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The Onion Tattoo
"To adorn my skin defies both law and custom. But so it is and so it shall be—I am the Lord, of my own flesh at least."
As of today, it’s been exactly one year since I started this newsletter. And what a journey it’s been—we’ve talked about chiliburgers and child abuse and chip butties and the church. It marks a turning point, perhaps, and certainly the newsletter will look a bit different going forward—the “Ask A Banner Carrier” advice column is moving to paid-only subscribers, for one thing—and a moment to pause and reflect. In the Jewish calendar, it’s a time of reflection as well—the High Holiday season of penitence culminating in Yom Kippur. I am pretty bad at pausing and reflecting, though, and even worse at penitence. So, to mark this moment in all its solemnity, as well as turning in half my book draft, I got a big tattoo of an onion on my thigh.
You might be wise to quibble about the placement, and about celebrating something so frivolous as half a rough draft—which is neither a full draft nor polished, publication-ready copy—or memorializing a year of digital musings. You may even question the permanence of a thigh tattoo, although, not being overly concerned at what my thighs look like in my 30s, I doubt I’ll develop severe neuroses in that quarter.
But the onion? I will allow no one to question my choice of an onion. I searched far and wide for the right drawing to bring to my tattoo artist (the excellent Daniel Guzman, of Astoria’s Jaguar Ink), and found one on a seed packet, “Yellow Sweet Spanish Utah Bulb Onion Seeds (Heirloom)” from the seed company Botanical Interests.
The illustration was perfect as a point of departure, though I couldn’t find the artist to credit (even after emailing the company): the way the thin little curl of onion skin unfurls its papery delicacy; the inner whorl, so complex, ovals nestling within ovals; the ropy fuzz of roots, and the strawish green riot of the leaves, and the soft swell of the bulb, heavy to be held in a palm, to be disassembled for the tongue. It is my fourth tattoo, though the first two are tiny, quarter-sized and faded. There is a certain sweet agony to the process, the way the pain fades under a tide of rising adrenaline, the way the body shakes, the way ink and blood commingle in a portrait made of flesh. Two of my four limbs now bear alliums—Guzman inked a garlic bulb on my inner right forearm last year, to cover old self-inflicted burn scars, although really just because I wanted a tattoo of a garlic bulb nestled against me. Most of my friends are apathetic or approving; although I can’t say my parents welcome my decision to become a pendulous fleshy canvas at this late stage, this isn’t teenage rebellion either.
The prohibition against tattoos in Judaism comes from Leviticus 19, a chapter in which God instructs the Israelites (via Moses) on how to live in a state of holiness—a term that, in Hebrew, stems from the root “set apart.” Leviticus 19 encodes a jumble of such laws: principles of separation, ways to distinguish Israelites from the rest of the earth’s peoples in food, dress, harvesting practices, and sexual morality. In Leviticus 19:26, the proscription against eating blood appears, an edict which not only deprived the Jewish people of black pudding for all eternity, but also gave rise to kosher salt, so named because of the Ashkenazi practice of using coarse salt crystals as a drying brine, in order to draw the blood out of meat before eating. Here you find the commandment to maintain sideburns—“Ye shall not round the corners of your heads”—that can mean anything from telling the barber not to shave too close, to the lush, unmistakable earlocks of Hasidim, an exaggerated piety and in its own right a means of creating separation.
The laws against tattoos come from an injunction not to mimic Gentile methods of grief: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” At various stages of adolescent madness and self-loathing—not anything near so dignified as grief for the dead—I made cuttings in my flesh, and imprinted the marks of flames. To adorn these sites further with an onion defies both law and custom, but so it is and so it shall be, I am the lord—of my own flesh at least.
The word “tattoo” comes to English via Polynesia, as recorded by the English explorer and colonizer Captain James Cook in 1769. He described the widespread practice, in Tahiti, of tatau, meaning “to strike,” and thus embodied a long and storied history of self-adornment in ink and scar. It’s a history with breadth and depth that goes far beyond Cook. Famously, Ötzi the Iceman—whose five-thousand-year-old body was uncovered uncannily preserved in the Italian Alps in 1991—had 61 tattoos adorning his limbs with careful parallel lines. Tattooed mummies in various stages of preservation have been recovered from the Andes to Egypt to Siberia, and peoples as distinct as the Osage of the American Midwest and the indigenous Chinese peoples of the Tarim Basin have tatouage dating back thousands of years, for reasons as diverse as distinguishing criminals and celebrating prowess in battle.
Being neither a warrior nor a felon—let alone a spiritual leader or nubile maiden—there is no tradition to my markings but what I offer to myself. By all rights, on Yom Kippur I should be preparing to pray and to fast and to beg forgiveness, not watching white ink surface millimeters above my knee and taking great joy in it. It’s a difficult thing to launch into any endeavor that goes so directly against the traditions in which I was raised—but particularly so when my onion symbolizes to me, in part, my love of Jewish cooking, with its perpetual alliaceous tangs and pungent odors. (With the exception of matzah and various sweets, nearly every Jewish dish I have ever made contains some degree of onions).
I chose to write about sandwiches in this newsletter because writing about food, and cooking it, is a way of nurturance of the self for me. If it’s sometimes a pain in the ass, well, it’s generally a pain in the ass to be alive. To cook for others—even to write about cooking—is to tap into a great wellspring of life, and joy, and history that does more to dispel my perennial blackness of mood than any deadline met or anniversary achieved. In Jewish custom, too, cooking is the stuff of life: for seudat hama’avara, the meal of recovery the family eats immediately after the funeral of a loved one, food must be provided by friends or neighbors.
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Sometimes I am so dense about the things that make me happy—the things that make me feel alive, and pull me bodily backwards from the brink, as I balance perilously on the edge of the good world, staring into the black—that I need to remind myself in the most blatant of ways possible. I wrote half a book about prophecy, hysteria, child abuse, the firebombing of abortion clinics, and the way the people of this country can’t stop seeing Satan in their enemies. And I have miles of words to write before I send them all off in a neat package to infest others’ dreams as they have mine. I still have to write about faith healing and exorcisms, about the snake-oil salesmen and grifters who reside in the wormy heart of bigotry, about the big, bad business of hate, about guns and grievance and all manner of grim things. To go further along this path—the path that I’ve been traveling more or less continuously since 2017—I need way-stations, guide posts, havens where the air is sweet to breathe, where my feet can touch ground.
The air can choke when all you breathe is bile, the body souring and burning from a lack of oxygen, the tongue desiccated from words unsaid to interlocutors I despise, from maintaining a pleasant mien while mainlining the wages of cruelty day and night. I need my onion, and all it entails, its frail curl of peel a tether to the things that are real and needed. Next, some year soon, I’ll get a lacy frond of dill to unroll down an arm or a leg or a shoulder; a spoonful of salt with crystals big as tears. I accept, among other things, how dense I am, how sometimes pain is the only thing I listen to, and if pain is what it takes to see the picture clearly—how you need to heal when you write about hate, and live as you write about death—then let it be so, for so it is, I am the lord of my own flesh, and I will mark it as I will.