Am Yisrael Chai

Am Yisrael Chai

Claims Conference film looks at Jews, tattoos, and the next generation

Historically, and generally speaking, Jews haven’t been particularly fond of tattoos.

There’s the proscription in Leviticus 19:28 — “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

That could or could not mean tattoos, but it often has been assumed to have that meaning. Jews stayed away from them.

Then there’s the commonly held assumption that tattooed Jews can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries, but according even to as conservative a source as Chabad, that is not true.

There’s also the sociological part. Tattoos used to be seen as lower class, even cartoon-y — Popeye’s arms bulged with them.

In a screenshot from “Inked,” brothers Max and Pierce show off their matching tattoos with their grandfather’s number; Max has added a post-October 7 “Am Yisrael Chai” to his hand. (Mike Farino)

But much of that has changed, at least for Americans in general. Tattoos have become much more mainstream — anybody who spends any time at all outside, particularly in the summer, knows that. People use them as a means of self-expression, a way to incorporate art into their bodies.

But for Jews, there is another complication. There are the haunting memories of crude numbers on forearms, hideous reminders of German atrocities. The Nazis used tattoos to mark those prisoners at Auschwitz who were not relegated immediately to the ovens but would be worked until they died. In their use of tattoos, the Nazis efficiently combined their desire for order, as ineffectual as it often was, with their desire to humiliate and brutalize, a skill that came easily to them.

To read even a brief history of tattooing at Auschwitz is to be stunned yet again at the Nazis’ grotesquery, as they tried different methods of tattooing, and different body parts to tattoo. For decades — for almost a century — most Jews have shied away from the idea of reclaiming (or maybe just for the first time claiming) tattooing as art, not torture.

But now that seems to be changing.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which includes among its goals keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, lest its victims be forgotten again and its horrors recur, began a contest for emerging filmmakers in 2022.

In another screenshot, tattooed siblings Pierce, Kaeli, and Max Goldman look at old photos. (Mike Farino)

This year, the young director Dara Bratt won the contest with her documentary “Inked: Our Stories Remarked.”

Ms. Bratt, who has made documentaries on such diverse subjects as butterflies, face blindness, plane crashes, and pickles, and who also creates commercials for both commercial and nonprofit enterprises — learn more about them, and her, at — heard about the Claims Conference contest. At the same time, she heard about a high-school friend who is now a college professor and was researching commemorative Holocaust tattoos.

“So I called her, and I asked her who gets these tattoos?” Ms. Bratt said. “Sixteen-year-olds? And she said no. She told me that she’d interviewed a cancer patient who’d gotten her grandmother’s tattoo — her grandmother had been a survivor — and she said it helped her get through chemo.

“And I kept hearing about people —  mothers, fathers, mature people, not a small group — so I started doing research. I reached out to 3G communities” — that’s grandchildren of Holocaust survivors — and she kept getting responses.

Ms. Bratt’s not the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors — her family made its way to Montreal, where she grew up, before the Shoah — but “I went to a Jewish high school, and I am deeply immersed in the Jewish world.” She knew survivors, but “they just wanted to assimilate, and I know that’s very typical.” But she sees a shift in her generation; members of the third generation “don’t want their grandparents to be seen as victims,” she said. “They’re survivors.”

In a screenshot from “Inked,” Max Goldman gets his new tattoo. (Mike Farino)

She started working on “Inked” “just about two weeks before October 7,” she said. “At first, I thought, why would anyone care about tattoos now? We have bigger problems. But then the number of people getting tattoos has skyrocketed.” She’s talking about Jews, and their tattoos are related to being Jewish, and in response to the attack.

“I don’t mention the war or October 7 in the film, but I talk about rising antisemitism,” she said.

