When senior Melanie Teichner walks across the University of Minnesota campus, she is hardly unusual. Yes, she sports two tattoos, but her discreet images are modest compared with many of her fellow students' skin art.
But when she walks into the Hillel, the Jewish student center in Dinkytown, the perspective changes. It's not the tattoos' design or placement that make them significant. It's that she has them in the first place.
Traditional Jewish law bans tattoos, based on Leviticus 19:28: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD." When they mention the law, many rabbis add the term "voluntary" or "discretionary" to such tattoos in deference to the numbers that were tattooed on Jews in Nazi concentration camps, an association that further darkens the image of the tattoo among older Jews.
But increasing numbers of younger Jews are embracing tattoos, which have shed many of their negative stereotypes -- they no longer are considered the purview of bikers, convicts and drunken servicemen -- and found a foothold in the under-30 set. They have gone from being outlaw symbols to fashion statements. Young Jews, like young non-Jews, are doing what younger generations have done since the beginning of time: ignore their parents.
"The fact that I'm from California and my parents are 2,000 miles away made it a little easier," Teichner admitted of her decision to get her first tattoo, an olive-branch wreath that incorporates the Star of David. That led to her second tattoo, which she got in June. It combines her name in Hebrew with the date of her bat mitzvah and a tribute to her late grandparents.
"My parents didn't like it at first, and my fiancé still doesn't like it," she said. "But to me, that tattoo is really important because it has a lot of symbolism."
Teichner is far from alone in getting Jewish-themed tattoos. And that poses a quandary for some rabbis, who have spent much of their lives facing anti-Semitism. While opposing tattoos on principle, they're buoyed by the young Jews' fervor in flaunting their heritage.
"I'm anti-tattoo because they are against Jewish law," said Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of the Twin Cities-based STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) program. "But for those of us who grew up at a time when you had to hide your Hebrew name, to have these people proclaim their heritage in public says to me, 'Boy, we've come a long ways!'"
Many members of Generations X and Y have no direct connection to the Holocaust. To them, the Vietnam War is history, the Korean War is early history and World War II is ancient history.
"They might as well be reading about the Holy Roman Empire," Herring said. "In the 1950s and '60s, there were people who wouldn't buy any product that was made in Germany. Now Germany is one of our biggest trade partners. Things change.
"On one hand, Jews have a responsibility to remember the Holocaust. But on the other hand, there is an upside to the tattoos in that these kids have a feeling of security in their identity that my generation didn't have."
Many Holocaust survivors don't share that optimism.
"They might as well be walking around with a Nazi flag," said Minneapolis resident Leo Weiss, 84. "It shows a lack of respect for Holocaust survivors, Jews and non-Jews alike. It's an insult to us. It's offensive to people who suffered under the Nazis and lost our loved ones."
The young Jews wearing the tattoos insist that no disrespect is intended. In fact, it's often just the opposite. When Charles Skolnick of St. Louis Park died unexpectedly of a heart attack three years ago, his son Brad, then 17, got a tattoo that incorporated his initials with those of his dad and his older brother, Matt. Brad Skolnick now has three tattoos, and he even shows them off on his Facebook page.
The question of respect often is in the eye of the beholder, said Rabbi Adam Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. A member of his congregation wanted to have an ancestor's death camp number tattooed on his arm. Spilker talked him out of it, but not until after "we had a very meaningful conversation."
"Even though I admired his sense of pride and his desire to express that, in my opinion a tattoo was not the best way to do that," Spilker said.
Ally Zubov, a St. Louis Park native who graduated from Oregon University this past spring, had her name in Hebrew inscribed on her lower back three years ago.
"Because it was against traditional Jewish law, it took me a while to decide to do it," she said. "But it's something I wanted to express because it's very much a part of my identity."
The location of her tattoo was not chosen capriciously. She picked her lower back to avoid offending others. "It's visible when I'm wearing a swimsuit but not when I'm in the synagogue," she said. "It's fine that it's in a private place, because I did it more for me than to get a reaction."
Peter McCloud, a tattoo artist at Inkaholic in Dinkytown, does Jewish tattoos but won't put them on hands, necks or faces.
"They have to be on a leg or below the shirt line," he said. "These things are permanent, and I'm not out to ruin anyone's life. An 18-year-old isn't ready to make that kind of decision. If they want the tattoo on their neck, I tell them to come back in 10 years or, better yet, 20."
Sometimes, all one can do is hope to influence the display of a tattoo, said Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, interim rabbi at Shir Tikvah Congregation. She probably has had more contact with would-be tattoo-wearers than any rabbi in town because before moving to the south Minneapolis synagogue, she was the rabbi at the Hillel.
"By the time a student comes to you and asks how to spell their name in Hebrew, it's too late to talk them out of getting the tattoo," she said. "I'd try to go over some of the pros and cons of it: When you're 80 years old, are you still going to want to have this? And maybe we'd try to do a little values clarification. But eventually you have to realize that they are their own person and are going to do what they want to do."
Jewish parents who don't want their kids to get tattoos use the same arguments as non-Jewish parents who don't want their kids to get tattoos: While tattoos might be trendy today, they could fall out of favor tomorrow. But you can't get rid of a tattoo the way you would an old jacket.
Some Jewish parents use an extra argument: People with tattoos can't be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Or so a lot of Jews think. It's a just a myth, Stiefel said, but for those who oppose tattoos, it's a good myth.
"Parents have gotten a lot of mileage out it."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392