Beginning this week, 117 Eser participants will be discussing “Ten Best Kept Jewish Secrets,” starting with tattoos. For the occasion we asked JCRC staff member Yana Tolmacheva, whose Jewish tattoo we spotted at a Sip of Eser, to write about her ink. Yana was born in Russia, raised in Brooklyn, and has spent extensive time in Israel and Argentina, and looks forward to her continued trips to the Ukraine.
Many times I have been asked about my tattoo, but this is the first time I was asked to put it in writing. To be honest, you are most likely reading the 7th version of my attempt at a blog post about my Hebrew tattoo. “What to write?”, I thought to myself. Should I justify getting a tattoo written in Hebrew? Do I share the experience of getting my first tattoo in Hebrew… in Argentina? How about my view on tattoos as works of art and a form of creative self-expression? Or do I answer the question, “what does Am Yisrael Chai (the words of my tattoo, which mean ‘the nation of Israel lives’) mean to me?”
Please bear with me in my effort to answer at least some of these questions. I hope my story will resonate or at least entertain you.
It was my junior year of college when I elected to spend half a year in Argentina. While living with a host family in Buenos Aires and studying at Belgrano University, I immersed myself in the local culture, eating steak, drinking castellano, fernet and cola, and watching futbol. Embracing my independent and impulsive spirit, it was in Argentina that I finally got a tattoo. You see, in Buenos Aires tattoos are not taboo, professionals across all fields display body art without any controversy, and, like I said, I was all about embracing the local culture. I sometimes refer to myself as the “epitome of irony” and I proved to be just that when, in Argentina, I walked into the tattoo shop called “America” to get a tattoo in Hebrew. On the way over, I was still deciding between two designs with some apprehension about tattoos in general, as needles are one of my biggest fears. But in the moment, steps away from the door, it hit me. What is the one thing that will never change? What is one message that I know I will never regret being permanently imprinted on my body?
Am Yisrael Chai.
I recalled the first moment I ever heard the song. It was one of my first trips to Israel, steps away from the kotel (Western Wall), I joined a group of girls dancing and singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” And while they were the only 3 words I could sing (and trust me you probably wouldn’t want to hear me sing more than that), they were three words that summarized my entire Jewish journey and my Jewish identity. In that moment, I finally felt “Jewish.” I felt that I belonged to a global people. And staring at the kotel, I knew it was my destiny to be there at that moment. I thought about my entire family, generations who fought for, died, and sacrificed to be Jewish, and here I was living their spirit in Israel. I cannot begin to tell you how many gasped in disbelief when I tell them that I am Jewish. You can imagine how many more gasp when I tell them what the tattoo means.
But I take each of those moments as an opportunity – to reclaim my identity – to spread the message of Am Yisrael Chai. Tattoos are a way to live out your freedom and to express yourself. Don’t get me wrong, my decision to get a tattoo was not some self-righteous act. I was attracted to the idea of my body as a canvas with a permanent imprint of my beliefs. And hey, if my Russian grandmother could accept it, I think I’m pretty good.
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