The film is not quite finished — she hopes to have it done by the end of October, and to submit it to Sundance — so she’s not entirely sure of the final form it will take. She interviewed eight people on camera about their tattoos. One of them, Jill Diamant, lives in Westfield. She also filmed a survivor, Pinchas Gutter; and her own rabbi, Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, who said that although she doesn’t want a tattoo herself, it’s okay for a Jew to have them.

“Everything was incredibly touching,” she said. The survivors — both Mr. Gutter and the ones she didn’t film — told their stories. One of them, a woman who had dementia by the time Ms. Bratt met her, had recorded videos for the Holocaust museum in Toronto. “She said that the last thing her father said to her was ‘Never forget who you are,’” Ms. Bratt reported.

“One of the subjects in my film and his brother both had their grandfather’s Auschwitz number tattooed on their upper arms,” she continued. “One of them had it on his right arm, and the other on his left arm. When I was in Toronto filming, one of the brothers also got a tattoo that says Am Yisrael Chai.

Director Dara Bratt shoots her documentary, “Inked.” (Claims Conference)

“The two brothers look fierce. They’re tall. They’re in construction. They go to a gun range. And then they read letters from their grandfather, and they were bawling. It was very touching.”

And the woman who got the tattoo before facing chemo? “Her name is Marnie. She’s gay, she’s an activist, she has tongue cancer, and she had her grandmother’s permission for the tattoo. I interviewed her with her sister, who became religious” — she wears a sheitel — “and they’re so great together. They’re really loving, they talk to each other, they have very different interpretations, and it’s a fascinating conversation.”

“Everyone I interviewed is an adult. No one is making a rash decision. But definitely October 7 has pushed the idea.”

Everyone she interviewed also is the grandchild of a survivor. Almost all the grandparents had died by the time she talked to their tattooed grandchildren, but “two of them had given their permission. The others had not.” Some had died by then, others would not have been asked. “But the grandchildren do it to remember their grandparents, remember the history, and change the narrative,” Ms. Bratt said.

Ms. Bratt has a theory about Jews and tattoos. “We’re a very visual generation,” she said. “Judaism has always been about oral storytelling, and now stories are being told visually. These tattoos tell a story.” And they also provide one answer to a recurring question. “How do we tell the stories of a generation that are no longer alive to tell their own stories?”

Noah Offitzer created this tattoo of the Beit HaMidkash. (Noah Offitzer)

Jill Brownstein Diamant’s maternal grandparents, Sam and Eva Deutsch, were both Holocaust survivors. “Nana didn’t talk much about it, but Poppy did,” she said. “He would come to my Hebrew school class every year and talk about it.” She grew up in Livingston; her Hebrew school was Temple Beth Shalom, the Conservative shul there. Her parents, Hedy and Paul Brownstein, still live in Livingston.

Her grandparents both came from Munkatch, which now is in Ukraine but then shuttled between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It had been a vibrant Jewish community, home to a chasidic dynasty. Sam Deutsch’s family was chasidic, and Eva Gelb was not. The two did not know each other in Munkatch. “My Poppy was the only one in his family to survive,” she said. “He had six brothers and a sister. They all were killed. He was 18 when he was sent to Auschwitz. My Nana was just 12. She survived with a sister and brother. She had family in England, so she was sent there after liberation, but she said that she was treated like a slave. But her sister, who was older, got to New York, and then sent for her. They had other siblings who perished, and so did their parents.”

Sam and Eva met at a dance, Ms. Diamant said. “They settled in Bayside, in Queens, and had kids. My mom was the oldest, and she got married first. My grandparents were a huge part of my life, and they had a huge imprint on me.

“Being Jewish was a big part of my identity. I always knew that it was important that I marry someone Jewish, because Nana and Poppy survived the Holocaust.”

About the tattoo — “we didn’t really talk about Poppy’s tattoo. But I definitely grew up thinking that they were bad. They were frowned on.”

This hamsa holds includes many allusions to Jewish mysticism. (Noah Offitzer)

Jill Brownstein went to college at George Washington, met and married Josh Diamant, worked in public relations for about a decade, had two sons, and moved from the city to Westfield.

