Friday, May 23, 2008
Some things are illuminated
As I watched the old man nod his head, a wan smile crossing his face, I knew he knew, too, that there are 400 words for schmuck in Yiddish. And in that moment, listening to some of these words; schmuck, putz, schlamazel, schlamiel, a wry smile crossed my face, too. Some things were illuminated, like why I didn't get good ol' american rock n' roll, rockabilly or shockabilly, until I had lived here in the boondocks, amongst the goyim (yes, I said that) for almost twenty years.*
When I went to the Dunstable Tattoo Convention in England I met an Israeli tattoo artist who was desperately looking for work in Europe. He was spit upon outside of his shop, for tattoos are frowned upon by Jews. The bible's laws pertaining to making permanent marks upon or in the skin are hazy at best. The injunction is mostly against making marks which are akin to idolatry. Interestingly, this would make all the religious tattoos the worst offenses. But this Levitican law became more intense after the holocaust, because of the tattooing of inmates in the concentration camps.
So, I was in England and hit it off with this Israeli tattoo artist. I said I was Jewish, too. Being a Jewish tattooist is not so common (though I have no statistics for this!) When I first opened my studio ten years ago, I got a tourist from Seattle who came to me simply because he heard I was Jewish. His grandfather, he said, would be rolling over in his grave if he knew he was getting a tattoo. His grandfather had opened the first bagel shop in Seattle. I wish I knew what it was called.
Another time I did a cover-up on a guy who had a swastika on his back. He had been a neo-Nazi when he was young and disavowed it. I have no idea what I covered it with, but I did a nice job and we engaged in pleasant conversation. When I was done, while bandaging him up, I said "My dead ancestors would be happy that I've done this." When he asked why, I told him I was Jewish. He blanched and said, "Why didn't you hurt me more?" I laugh as I think of this. I had not occurred to me to do anything of the sort.
One very late night a fellow came in and asked me if I did touch-ups. Sure I did. He rolled up his sleeve and there I saw a big swastika with some words about white supremacy under it in a banner. I thought I misheard him. "Oh, you want a cover-up, not a touch-up" said I. "Hell no" was his reply, "I want it to be better." When I told him I wouldn't do it he stepped back and looked me in the eye, saying, "Are you some kind of Jew or something?" I stared back at him and said only one word: "Yes."
That man looked like he was thinking about what manner in which he might kill me and whether to do it on the spot or at a later date. Obviously, he did nothing but turn on his booted heel and leave. I was foolish, no doubt, but I have a nasty habit of speaking the truth.
But what truth is this? What makes me Jewish? I have no belief in god. I didn't grow up with any religion. Even my grandparents did not practice Judaism. But some piece of paper somewhere said that my mother was Jewish and her mother before her, and therefore, in the eyes of Israel, I am a Jew. I could go live there and become a citizen (not that I would). But this fact amazes me (and also bothers) me.
What makes me say I'm Jewish, when I don't believe in race or religion or identity politics and would prefer to think of myself as just a human being like everyone else? It has always been this: if I disavowed my Jewish heritage I would be killing off another Jew, as marginally Jewish as I am. It would be like one more person was put in the ovens. So many were killed (and not just in the holocaust).
I heard stories when I was a kid. My family, both sides, came to this country before the turn of the century. But they, too, were running away from horrors. One relative said he was the only survivor of his village at the Western edge of Russia. He said, in a steady tone, that when he was a boy, he returned from a trip to another village and as he was coming over a hill, he could see his small town burning. These were the pogroms, where whole towns and villages of Jews were being systematically killed all over Eastern Europe and Russia. The German's holocaust was nothing new.
I decided when I was sixteen to say I was Jewish only if someone said something anti-semitic, for without that, it meant nothing to me at all. In a sense, a sense that I've always hated, it has been anti-semitism, the pogroms, Hitler, neo-nazis and ignorance that has kept me from saying I am an atheist, practicing buddhist american. Being defined by negatives is not pleasing to me, but I feel obligated.
I have no idea what I would have done if I had had children. What would I have told them? And what if they had embraced Judaism? I shudder at the thought. There is nothing in this religion that speaks to me in the least. That's the worst part about my dilemma (and it is a dilemma).
I suppose I am what people call a secular or cultural Jew. I use Yiddish words, Yiddish inflections and have a Yiddish sense of humor. I like traditional "Jewish food" and know how to cook some: matzoh ball soup, tsimmes, latkes and the noodle casserole whose name I've forgotten. But that ain't much of an identity. People who have no Jewish backgrounds use as much or more Yiddish than I do or cook more eastern European food.
This post was directly caused by my watching a movie tonight (see footnote). Afterwards, I realized that it is precise to say that the major reason I did not get along with the Cramps was because I was a "New York Jew". Period. I did not have the cultural references to have fun with amerikan kulture. When I went on tour with them, i was excited, for I'd seen very little of this country. I'd been to Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut (passing through), London and Amsterdam. The idea of seeing Akron, Ohio really excited me. I had no idea what middle america was all about.
Since I write off the top of my head, I don't know where my posts are going to wind up. Well, this one isn't going to wind up anywhere. It has no conclusion. I'm stopping dead. More on this to come, I'm sure.
*These are some of my reactions to watching the film, "Everything is Illuminated", the funniest "heavy" movie I've ever seen. And the word goyim means non-Jewish people. Goy is the singular. See if you get this joke:
So, a goy calls up his mother and says "I can't make it to dinner this sunday". His mother says, "That's okay."
Photo note: A scene from "Everything is illuminated". I won't give away what it's about.