It’s like learning the Aleph-bet. You start from the beginning and work your way down.
ﬡ: “Jews just don’t get tattoos,” Raizel spat, arm stretched. “Well, traditional Jews. Orthodox Jews. They just don’t do it.”
But Raizel clearly didn’t give a damn. Well, of course she gave a damn. With a name like Raizel Rosengarten, you couldn’t not give a damn somewhere. Your life-story was all about trying not to give a damn when really you did.
It turned out to be a beautiful thing—the tattoo, that is. It grazed across the length of her forearm, wrapping itself around in a serpentine clutch.
“Why, a yiddishe tattoo for a yiddishe gal. Look at that.”
So Raizel wasn’t your run-of-the-mill yiddishe maidel: fishnets, combat boots, red lips. But who cares? Who really cares that the girl knew Aramaic, and Hebrew, and a bissel Yiddish? Who cares that the girl went to all-girls’ Yeshiva for twelve years? I mean, the heart palpitations brought on by eating a piece of traife meat haven’t happened in ages. The intense boom, boom of the heart brought on by riding the subway on shabbos, that’s gone too. It sure wasn’t easy, but things were better. Well, sort of. Wizzing down the freeway on a Friday night, with the faint tremor of a feeling that it was shabbos and she was driving in a car, hurdling down the road. That wasn’t fun, but things were better. She had finally mustered the courage to get a tattoo after tatting others up for eight years.
She got into the tattoo trade in the late nineties, convinced body art was the only art for her. Her drawing style—heavily inked, yet heavy handed—seemed to lend itself to the form—but it was that very heavy handedness that made her clients scream for more. She couldn't help it. She didn't want to hurt them. Not at all. But she had been born with the meaty hands of an Eastern European peasant. You wouldn't know by looking at them just how precise they could be. Her nobby fingers could curve just so over the pen or needle moving swiftly but precisely over her work. But the fingers were not graceful. No, grace would be the wrong word. It was something else, another kind of bodily manoeuvring defying description. But one thing could be said for sure: the calculated strokes of the artist would always be severe, hard, pressing, deep, regardless of her canvass. So the screams and the cries her in the shop weren't a surprise. She expected it to hurt, her time. She was surprised, really, by how well she handled it. Maybe she even wanted it to hurt and somewhere deep down wanted to hurt those who did that which should not be done. But it wasn't so bad. The skin merely prickled. It prickled for a long while, but what she most feared hadn't happened. There was no closing-up of the esophagus, no scratching the arm hoping the ink would just rub out. No hard rubbing of her upper thigh that would leave the fleshiness black and bruised, a habit she couldn't remember ever picking up. No thunderous cloud from heaven emitting a Zeusian bolt of lightning, nor a bas kol screaming out from the sky, “Raizel bat Zehavah. You have brought damnation upon yourself and your people. You will die a most painful death. The markings you have chosen to sear onto your body will be removed in kind.” But curious things began to happen only a few days after she inked up that arm of hers.
About a week later, Raizel dreamt of a man named Zecharya Ben Yeti—that would be Reb Zecharya Ben Yeti—whose long, red beard flapped in the winds of slumberland. Ben Yeti claimed to live on a mountain top with elves and other woodland creatures. But dream-Raizel knew better. Ben Yeti had been in and out of several yiddishe institutions for the disturbed or deranged yid and was really living in the attic of the local dream shul. Dream-Raizel didn’t hold this against him and let the hairy Siberian yid dangle his beard across her naked breasts as he murmured, “Oh, my rebbetzin.”
Ben Yeti’s appearances soon became more frequent, so Raizel made an appointment with a local mental health professional.
“I’ve been having these dreams, you see.”
Dr. Neue Freudian was used to the shpiel. Without blinking a lid, she motioned the continue-with-where-you’re-going-with-this hand.
So Raizel continued: “Well, ever since I got this tattoo, there’s this Rabbi who’s been appearing in my dreams, and well, the dreams have an...” Whisper. “...erotic quality to them.”
“Right, so, um, I just don’t know what this all means. It’s just a strange thing to be dreaming about, you know.”
“Not for a Jew, like yourself.”
“Well, right, but it’s kind of odd, isn’t it? My attraction to this rabbinical figure?”