“Once I was living in New Jersey, I found yoga” — a practice that has assumed great importance in her life — “and I got my first tattoo. It’s a hamsa with my boys’ initials in it.”

She got a second tattoo, “a little one, the location symbol on Google, as a reminder that I am still here,” she said.

And then, after October 7, “I got a chai. I feel like I am living proof. I am alive. I am here. The Nazis tried to kill us. I am not going to hide.

“We had my older son’s bar mitzvah on October 14,” she said. “We hadn’t yet grasped the magnitude of what had happened, but I spoke at the service. I said that 70 years ago my grandparents were ripped from their lives to be slaughtered, and now I am standing here proudly, with my son becoming a Jewish adult. There is nothing more important than that.”

She retold a story that her mother had told her.

In a screenshot, Jill Diamant of Westfield holds a photograph of her grandfather, Sam Deutsch. (Mike Farino)

“Maybe 25 or 30 years ago, my mom got permanent makeup. Now it’s a thing, but then it was just coming out. Her dad was still alive. So she asked him. She said, ‘I am thinking about doing this, but it is like a tattoo, although not in a traditional way.’

“And he said to her, ‘If you are doing it to enhance your beauty’” — to bring more beauty into the world, not for ugliness but for joy — “‘then absolutely do it.’

“I think about that a lot,” Ms. Diamant said.

“It was such a negative thing to be branded by the Nazis. But I feel so strongly — and I say in the film — that this tattoo is a way to proclaim my Jewish identity proudly.

“Getting a tattoo is not nothing,” she concluded. “You are permanently marking your body. I had been thinking about getting a chai before October 7, and after October 7 it spoke to me even more, and I was moved to get it.

Gideon Taylor is the president of the Claims Conference.

Noah Offitzer designed and made this tattoo, of a lion shaped like the State of Israel. (Noah Offitzer)

The idea of allocating funds to make films, and to run contests for filmmakers, is new to the organization, he said. “We tend to focus on books and research and archives and documents and museums. But it became apparent that we have to use every possible medium to educate future generations about the Shoah. Surveys show an alarming lack of knowledge. They show that young people in many states cannot name even one concentration camp. Not even Auschwitz.

“That spurred us to find new and creative ways to reach people, and film has become an enormously effective way to do that. We can reach people with whom we otherwise would not connect. We have to meet people where they are, not where an older generation might be. And we particularly have to find new avenues to communicate our message in this era of rising antisemitism.

“And ‘Inked,’ and film in general, enables us to examine issues that are not straightforward or easy or direct. It allows us to explore complicated issues. This film is illustrative of that.

“It looks at how you preserve memory — what is the way to preserve memory? — and it says that it is complicated. The things that people may do to commemorate, to honor a memory, are very different today than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

“It is important to understand that what might be the right way for some people isn’t for other people.

“What is important about the film, and what makes it important that it gets a platform, is that beyond the specific subject matter, there is the whole issue of memory and commemoration, what it looks like now and what it will look like in years to come. People are forging new pathways of commemoration that are radically different from what older generations have done.

Kaeli Goldman’s hands are marked with Jewish symbols. (Kaeli Goldman)

“We are in a time of rapid change,” Mr. Taylor concluded. “That means being tuned into what is going on in society, and the way that people are looking at memory, in ways that are so different than they used to be.”

(Learn more about the Claims Conference at

Noah Offitzer is a fine artist who spent four years refining his eye, hand, passion, and talent at the Grand Central Atelier. He is a New Yorker with many close family connections to Israel. He is a graduate of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, and he’s a millennial.

Since 2022, he’s been a tattoo artist.

