” Where the skin is softest, most delicate, most protected, least exposed to sun and wind.
He went on to explain that this was a way to reclaim his Jewishness, to choose to announce his tribal affiliation in the very place where Holocaust victims were forced to bear it. Their tattooed numbers were a sign of their subjugation; his symbol of life was about redemption.
Never had anything he said in his entire nineteen years shut me up as dumbly as that. “So what do you think?” he asked again.
I didn’t know whether to plotz or kvell.
“I think it’s a beautiful sentiment,”! said. “But I don’t like the idea of any permanent change on your body. There’s also a risk of disease.”
“I’ll go to a safe place, so that’s minimal,” he said. “Anyway, I just want it.”
“You may decide at one point that you don’t want it any more.”
“How could that happen?” he said, genuinely perplexed. “I’ll always be Jewish.”
“Well,” I said, knowing I probably shouldn’t continue, “what if an employer objects to it. Or you meet a girl who doesn’t love it.”
“Then that would tell me something important about them,” he said. The more desperate I became, the wiser he sounded.
“How about I buy you a gold Jewish star, you can wear it on a chain?”
“I don’t want jewelry,” he said, as if I were offering him a used tissue.
Well, I told myself when I hung up the phone, at least he’s not piercing his nose. Or his genitals. (Knowing Ben, he’d probably apprise me of this as well. He likes to keep us abreast of the status of his rebellion.)
When he came home for Passover, he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt. In the living room, he dramatically rolled up his sleeve, and there it was, unveiled, a shaded black chai, roughly an inch and a half in length. Permanent.
“Wow, I want a tattoo too,” said Jake, fourteen. My husband and I gave him the “not till you’re nineteen” look. Then we all touched it. Ben wanted us to say we liked it, and we said we did.
Over time, I have grown fond of it, even attached to it, as if it were a touchstone beauty mark. Yet running my finger over it, I always register the shock of black ink on flesh.
Sometimes it seems slightly raised. I imagine the needle pricking his skin, try to intuit the sensation. What he sought in pursuing this symbol of Jewish identification is precisely what I shrink from: the experience of pain, and indelibility.
Roberta Israeloff is a free-lance writer and author of kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith and Family (Simon and Schuster).