Drew Barrymore Plans to Remove Tattoos for Conversion to Judaism

A year ago I wrote about Drew Barrymore’s journey toward conversion to Judaism and how she was turning to her friend Adam Sandler for assistance.  At the time she was engaged to marry Will Kopelman, an art consultant who is Jewish. The couple married on June 2, 2012 in Montecito, California and welcomed their child, a daughter named Olive Barrymore Kopelman, on September 26, 2012.

Some were surprised that Drew didn’t convert to the Jewish faith before getting married (this is her third marriage) or at the least before delivering her first baby. But she reported that it was a long process and she didn’t want to take the plunge before she was ready. About Judaism, Drew has said “It’s a beautiful faith and I’m so honored to be around it. It’s so family-oriented… the stories are so beautiful and it’s incredibly enlightening. I’m really happy.”

Photo: Algemeiner.com

Well, it now appears that Drew is ready for her conversion and she’s taking a rather drastic step. TMZ.com reports that “Former wild child Drew Barrymore has decided to REMOVE her tattoos because she is CONVERTING to Judaism for her husband Will Kopelman! The new mom wishes to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, something that can only happen if she erases all permanent ink from her person.”

Drew has six tattoos according to the post on TMZ and will experience quite a bit of pain as she’s having all six removed in preparation for her conversion. But what I want to know is who is advising Drew that she has to have these tattoos removed before converting to Judaism. As I wrote on this blog almost five years ago, the notion that Jews cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have tattoos is a myth. It’s a bubbe-meise, an old wives’ tale. An article in the NY Times even referred to this supposed prohibition as an “urban legend,” explaining that, “the edict isn’t true. The eight rabbinical scholars interviewed for this article, from institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, said it’s an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time, their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine.”

While I wouldn’t encourage someone who was converting to Judaism to get a tattoo I also wouldn’t make them have any preexisting tattoos removed. There’s just no reason to go through the painful process of tattoo removal before Jewish conversion since the rule forbidding those with tattoos to be buried in a Jewish cemetery is a myth. As I explained in my blog post, Rabbi Alan Lucas, in a 1997 teshuvah (legal response) for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, raised the question of tattooing in Judaism. Lucas concluded that there are diverse opinions among the rabbis concerning the the prohibition of tattooing based on the Torah’s verse in Leviticus 19:28 stating, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

The mishnah explains that it is the lasting and permanent nature of tattooing which makes it a culpable act, but Rabbi Simeon disagrees and says that it is only the inclusion of God’s name which makes tattooing prohibited. I don’t believe that Drew Barrymore has any tattoos on her body that include God’s name so that shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, there will likely be several important laws of Judaism that Drew will not follow after her conversion. I don’t think that she should somehow raise the importance of a prohibition of tattooing above many important laws that she’ll likely gloss over.

If Drew decides to forgo the tattoo removal, I can promise her that she won’t be the only Jewish person with tattoos. And she certainly won’t be the only Jewish celeb with tattoos either (see Lena Dunham and Adam Levine). Even though Drew wasn’t Jewish at the time, the couple was married by a rabbi, had a ketubah witnessed, and stood under a chuppah. And according to the Algemeiner.com website, Drew and Will Kopelman have promised to raise their daughter Olive in a traditional Jewish manner. I think that’s great, but if I were the one advising her in her conversion to Judaism I would focus less on those tattoos and more on Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, and sending Olive to a Jewish day school. I wish Drew the best of luck in her conversion process.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Holocaust Tattoos, Settlers and Quaker State Oil

I’ve written before on this blog about tattoos in the Jewish tradition. In fact, my 2008 blog post explaining that it’s only a bubba meisa (old wives’ tale) that Jewish people can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have a tattoo remains one of the most popular posts on this blog.

Well, tattoos on Jews are back in the news (that rhymes). This time the story is about grandchildren of Holocaust survivors getting their grandparent’s Auschwitz inmate numbers tattooed on their arm as a memorial. The article in the NY Times opens with the story of Eli Sagir who had the number 157622 permanently inked on her arm. That same number was forcefully tattooed on her grandfather’s arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz 70 years earlier. Sagir’s mother, brother, and uncle also had the numbers inscribed onto their forearms.

Photo by Uriel Sinai | NY Times

According to the Times article, “tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and at the adjacent Birkenau the next March. They were the only camps to employ the practice, and it is unclear how many people were branded, briefly on the chest and more commonly on the left forearm.”

