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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Taggid shibboleth--"Say shibboleth"

“Shibboleth” as elaborated by Jacques Derrida is “every insignificant, arbitrary mark” as it “becomes discriminative, decisive, and divisive” …

In this definition, language itself is a shibboleth--all the languages and accents and nuances of Europe. Taggid shibboleth, “Say shibboleth,” was a marker, a distinction, just as Passover is a shibboleth: pass over these houses marked with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, these people who commemorate that event are marked too. And the biopolitical tattooing of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, no less than their circumcision, is a shibboleth.

Note: Levi retained his tattoo afer the war. Recall Levi’s comment about the pain it caused Orthodox Jews because of the Biblical injunction against tattoos in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.


When I walk around the city—any city in the world today, really, not just Montreal, Rome or São Paulo—and see the tattoos on the walls of buildings, on bridges that make them seem like ramparts and the mutilating graffiti on the skins of my fellow citizens, I am struck by how they have rendered public speech meaningless. As I fight a visceral revulsion against graffiti, tattooing, the mutilation of bodies and the world, a part of me feels relieved. The biopolitical tattooing of the Nazis is no longer a shibboleth, it no longer separates the Chosen People from the Aryan race. In a world where anything can be written on our bodies or on our city walls, little has the capacity to shock, let alone to separate and signify. In Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men, “Intifida” is written in Arabic script, along with the English “Uprising” on the walls of a concentration camp. In the world of real intifadas and real camps, the word no longer shocks us; even worse, it can hardly rally most of us to a cause.

Will it shock you now for me to propose a new liturgy for Passover and a new shibboleth for Jews? Let us replace the circumcision of male Jews with a new mark, for both women and men--a tattoo. Of what? A Star of David? A number? A QR code—the avatar of capitalism? What is left to us in an era of globalization and weary irony to mark boundaries and discern judgement?


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