“Not at all. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
And the dreams continued. “Come be my rebbetzin,” Ben Yeti would purr with the triangular tip of his beard rubbing against her face. “Run away with me. You’ll be a nice sheitel macher, have my yiddishe babies. Come.”
A few evenings later, Rebbetzin Ben Yeti appeared. A woman so beautiful you might call it biblical. Lady Ben Yeti began to lure dream Raizel with her poisonous words.
“Come lie with me,” the Rebbetzin cooed, batting her heavy lidded eyes. “Be my Rebbetzin. Enclose me in your bosom and I will do the same. Maidele, love your Rebbetzin like you might love your Rav.”
“For crying out loud,” Raizel moaned, but the prospect of engaging in a threesome with a Rabbi andhis wife seemed amusing even to herself.
It certainly wasn't easy for her, a formerly orthodox Jewish woman fraternizing with a generation of secular Jews whose grandparents, and more rarely parents, had abandoned the orthodox net. She was confronted with anxieties that were passé and just so early-twentieth century; difficult to express to her more “enlightened” Jewish friends, who had the usual “why don't you just get over it?” and “aren't you not religious anymore, what's the problem?” If only the split was that simple. And this inability to make a clean, severe break is what made her a freak, a specimen, one to examine and question but to keep far away from one's secure secular self.
She began her apprenticeship at the tattoo parlor while she was still observant. Responsive to her unflinching enthusiasm, she received a heter from a certain local rav to become a professional tattoo artist on two conditions: one, that she would only tattoo female clients so as not to violate the law of shomer negiah; two, she would be prohibited from tattooing a Jew. Raizel found these provisions reasonable.
She came to work each day, covered in knee length skirts and tops that always skimmed her elbows at least. If not for her insistence that she could not work on Saturdays and would require days off for Jewish holidays, the artists may never have known of her religious affiliations. Even then, she admired the style of Brigitte Bardot, and fashioned her own accordingly, with pencil skirts, sailor tops, wide headbands covering teased crowns, wing-tipped eye liner. To an extent, she fit in seamlessly; to another much larger extent she didn’t. It was a work environment of ostensibly cool and hip New York transplants, who bumped bodies, left lingering arm pats, and lingering gazes, throwing banter back and forth. Raizel preferred to keep quiet and observe. She didn’t know how to flirt, wasn’t trained how to in any obvious way, and didn’t really care to figure it out. Instead, she learned to signal desire through the eye-lock, the long penetrative gaze, with strangers on the subway, in the anonymous streets of the city. Some thought Raizel might be a lesbian; others thought she might be the world’s first Jewish nun. She knew they talked; she didn’t care.
Things went on like this for a while: pious, believing, good Raizel learning the tricks of the tattoo trade, all while keeping kosher, shabbos: the works. But after a while, certain irreconcilabilities became evident. Her coworkers watched the transformation: she showed up in her very first pair of pants, then she began working on Saturdays; soon she was eating shrimp. They assumed it made sense that Raizel, a smart, cool girl such as herself wasn’t made for that sort of system. To an extent she assumed this as well. But there was another part of her that knew simply putting on a pair of jeans wouldn’t put an end to orthodoxy. It continued to haunt, linger, recline in that brain of hers and no matter how hard she tried to push it back, there it was. Like when she wore pants for the first time. Exposing that crease between her thighs, that she had been taught was considered a makom erva, an area that would inspire impure dreams in the eyes of male onlookers; made her feel as though she were prancing outside naked. She felt the jeans that wrapped her thighs rub against each other, creating a kind of friction that exposed the fleshy thighs beneath the way a skirt never could. She was sure the men were staring—the men of the world, the men of her environment, the strangers, and heaven forbid! the Jewish men aroused by the crease that divided one thigh from another. Please God that a Jewish man with his pious eyes hanging down low does not find pleasure in her thighs, does not impugn her with the sin of Onan. But after a few months, Raizel was accustomed to the new wardrobe option and didn’t really think much of it anymore.
The tattoo triggered something. And now she was having these dreams. What would she say to her friends—the “non-believers—with refrains like these playing through her head on loop?
“Raizel, kiss me here on my exposed cheek of the face. You beautiful young bride. You will raise my goats. Come back, come way, way back to the shttetle lands where we might establish a Jewish life together. Come. Come.
