Anti-establishment Israeli youth get hooked on piercing

Inbal Bar-Aharon tightens her grip on her boyfriend's hand and scrunches her eyes closed.

A long skein of saliva drips slowly from her tongue, which has been protruding for a few minutes now and reflexively, spasmodically, seeks the security of her mouth. Its retreat is blocked by the metal tongs that James has fastened on its middle section. With a green marking pen, James is trying to make a dot on the soft underside of Bar-Aharon's tongue.

He gives up momentarily and the tongue shoots back toward Bar-Aharon's throat like a startled lizard. She swallows hard and squirms in the dentist-style chair.

Then she sticks her tongue out again, and the process resumes. James, his hands protectively covered in rubber gloves, succeeds this time in marking a dot through a hole in the tongs. When he has done the same on the top of Bar-Aharon's tongue, he produces a long needle.

"Count to 10 and the whole business will be over," he tells her. "The preparation takes much longer than the actual thing."

Bar-Aharon's appearance bespeaks attitude: thumb ring, polka-dot nail polish, black Doc Marten's boots, three earrings in her right ear, one in her navel. Right now, though, she is scared and vulnerable.

Once the hole is made, James places a short metal bar through Bar-Aharon's tongue and closes with it a steel ball on each end. The operation finished, he directs her to the sink to rinse her mouth. For her piercing, Bar-Aharon will pay $42.50 to Bizzart Studio on Jerusalem's Hillel Street.

A waitress at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel, Bar-Aharon is 21 but looks about 16. After the procedure, her attitude quickly returns along with her color.

"It hurts for a second when they put the needle through," but then it's cool, she says.

Michael Alyukov, who founded Bizzart Studio in 1995, four years after immigrating from Ukraine, considers body piercing among man's most primeval urges, one of the earliest developments of art history.

More widespread in the United States and Europe than in Israel, piercing was slow to arrive and spread here due, perhaps, to the prohibition Jewish tradition places on such bodily disfigurement.

"We are supposed to guard our bodies, not harm them in any way," says Rabbi Berel Wein, a Talmud teacher at Or Sameach yeshiva and former director of the Orthodox Union.

"In ancient times there were people, the idol worshippers and [pagan] prophets who would cut themselves with knives and pierce themselves as a sign of devotion to idolatry, and so the Jews developed an abhorrence to all those things. In today's society, too, [piercing] is associated with a culture that is inimical to all Judaism stands for."

Women were allowed more leeway because it was considered natural for them to adorn their bodies, Wein says. Earrings were permitted, and it is likely that the matriarchs of Jewish history wore nose-rings as well. But that very liberalism would have made the laws regarding male piercing even more rigid.

"Part of the Jewish value system states that what is permitted for women is therefore almost ipso facto forbidden to men because we're not unisex," he notes. "That is not just women's clothing, but probably women's jewelry as well."

In addition, while earrings were considered a relatively harmless adornment, Jewish law almost surely would have disapproved of today's trendy piercings, according to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, editor of Tradition magazine.

"Judaism may be liberal about pierced ears, but not about the faddish kind of piercing that is going on today." When piercing did begin to catch on in Israel several years ago, it became a favorite topic of the alternative newspaper The Traveller. It published a Piercee's Bill of Rights, a "price and pain" chart for various body parts and the reminder that "piercing is not merely a decoration, it is a commitment."

Alyukov, now 30, was among the first to begin commercial piercing in Israel.

"People come here all the way from Haifa because they've heard we're the anti-cultural studio," Alyukov boasts of Bizzart. "Anything that society rejects, I'll do."

Yet Alyukov knows where society cannot be crossed, and he makes sure to run a clean ship. That means using only sterilized equipment and needles and disposing properly of biohazardous waste. Tattooing Christian crosses onto the forearms of three burly Lebanese men — who, despite the pain, sit completely poker-faced — Alyukov is sure to wear disposable plastic gloves, something probably unheard of in his Red Army years.

The Health Ministry currently has no special regulations for body-piercing studios beyond the normal hygiene requirements for businesses such as barber shops. Even the number of studios in Israel is not clear, with a Health Ministry official estimating the number at around 25 and Alyukov at twice that.

A ministry team is expected to recommend a set of specific regulations for piercing studios sometime this year, according to Yitzhak Berlovich, head of medical administration at the Health Ministry.

"Body piercing can lead to serious complications, such as damage to the very organs being pierced and contamination, so the time has come to deal with it in a special manner," Berlovich says.

Among the requirements may be an obligatory one- or two-day Health Ministry course to teach piercers about proper hygiene. Bizzart already has a short course for its employees, at the end of which they receive a diploma.

With piercing especially popular among teenagers, conversation turns to the issue of minors. Workers in Bizzart and in Tel Aviv's Jovino Dragon Tattoos studio claim they ask clients for identification and, if they're under 18, demand permission from their parents.

In practice, many youths say, they are asked for neither.

In fact, the law is silent on the issue of whether minors need to ask for their parents' permission.

"Most of those who do it are teenagers so it's very difficult to oversee anywhere in the world," Berlovich said. "The chance that we can prevent it in an official manner is very small."

Yitzhak Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child, agrees that a blanket prohibition on piercing for minors is not realistic. The issue is much more vague than medical treatment of minors, for example, for which parental approval is required.

Another concern of Kadman's is that while most of the better-known studios that pierce teenagers are on the level, some of the smaller holes-in-the-wall can be shady.

Young girls who have gone in for genital piercings have inadvertently ended up as the subjects of pornographic photo shoots, he says. With piercing becoming increasingly popular among Israeli teens, Kadman predicts the country's decision-makers soon will have to tackle the question of its legality.

"When a phenomenon becomes so widespread and it's not clear if it's legal or not, it may be that it's time for the legislature to deal with this issue," he says. "But our legislators are so old, they don't even understand that this problem exists."

Yarden, age 15, is young enough to see a different problem — the fact that so many of her peers are now piercing their bodies that it's getting harder and harder to be unique.

"When I did this two years ago," she says, pointing to the ring in her bellybutton, "it wasn't very popular.

"I wanted to do something different. Now it's so popular that everybody does it. Now I don't think I would do it. Not because I don't like it but because it's not special anymore. Every second person you see has it."

Orly Katz, who is studying tattooing and helping out at Jovino Dragon Tattoos on Sheinkin Street, has 11 piercings.

It's not entirely clear whether it is the ball in her tongue or the spike in her lower lip that is new, but one of them is making it uncomfortable for her to eat dinner.

The attraction for Katz was of a different kind.

"I like the pain. It's fun," says Katz, who is 22. "Just like there are some people who will hurt themselves by picking at their cuticles, I liked the pain of the needle."

The people in her life have adjusted, she says. Her parents were relieved that she returned from India with only one piercing in her tongue and one in her eyebrow. And any man who may be interested in her sees her piercings and knows in advance what he is getting into.

"He knows from the start that I'm a little messed up."