Of all the conundrums I faced as a nominally affiliated Conservative Jew in arts school, the greatest challenge as a painting major was what image to finally adopt for my inevitable tattoo? After all, seeing how my entire peer group was deeply immersed in the counter-culture of punk, it was a given that either a piercing or tattooing was just a de rigeur part of our misfit identity.
No matter how many images I poured over, I simply could not decide. Would it be an exploding head by Ralph Steadman or maybe a decomposing skull by Pushead—you get the picture, the more moribund the better.
At the same time I was struggling over the short list of images for my tattoo, I became immersed in my fair share of the most morose punk rock and death metal known to mankind. There was something about the wild and ecstatic energy of the sonic music of The Misfits (1977-1983) that drew me to a weekly mosh pit of thrashing dancers—this was my high school search for community. At a certain point of immersion into the world of The Misfits, I stumbled onto a later incarnation of The Misfits known as Samhain (1983-1989), featuring lead singer Glen Danzig, and Eerie Von shifting between bass and drums as well as other motley members. Samhain performed harrowing hits like “All Hell”, “Bloodfeast”, “Die, Die, My Darling”, “Death Comes Ripping”, and of course “Halloween II”. Somewhere along the line of immersion into this un-dead world, I became curious about where this music and art was drawing forth its inspiration—Samhain.
Who better to turn to, than the Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druides himself, Philip Carr-Gomm, as he reflected on the Paleopagan and Mesopagan Druids in England:
Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November was a time of no-time…the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn, was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en.” (Philip Carr-Gomm, Elements of the Druid Tradition)
At the time, I really lacked the self-awareness to understand what it was about this counter-cultural adaptation of Samhuinn that held such sway over my peers and myself (never mind the power of the same impulse, mutatis mutandi, in Judaism known as the carnivalesque, Purim!) But given the anxieties of high school and the unmoored search for meaning, this was a moment in my life that apparently did just that—it gave meaning to the time of no-time, that creative chaos that I was regularly swimming in.
But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the ‘other side’.” (Philip Carr-Gomm, Elements of the Druid Tradition)
The argument Carr-Gomm presents is of a Druid culture that is really more about life than death, that these pagan rites were really focused on making contact with the spirits of the departed as sources of guidance rather than dread.
This need to connect to the “root-wisdom of the tribe” not as dead but “as the living spirits of loved ones” is what may have really turned me back to Judaism.
That “slight, small turn”—what the Kotzker rebbe called ein klein drei—is all it took. I spent the next chapter of my search for meaning in and out of different ultra-orthodox and Hasidic yeshivot or study academies and shteiblach or small, ‘old school’ synagogues, and even Carlebach camp at Rainbow Festival, searching for the root-wisdom of my own tribe not as dead as I was encountering religion in its institutionalized forms, but “as the living spirits of loved ones”.
That tattoo story was never resolved for me; it was more than not being able to settle on one image.
On the one hand, I realized the truly great artist—whether Pablo Picasso’s dynamic cubism or Anselm Kiefer’s abstract expressionist abysses—was the one, who Jean Baudrillard once commented to me is “celui qui ne laisse aucune trace” or “the one who never leaves a trace.” To limit even a trace of ink on the human body as a mark of artistry was a betrayal of the limitless dynamism that marked the artistic journey. On the other hand, as I progressed deeper into the moribund counter-culture of Samhain, I eventually was invited by a close punk friend, Sean, to listen to a new record, Reign in Blood (1986) by a death metal band, Slayer, and their song entitled, “Angel of Death”. I remember sitting there in his broken down section-8 housing as the lyrics of that opening song started screeching from his turntable:
Auschwitz, the meaning of pain the way that I want you to die./Slow death, immense decay, showers that cleanse you of your life./Forced in life cattle you run, stripped of your life’s worth./Human mice for the angel of death, four hundred thousand more to die.
These words written by Slayer guitarist and lead-vocalist, Jeff Hanneman (gevalt, another tormented Jew?) scorched my soul—I immediately got up and left, nauseated. Perhaps that was the point—to reach the point beyond meaning which is nausea. The systematic tattooing of prisoners at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex (including Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz) set it apart as an experience beyond any common notion of pain or humiliation, so Slayer was partially right. Prior to tattooing upon arrival at the concentration camp, prisoners were issued their numbers which were then sewn to their uniforms, along with different shapes, symbols and letters identifying status, nationality, and religion of the prisoner. The numbering scheme that started with AU, Z, EH, and B series evolved into other categories of prisoners whereby AU denoted Soviet prisoners, while Z denoted Zigeuner or Gypsy, and EH denoted Erziehungshäftlinge or re-education.
Prisoners selected for immediate extermination were almost never assigned numbers—after all, that would have been a waste! This alone should have been enough to nauseate me and any of my friends from considering anything resembling a tattoo.
I recall another Jewish friend, Adam, who had succumbed to tattooing most of his body when he became a skin-head in high school and how he then spent the next decade in laser surgery to remove every last trace.
As I was to learn later by a soon-to-be-survivor of the Shoah writing in 1935, nausea, along with pleasure, were two visceral emotions that lead us to escape from being:
There is in nausea a refusal to remain there, an effort to get out. Yet this effort already characterized as desperate: in any case, it is so for any attempt to act or think. And this despair, this fact of being riveted, constitutes all the anxiety of nausea. In nausea—which amounts to an impossibility of being what one is—we are at the same time riveted to ourselves, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers.” (Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, 66).
As the depths of my soul were being smothered in high school by this counter-cultural being-towards-death, my malaise had reached its limit and my innards were heaving outwards, propelling me along a new pathway of meaning. As I wended my way through university, eventually focusing on French language and literature, I became drawn to this Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who escaped the clutches of Nazi genocide. Levinas’ courage to continue embracing life in the face of death, to see beyond the slaughterhouse of Nazism that an ethics as first philosophy was still possible gave me renewed hope as a Jewish philosopher. I came to the realization that no matter the impossibility of finalizing on one image I would now never scratch into my skin for life, the utter banality of the tattoo. How I came to this realization without yet knowing of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), where she coined the controversial term describing the unthinking, mindlessness of the Third Reich’s leaders like Eichmann as “the banality of evil” still shocks me.
So today as I stroll through town and see the hand-painted signs plastered on local merchant’s windows by village children, dripping the greeting, ‘Happy Halloween” I am left in a stupor. Here we are in America, erev-’All Hallow’s Eve’, being pushed and pulled in so many directions as Jews. American Post-Judaism—as Shaul Magid courageously reminds us in his recent book of the same title—is necessarily still in search of itself in meaningful ways, despite the horrors of the latest Pew stats! We are caught in a dialectic—the pull of paganism and the possibilities of yet redeeming the foundations of Jewish monotheism from the shadow of “the Mosaic distinction”, that moment when an earlier inclusive monotheism was eclipsed by a more exclusivist monotheism.
How is redemption still possible? Through cosmotheism—a theology positing that “the divine world (or cosmos) and the world we live in are inextricably intertwined” according to Magid — is still waiting to be discovered. So as my seven-year-old daughter pulls at my sleeve to take her out to ‘trick or treat’, I am gentle but firm in reminding her, if we go, this is really a dress-rehearsal for Purim, the day of redemption—a time beyond time—beyond good and evil, when the divine cannot be divorced from the world.