The closest I ever came to getting tattooed was while sitting at a seedy outdoor dockside café-bar in Copenhagen.
Among the various products and services being pedaled in the dusky alleys surrounding me were those of an ‘expert’ storefront tattoo artist.
Of course, I’d crossed paths with these establishments before, but never before while in such a pliable ‘Why not?’, ‘Try anything once’ frame of mind as my six months or so of international backpacking had conditioned me. That, together with the faux Danish sailor bravado with which my current environment had vicariously infused me, nearly sent me rushing in. But I never did manage to cross that beckoning threshold that night, and I’m still not sure why.
Maybe it was my genetic Jewish frugality, having already been severely sticker-shocked by the Scandinavian price index and not wanting to further fritter away my ever-diminishing stash of kroners. Maybe it was the ‘once’ in the ‘try anything once’ manifesto, as I knew even then that tattoos were forever, not just a one-time fling. Maybe it was my Yiddishe neshamah (soul) screaming out ‘Ad Kan!’
I really do not know.
What I did discover in my post-teshuvah years, while queuing at shower rooms of communal men’s mikvahs, was that many other baalei teshuvah weren’t so lucky.
Below the beards and peyos of some of the most refined and serious young (and not so young) men, laid the heart-wrenching reminders, some small and ‘discreet’, others ‘all encompassing’, of a past that no amount of soaping could wash away.
At such sights, in addition to gratitude that my own youthful imprudence had its limits, I couldn’t help but draw the apt comparison to another generation of tattooed Jews and showers. Only then, the tattoos had been rendered by Amalek’s external manifestation.
One eerie parallel was how then the (fake) showers of the gas chambers were the portal to an earthly death leading to an everlasting life, while today’s mikvah-dip inflicts a temporary ‘death’ (as a person cannot survive entirely under water), leading to his emergence into renewed and purified post-tevilah life in this world.
Another thing that both milieus have in common is an uncommon dignity of spirit. That of those tattooed ‘chamber’-men, who stoically (or even joyfully) bore Heaven’s decree and doing so proved that their degraders and not they were the truly degraded. And of today’s tattooed mikvah-men, who willingly reveal and silently bear their self-imposed degradation in their beyond-the-letter-of-the-law quest to purify and erase the blemishes from, if not their bodies, their souls.
I’ve heard it said that many baalei teshuvah are gilgulim (reincarnations) of Holocaust victims, and while I’m certainly not wise enough to presume to know what connection might exist between them, something tells me that the repeated saga of tattoos and showers transcends mere coincidence, and will one day be revealed in its clarity within the pages of the hidden anthology of the Jewish heart.