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In Your Faith

Many Jewish Gen Xers are embracing their religion and cultural icons with defiance and bold irony. But are the piercings and tattoos a fad or spiritual expression?

May 13, 1996|JORDAN ELGRABLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With her purple mohawk and pierced eyebrows, nose and lip, Marina Vainshtein is not, at first glance, your average young Jewish woman. But look further and you'll find evidence of Marina's obsession with the history of her people: a star of David tattooed on her inner left arm, a tattooed armband in Hebrew on her right wrist that reads, "And now we are the last of many." And these are only the first signs that Marina, a 22-year-old Los Angeles photographer, is defining her Judaism in unconventional ways.

Much of Marina's body is tattooed with vivid scenes of the Holocaust: a hovering angel of death in a gas mask; a row of naked bodies hanging from the gallows; and, on her left arm and shoulder, gruesome images of the Nazi medical experiments performed on children.

Jewish law, or halachah, bans tattoos as a desecration of the body; only Holocaust survivors are the exception to the rule that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if tattooed. But now there are members of a generation of young Jews in their 20s and 30s who, like Vainshtein, are observing their Judaism in unorthodox--not to say radical--ways.

Even as the Jewish community has seen a renewed interest in the exploration of Jewish spirituality, there is a discernible movement among some younger Jews to explore their Jewish identity with in-your-face defiance and bold irony. This smaller movement is claiming Jewish ethnicity and cultural icons much the way blacks, Latinos and Asians did before them.

Ironically, Art Spiegelman, considered by some the godfather of this movement for his unusual exploration of Jewish identity in the satirical comic book series "Maus," expresses dismay at the idea that Jews are jumping on the multicultural bandwagon.

"This is the problem with an America that has gone crazy, that's just gone into ethnic madness," Spiegelman says. "I think what you're seeing is a response to the Balkanization of America, where Jews who felt themselves too embraced in America's assimilationist arms have now started to desperately backpedal. It seems to me that America has entered into an age of competing victimhoods, and that the left has become sapped by the rise of multiculturalism. The energy that used to go into trying to create a generally more just society has been rerouted into competing claims of ethnic rights."

Still, young Jews like Vainshtein remain unapologetic. "I love tattoos," she says. "I think they're beautiful. If they're done right they can be art." Yet Vainshtein hasn't unveiled her tattoos to her parents. She's afraid they'll have a conniption.

When Vainshtein was in high school, a woman who had survived seven concentration camps gave a lecture to her history class. The seeds of Marina's Jewish identity were already planted, she recalls, "but her talk was the nourishment. She taught me that I could be a survivor too, no matter if it's one day or 80 years."

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A new alternative Jewish quarterly called Davka (Hebrew slang for "in your face") hopes to appeal to just such a generation of unaffiliated young Jews, many of whom remain alienated by traditional forms of observance. Launched in February in San Francisco, Davka expects a national readership of 40,000 for its second issue. The magazine's intended audience, says Editor in Chief Alan Kaufman, may not go to synagogue or keep all Jewish holidays, "but we are seeing a Jewish cultural revolution, which is the activity of Jews facing a new millennium."

(While Kaufman explains that part of Davka's raison d'etre is to be a response to the anti-Semitism of the militia movement, the Anti-Defamation League has recorded a sharp overall decline in anti-Semitic attitudes over the last 20 years, says David Lehrer, Pacific-Southwest regional director. And the most recent ADL audit of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. reported a decrease of 11% in 1995 from the previous year.)

Kaufman points to an explosion of Yiddishkeit (Yiddish culture) in the arts, to "a kind of new postmodern iconography" of Jewish painters, performance artists, writers and musicians who are celebrating Jewish culture with unprecedented enthusiasm and pride. A key show at the Jewish Museum in New York, "Too Jewish?" which opened in March, has sparked considerable interest and debate. Representing the work of 23 artists in a variety of media, "Too Jewish?" is a clear expression of those who have rejected the role of assimilated Jew and are claiming a place for themselves in America's multicultural crucible. The show travels to the Armand Hammer Museum in January.

Says Irene Segalove, an L.A.-based artist included in the show, "Suddenly, the last few years, being Jewish has become this exotic quality, and my friends are wishing they were Jewish. That's been intriguing to me, a shock really, that these WASPs are coveting my ethnicity."

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