(Learn more about Mr. Offitzer and his art, both fine and tattoo, at

There’s always been a debate about tattooing in Israel, Mr. Offitzer said; while the more halachically observant communities frown on it, “there’s been a big resurgence in Tel Aviv and Haifa.” There’s also a tattoo shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, Razzouk Tattoo, run by a family of Coptic Christians, that has been operating since the 1300s; its tattoos have been spiritual stamps for something like 37 generations of Christian pilgrims. “They still use the original stencils,” Mr. Offitzer said.

Noah Offitzer creates drawings as well as tattoos. It’s his charcoal-on-paper “Study of Independence Flagstaff.”

Israeli tattoo artists are in demand around the world, he reported; “once you are established and have a clientele, you can go anywhere and be a guest artist. Israeli artists came to New York, Florida, and L.A.”

His education at the Atelier, in Queens, “was very rigorous. We had master teachers, in academic, figure, portraiture, cast drawing, still-life painting. I never really thought I would get tattoos. Honestly, it was never on my radar.

“But then my sister passed away during covid, so I really felt like I wanted to honor her in some way. And as an artist, I felt artwork was really powerful, and then I thought that maybe this would be a good reason to get a tattoo.

“So I found an artist whose work I really like, who makes really beautiful designs, and he designed me something to honor both my sister and my father, who had passed away a long time ago. That’s how I got my first tattoo, in honor of them and in their memory.”

Mr. Offitzer realized that he was not alone in how he decided to get that first tattoo. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people want their first tattoo to be something meaningful to them.

In the same medium, it’s “Self-Portrait in Tefillin.”

“And I’ve noticed after October 7, a lot more Israeli and Jewish clients came to me. A lot of people want to get tattoos that remind them of the beauty of Israel, their love for Israel and being Jewish, and they want to share that part of their identity on their bodies.”

Some of the tattoos he’s designed and made “are basic — Am Yisrael Chai, magen Davids. I’ve also been exploring other designs — kiddush cups; olive branches with a hoopoe, Israel’s national bird; the Beit HaMikdash; the golem of Prague; a lion in the shape of the state of Israel.”

He also has created tattoos honoring victims and survivors of the Shoah; he understands and respects the debate about it. “There’s the argument that you shouldn’t get a tattoo because it’s disrespectful, and because the Nazis tattooed to dehumanize. But the other side is that you want to take the beautiful artwork of a tattoo to reclaim the survivor’s power.”

He has mixed feelings about tattoos that replicate the numbers on a survivor’s arm.

“It’s the way I frame the October 7 tattoos,” he said. “A lot of people say to me, ‘I want to get the date October 7 and the words Never Forget.’

This tattoo is of a kiddush cup; the words are the blessing. (Noah Offitzer)

“And I say something like, ‘I understand that you feel very passionate about this, but eventually this war will end, and when it ends, I don’t want you to have something on your body that’s going to remind you of the blatant antisemitism. Of all the pain.

“I want you to be able to look at this tattoo in five or 10 years and say, ‘I’m filled with beauty and joy for my love of being Jewish, and of Israel.’ So it might be better to have something less literal and more beautiful.

“When it comes to the Shoah, it’s the same thing. I would say that instead of doing the numbers that your grandparents have, maybe we can do something different. Like the beautiful sculpture right outside Yad Vashem. Maybe I can tattoo something like that, where it’s not so much about the literal trauma.

“That’s what’s so great about art. You have an idea, a central theme, but you can reiterate it in many different ways.”

It’s different than fine art, Mr. Offitzer said. When he draws on paper, his work is realistic. On the body, it’s necessarily more abstract; he has to work with his subject’s size, shape, and skin color. No two tattoos will look exactly the same, even if they’re the same design, because no two bodies are exactly the same.

Which brings us back to Dara Bratt and “Inked.” Grandchildren could not replicate their grandparents’ tattoos exactly, even if they want to. Aged skin is not the same as young skin. No tattoo artist would repeat the brutality of the branding the survivors endured. But it’s a way of honoring and remembering, and of finding beauty in entirely unlikely places and ways.

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