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Jewish Journal

The Jew with tattoos

by Danielle Berrin

October 22, 2007 | 5:42 pm

Emma Forrest hadn’t been to temple in nearly 10 years and she was terrified. Aside from the usual anxieties that accompany a return foray into a religious arena, a woman worries about her image - covering her shoulders, hiding her skin—appropriate concerns for a writer who recently published a book about women’s preoccupation with their appearances. But there was more: tonight the prolific journalist and novelist would get personal—intimate, provocative—about her feminism, her Judaism and her defiant skin inscriptions.

Growing up in a small Jewish community in London, Emma’s religious life was limited. Yet, despite an admitted lack of experience, there is still something undeniably Jewish about her, as if she emanates member of the tribe as she might emanate a scent, or as she does, an overwhelming sensuality. It was thick like fog around her when she arrived at Sinai Temple for Friday Night Live, where she would be the evening’s special guest at the new Shabbat salon, themed: “What’s Your Story?”

Wrapped in a colorful shawl and nude fishnet stockings, her trademark freckles looking painterly on her right cheek, she danced her way through the musical service and into the salon where conversation about sex, femininity and celebrity was probing, intense and borderline illicit.

She hooked the audience reading a short fiction about a rabbi’s preoccupation with Ben Affleck. The challenge then was whether to delight in her clever tale or revel in the poetry of her voice.

A smitten crowd listened to her own story: how at 13 an interview for the school paper with a just-outted Ian McKellen eventually landed her a column in London’s Sunday Times and how at 16, she dropped out of high school. She published her first novel at 21 and says the second, Thin Skin, “saved her life.” That story is a harrowing portrait of teenage self-mutilation, but she stopped short of elaborating on that.

Instead of cutting, she inked her skin with tattoos but only one disturbed her Jewish mother - the tattoo in Hebrew letters. Of that she wrote: Me: the Jew with the tattoos, unable to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The Jew disrespecting those who had been tattooed by force.

But you don’t want to reprimand Emma. She’s too heartfelt, and forthright and genteel.  She’s someone who donated all the first-run proceeds from her novel Damage Control to Women For Women International, an organization that rehabilitates women survivors of war. Still, her interests represent the paradox of womanhood in the 21st century: in Africa women are raped while in late-capitalist America, they can write books about their lovers and their looks.

In modernized countries, is the cultural obsession with female beauty maintenance the post-feminist form of oppression? Is beauty the means through which free women oppress themselves—or worse, each other?

“What’s Your Story?” salon takes place following Friday Night Live, the second Friday of every month at Sinai Temple. 7:30 (service), 9:30 (salon). Free and open to the community. 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. http://www.atidla.com/wys.php

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