New generation, new form of self-expression
“I was hesitant about the permanence of it and nervous about the whole ‘can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery’ thing. My mom always yapped about it. But I looked into that and it’s a myth!” said Jessica Tayts, now 23, who wanted the Tree of Life symbol tattoo since she was 15 years old. ” I did some casual internet research into the Jewish view of tattoos and decided that there was enough discussion and disagreement among scholars that I decided it wasn’t going against Judaism, at least not to me.”
Tayts finally got her tattoo this year. “It was the only thing I wanted one-hundred percent,” Tayts said, describing the tattoo as one that symbolizes the idea of a circle of life — a concept found in Eastern philosophy and Judaism.
“I loved that this idea existed in multiple cultures. And that it was specifically Jewish which is an important part of my identity. I find the symbol to be comforting and meaningful to me on a number of levels,” she said.
For Tayts, the tattoo is a reminder to not fear death, and a symbol of her background.
Marvin Moskowitz, a son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who was featured in The Jewish Week for his family’s tattoo shop, decided himself to get a red, white and blue Star of David with the words “Never Again.” The tattoo was in response to the constant anti-Semitism he was facing in his daily life, serving as a reminder of strength and pride. Rabbi Goldstein’s friend who has a Star of David tattoo as a form of self-expression says, “Some wear a Yarmulke. I like to express myself with a tattoo.”
Since rabbis have dispelled the myth of improper burial (a myth whose origin is uncertain) and exclusion from synagogue ritual, it has become easier for a Jew to decide to get a tattoo, as there are no “tangible” consequences. Some will argue if one is not following other laws — there are 613 — such as keeping Kosher, or something more serious like loving thy neighbor or honoring thy parents, then getting a tattoo is really no big deal in comparison.
The deeper divide
Rabbi Lewis believes that despite the justifications around getting tattoos, there is something deeper going on when Jews get tattooed.
“Screaming at someone, shouting at the top of your lungs, is a loss of self-control,” says Lewis. “If you have a message you want to say, you don’t have to scream it. If you’re secure in yourself, you don’t have to scream it. That’s the way I see a tattoo. You can’t hear it, but it’s screaming something even louder than you can raise your voice to. You’re taking a message and putting it on your body in a permanent way. Shows you’re not so secure in that message.”
Israeli citizen Simona Kogen, 26, says, “I’m actually against tattoos because I just think it conjures up images of the Holocaust when Jews were forcibly marked. Also, I feel that Jewish thought is against marking your body in that way.”
“However, I know many Jews, and Israeli Jews, that have tattoos and obviously to each his own. It’s your choice,” she says.
Despite this radical movement among young Jews to get religious tattoos, the most radical of Jews, Rabbi Goldstein argues, are not ones with tattoos, dyed hair or piercings, but the ones simply being Jewish. “Some want to be evocative. When they walk into a room, they want people to know they are a proud Jew,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “If you’re really serious about being a Jew, go out and be a Jew. I’m not saying go where a Kippah [yarmulke], but go do Jewish work — do social justice, make Jewish art. Go out and be Jewish in a Jewish way.”
Though not everyone expresses Jewishness in the same way, the divide over tattoos as a form of expression still remains passionately split. But as the trend rises, it may not be long before we see tattoos become the norm among Jews, perhaps even in place of a Star of David charm or a yarmulke on one’s head. The fear has come to center not on the tattoo itself, but on a split between old tradition and new. How will the next generation of Jews express their Judaism? What other laws will be altered?
“I think there is a great dichotomy between the past and present of Jews getting tattooed,” Alamar said. “As far as my Jewish friends go, they all think it is awesome that I have tattoos. They always look at them and study them, like I’m some museum piece. I don’t mind it.” But in front of the grandparents, “I still wear long sleeves. I don’t think it is respectful to them to rub my disregard in their faces.”