This new tradition is shocking, but some find it meaningful as a way to keep the story of the Holocaust alive as survivors are quickly dying off (there are currently 200,000 Holocaust survivors compared with 400,000 a decade ago). Some tattoo artists see the importance of this practice and don’t charge for their services. The descendants of the survivors interviewed for the NY Times story all agreed that they wanted to be “intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra ‘Never forget’ with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation.”

There is a certain irony in this story because many parents forbid their children from getting tattoos based on the notion that Holocaust victims were forced to be tattooed. But I think tattoos are just a reality in the 21st century and the idea that Jews with tattoos will be refused burial in a Jewish cemetery seems to have been debunked. The practice of wearing a grandparent’s (or great-grandparent’s) numbers from Auschwitz or Birkenau as a tattoo should be embraced as a new ritual for this generation. Just as survivors’ grandchildren asked them what the numbers symbolize, some day the grandchildren of the grandchildren will ask the same question. These tattoos will serve as a tribute to those who survived the Holocaust long after they die, as well as a memorial for those who perished.

Not all use of the Holocaust number tattoos is for good however. Seven years ago during the Israeli army led pullout from Gaza, Israeli settlers compared their plight to that of Holocaust victims. The residents of the Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif wrote their identity card numbers on their arms in protest. According to an article in Haaretz, the trend began when a Gush Katif woman refused to show her ID card to security forces at a security crossing and instead “she showed him her arm, on which she had written her identity number, in a simulation of the Nazi practice of branding numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates. Security forces checked her identity and let her through the checkpoint.”

Ehud Yatom, a Likud member of Knesset at the time, expressed his disdain over this practice. “The use by a few disengagement opponents of Holocaust symbols and implications comparing the horrors of the Third Reich to the government’s disengagement plan, even if it is mistaken, constitutes a sin against the memory of the entire Jewish nation.”

Quaker State commerical

Numbers tattooed on ones forearm will always be a shocking image because of the Holocaust. For that reason a friend of mine was horrified when she saw a commercial on ESPN for Quaker State engine oil. She described the commercial to me in enough detail that I was able to find it on YouTube. The Quaker State commercial shows several drivers who are proud of how many miles their car lasted while using Quaker State oil. One man displays the number of miles his car survived with a tattoo on his arm. While I’m sure the company meant no disrespect to Holocaust survivors with this image (the tattoo is on the upper arm rather than where the Auschwitz numbers are usually found), it does show just how sensitive some people can be to that imagery. Here’s a link to the commercial.

As one daughter of a survivor who got her mother’s Holocaust numbers tattooed on her arm articulated “The fact that young people are choosing to get the tattoos is, in my eyes, a sign that we’re still carrying the scar of the Holocaust.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

David Beckham’s Ani L’dodi Tattoo

Celebrities sporting tattoos is nothing new. However, there’s a recent trend that I’ve noticed of non-Jewish celebrities having Hebrew words and phrases tattooed on their bodies. Soccer superstar (and famous Spice Girl spouse) David Beckham’s Hebrew tattoos are being displayed all over the Web today, but only because of the Hebrew tattoo’s proximity to his tattoo getting all the attention.

Beckham is an ambassador for “Sainsbury’s Active Kids” in Britain, where he’s was born and raised. In that role, he recently appeared in a promotional poster for a program run by the Sainsbury supermarket chain that provides local schools with sporting equipment. It wasn’t any of his Hebrew tattoos that caused the scandal, but rather the provocative image of his wife Victoria on his forearm. Apparently the local schools aren’t so eager to display the posters of Becks showing off a naked image of his wife.

Next to the tattoo in question is a line of Hebrew text from Song of Songs which reads “Ani l’dodi li va’ani lo haro’eh bashoshanim” – My beloved is mine and I am his, the shepherd [grazing his flock] among the lilies. The tattooed verse from the Torah does not mean Beckham considers himself Jewish. He has a large tattooed cross on the back of his neck. The other Hebrew tattoo above the verse from Song of Songs is from the Book of Proverbs 3:1 and means “My son, do not forget my teaching but keep my commands in your heart.” Beckham’s wife Victoria (née Posh Spice) has the same quote from Song of Songs tattooed vertically from her neck to her back. This verse is often recited by bride’s under the chuppah (wedding canopy) at a Jewish wedding to proclaim their love to their groom.

Other non-Jewish celebs who have Hebrew tattoos include Christina Aguilera who has the same verse from Song of Songs as the Beckhams on her lower back and Madonna with the Hebrew letters lamed, alef, vav on her shoulder to represent a Kabbalistic name for God. Britney Spears has the letters mem, hey, shin tattooed on her which is another Kabbalistic name for God.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller