They call it body art but I find it tatty

Amy Winehouse: tore apart cosy Jewish assumptions

Amy Winehouse: tore apart cosy Jewish assumptions

While, to the best of my knowledge, no Jew was involved in the rioting and looting that blighted our streets and our screens last month, it seems that police inquiries may have been directed at one or two Jewish households in connection with the destination of some looted items.

Should this turn out to be true, and a Jew - or Jews - is found to have been indirectly involved in such disgraceful acts, most of us would be deeply shocked. However, in one respect it could be a salutary outcome. For it would prick, if not puncture, that complacency to which we are all prone as a result of succumbing to comfortable assumptions about Jewish life.

Even in this age of instant information and comprehensive communication, there are many who claim, for example, that there is no such person as a Jewish homosexual or alcoholic or drug addict - often thereby heaping distress and opprobrium on already vulnerable and lonely individuals. Or that Jewish homes are never darkened by domestic or sexual abuse.

Such assumptions do not relate exclusively to forbidden or sinful activities - nothing can shift the idea that Jews are hopeless at sport or DIY - but the tarnishing of Jews who defy the stereotype is often based upon prohibitive scripture, usually Leviticus.

And it is to Leviticus that I have turned in order to confront a comforting assumption of my own, one that is subject to ever-increasing challenge - from Mediterranean beaches to subterranean tube trains.

In Leviticus, chapter 19, amid the stern injunctions to refrain from placing stumbling blocks before the blind, or offering up your daughter as a prostitute, the 28th verse reads: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you…"

I've even heard of an American rabbi whose neck is permanently adorned with the Star of David

In other words, while I have no problem with gay Jews, can sympathise with boozy or druggy Jews, and recognise the existence of violent and predatory Jews, I do have a problem with Jews and tattoos. Until quite recently, I always imagined that the twain never met. But now, I've even heard of an American rabbi whose neck is permanently adorned with the Star of David.

There is a kind of positive defiance in wishing to assert your identity in such bold fashion. The trouble is that you are simultaneously asserting that your identity is kitsch, its symbols crude. Moreover, for as long as the shadow of the Holocaust hangs over us, the idea of tattooing Jews has the basest of associations.

Body art, they call it. But, while in theory there is potential for beauty, in my experience it is invariably, catastrophically unrealised.

Yet tattooing has become so fashionable - beyond fashionable, in fact, it has become epidemic - that Jewish lads and lasses have inevitably taken to it.

This is very different from the charming and genuinely decorative Sephardi and Oriental Jewish custom for brides to cover their hands with intricate henna patterns.

Not only is this temporary but it is a part of a defining tradition. The Song of Solomon includes the entreaty: "Come, my beloved/Let us go into the open/ Let us lodge among the henna shrubs…"

It is hard to find such lyrical associations with the - sadly permanent -body art of today. This is usually either roughly applied or, if done skilfully, carried to such serpentine excesses as to turn the wearer's body into a kind of walking circus poster.

For every discreetly applied heart or butterfly, there are hundreds of bloated frogs and dragons. For each poignant personal tribute to a loved one, there is a flood of graceless gibberish, dotted lines and scissors.

And for every professional footballer, it is de rigueur to obliterate his arms and/or other parts of his torso. David Beckham's grotesque arrangement of wings and a cross is a modern icon As, of course, was the late, much lamented Amy Winehouse, whose talent was not her only signature. She drank, she did drugs, she misbehaved - and she got tattoed. But, if her lasting image, for me, is of those random, ridiculously amateur daubings - the kind that make me despair - she has certainly torn apart a few cosy Jewish complacencies. God bless her for that.

    Last updated: 4:25pm, November 11 2011