On a glorious afternoon in 1995, my nine-year-old son, Noah, and I strolled into a street fair on Birmingham’s Southside. Amidst all the hoopla and colors and curls, a tattooed young man danced down the street in front of us. His bright tattoos seemed to swirl and twirl sinuously about his arms and over his chest. Noah was entranced. His beautiful blue eyes snapped to attention as he intently watched the tattooed man cavort and leap along. He watched until the young man disappeared into the crowd.
Moments later, Noah stopped dead in his tracks. He looked me straight in the eyes and announced authoritatively: “Dad, I want a tattoo!”
It’s always a tough moment when you have to turn down your kid. Gently, I explained to him that he was too young to have a tattoo inked into his flesh. I told him that Jews don’t ordinarily wear tattoos. I told him this hoping he would understand, even though he was only half-Jewish. I explained the biblical reason: tattoos are considered unclean and a desecration of the body. Then I unfolded what I thought would be the most compelling reason, the matter of that nasty Nazi, Mr. Hitler. Noah knew about Hitler and the Holocaust. He did not yet know about the tattoos.
On that busy street, on a wondrous spring day, I explained to my son how Hitler mistook Jews and some other groups of people for the lower order animals and, before killing them, had branded numbers into their arms.
Noah seemed to understand. As we continued walking, I could see him thinking furiously. I figured he was mulling over my explanation of Hitler and the tattooed numbers. I did not anticipate what he was actually thinking.
Finally, he stopped again and fixed me with his shining blue eyes. He held out both arms. He pointed to his left arm. “Dad, I’ll put the tattoo on this arm.” I quickly gave him that cross “didn’t you understand what I just told you” look. Immediately, he pointed to his right arm and explained, “Dad, this is my Jewish arm.”
I was puzzled. I didn’t quite get it. Then just as quickly, he raised his left arm and declared with all the confidence of a seasoned lawyer, “And this is my Christian arm. I’ll have the tattoo on this arm.”
I cracked up. I figured, if the kid’s that sharp he deserves a tattoo on this arm, that arm, or anywhere else he wants one on his precious little body. Thankfully, like so many youthful wishes, this one soon went the way of all flesh.
Several years later, we browsed through the local grocery store picking over the vegetables. We were searching for the freshest ones to mix into our famous “Super Dooper Salad.” As chance would have it, we noticed the tattooed man, the same young man we’d seen at the street fair some years earlier. He was not twirling now. He was just quietly shopping. He had a basket slung over his arm. He wore a string-strapped t-shirt. His tattoos stood out on display still, and although they were fading, they still shone vibrantly enough to catch anyone’s attention, especially Noah’s.
About that time, tattoos (or body art as it was then known) had begun gaining popularity. Coincidently, Noah had recently told me some of his friends had been tattooed. Jean had a small rose on her ankle. Andrea sported a heart shot through with an arrow on her upper left arm. And his close friend, Gus, had a fierce face with its nose pierced by a bone tattooed on his forearm. When Noah told me this, I rolled my eyes and commented, “Oh, brother.”
As we picked over the vegetables, I could see Noah eyeing the tattooed man with more than a little curiosity. I remembered the recent mention of his friends and anticipated his question. As he turned to me, before he could utter a word, I snapped with sufficient parental authority, “No!”
I reminded him of our conversation concerning the tattooed man at the street fair. “Dad,” he said, “I’m fourteen.”
“So?” I asked, playing dumb, as if not understanding what he meant. I knew he thought that at fourteen he was old enough to make his own decisions, especially ones concerning his body.
Then he held out his left arm. He pointed to it and said, “This is Noah’s arm.” Almost simultaneously, he lifted the other arm, nodded his head in its direction and announced, “This is Noah’s arm, too.”
Even though he was only fourteen, it was becoming increasingly difficult to argue with such reasoning. All I could do was stare him down with that hard “I’m still the Dad here” look. He gave me a big grin and happily did not press the issue.
The following year Noah turned fifteen. He was now a teenager in full bloom. And, as teenagers will do to their parents, he shocked me. One day he announced he was a born-again Christian. He had decided he was going to be baptized. No words can express my disappointment. I argued with him vehemently. I tried reasoning with him until the reason well ran dry. He remained unmoved. So what could I do? He is my son.
Like any parent worthy of that honored title, on the day of his baptism, though heavy-hearted, I marched into his church. I watched him get baptized. It is difficult to describe my sense of loss at that moment, or my sense of defeat. I felt like Tevye must have felt losing his beloved daughter Chava. I felt like my parents must have felt when I married a non-Jew. I believed I had failed completely as a parent.
Life is like this. All the time it deals us lemons. So what to do? We make lemonade.
The years following were not easy ones for me with my son. He continually spoke to me about strange ideas I could not understand. He worshipped in a church, not the Temple. He wore a heavy cross around his neck, not the Star of David. I was surely being punished for my sins. But he was a good boy, growing into a responsible man. So, I reasoned, at least he has faith. So, I thought, maybe some day he will see who he really is.
He graduated from high school and went off to college. I thought somehow he would discover there what it means to be a Jew. He would come to understand the Jewish blood that stirs in his deepest soul.
Before I knew it, he was a sophomore. Over the winter holiday, he brought home Juanita, his exotic Argentinean girlfriend. She was a gentle, beautiful girl. She had the smile of a bright summer’s day. She was also a girl who sported a colorful tattoo that began at her neck. It ran half way down her back. It appeared to be the size of a giant condor.
One evening, I took Noah and Juanita to dinner. We dined at the Thai restaurant Noah and I had frequented for years, through good times and bad. During dinner, I asked Juanita about her tattoo. Why did you get it? Why one so large? Did it take long to ink it into your skin? Did the needle hurt when it bore into your flesh? Juanita was not offended by my questions. Finally, I asked, “Did it occur to you how that will look when you are older?”
To that she replied with a logic which I’m proud to say I still understood at my age: “Everyone has one.” She turned to Noah. Her smile radiated like a sunburst. “Noah,” she said, “you should get a tattoo.”
Noah looked at me for a long, pregnant moment. He turned back to Juanita and answered in evident good humor, “Tattoo you. Not me.” He followed his retort with a simple, “Jews don’t wear tattoos.”
That night I returned home and lay down to sleep. In my bed, alone in my dark bedroom, I thought about the pleasant evening I had spent with Noah, my son, and Juanita. Then suddenly and unexpectedly, without shame in front of God, softly and quietly I cried the happy tears that only a loved and loving parent can cry.