“Raizel, my dear, my lovely little meidela. Come press your head on my bosom. Listen as my heart pumps its loving-heart-pumps through the length of my blood vessels. Listen. I live and breathe for you Raizel. Oh Raizy. Raizy, Raizy, Raizy. Give me your hair that I may entwine it with mine and we may make loops of love-rings together. Your beauty defeats me. I lie prostrate before your loveliness.”
A few months before this, Raizel had begun seeing Joe: a middling photog who dabbled in nineteenth-century tintype. When she told him of the orthodox-Jewish home, he couldn't contain his delight. He took her to his study, dressed her up in shttetle garb; which drew out her features of nineteenth-century European Jewish stock; with her almond eyes, wide and high cheekbones, and dark hair strategically hidden by a head-scarf.
“It takes away from your authenticity,” Joe sighed when Raizel revealed her tattoo at one of their photo-shoots. “We must conceal it. We must.” So he placed a shawl just over her arm, draping it just enough to mask her inky new edition.
בּ: Rudashevsky came to power in 1901. Short and bulb-headed, his followers fashioned copper masks, called kippot, to invoke their leader’s countenance, with one minor alteration: at the tips of the crown were formed horns for creative embellishment. The masks communicated allegiance; a schism had come about between the Rudashevskies and the Believers and the nation was polarized.
A statue named Ava had been placed beneath the city long before the Rudashesky inquisition; she lay there for years. Raizel found her by a large stone building with a bookshop at its foot named the “Be Not To;” or it may have been the other way around: the “To Not Be.” She wanted to go in but felt an odd disconnect with the mahogany walls and green lights. She turned her head to the right and saw the sculpture, Ava, creeping slowly up the “To Not Be” (or “Be Not To”), moving at the speed of stone, arms crunching at every move, fingers, like picks, embedding themselves into the façade. Ava climbed and climbed, intent on meeting her destination: the globe sculpture at the top.
גּ: It became increasingly difficult for Raizel to show up to the parlor. Something hit her like a stone in a quarry, lowering the body with ropes and a crane. But it was a comfortable stone, compressing her, pulling her closer to the bed, sinking, sinking, sinking. She clutched it with the urge to stand, but it was too difficult; as though an alternative Raizel, with a body made of lead, decided to occupy her body as well so she bore the weight of her own body and the weight of a leaden Raizel.
In bed, during the day, was where the thoughts were most pronounced.
ﬢ: “The Believers are holding the nation back,” Raizel heard over the crackle of a radio. “The world is simply different. A day of rest is no longer necessary. Nor is belief in a Supreme Being. But that's not to say the Believers haven’t benefited from technology. Oh yes they have! The Believers are now a transcontinental group, capable of visiting one another from country to country; one cannot possibly escape their grasp.”
Raizel, no Rudishevsky herself, had been forced by the National Public Radio to disavow her religion. She was fed lines which included “The Believing world is getting smaller and smaller, like a rope pulling itself around my neck. One cannot escape. But the Believers are a relic of the 15th century, living in a technological future; like some farcical science fiction novel.” Her lips dried out with each word, knowing that they were, in a sense, accurate—words to which she had given air many times before—but it was the concreteness of it all, the finality, the push to express it, that made it so awful.
ﬣ: Ava finally reached the apex of the vertical incline of the building made of the self-same stone as she, making her upwards crawl almost imperceptible to the crowds below. She perched the globe at top and looked beneath it at a plaque with a passage struck in gold that when deciphered from of its original language read as follows:
She wasn’t sure of its significance but it seemed to recall some something in her memory, gnawing at it with great big claws. Had she forgotten something critical? She had a lingering suspicion that she had. Why had she come here in the first place? The statue could not say. So she crept back down the building and letting go of her finger grip purposely plunged herself down those many stories of rising air and shattered on the concrete, of the self-same material out of which she had been struck.
Cheryl Spinner currently lives in Durham, N.C., where she is a doctoral student in the English Department at Duke University. She received her Master's Degree in English at Georgetown University in the spring of 2010. A native of Queens, N.Y., her writing intertwines yiddishe kopf with a certain kind of New Yawk flair. You can follow her research blog at electricladieszap.wordpress.com.