I used to do a double-take if I saw a woman with “sleeves,” tattoos all the way up and down her arms. A neck tattoo was something you might see if you visited a prison, nowhere else. But now it is a part of my daily rhythm to interact with employable, contributing members of society who seem to be covered from (very nearly) head to toe in body art
Aside from an apparent tolerance to needles, you’d think that one thing these tattooed individuals have in common is that they’re not Jews. You’d be wrong.
While we’ve all grown up hearing that a tattoo will bar you from burial in a Jewish cemetery, that collective wisdom is not actually true. Also, while the Torah teaches that “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves,” Jews seem to be tiptoeing away from this admonition, treating it more like a suggestion. A suggestion from a well-meaning, but hopelessly out-of-touch great aunt.
Numbers are hard to come by, but it seems that every few months another Jewish celebrity is sporting ink or a new batch of Israeli teens take to Instagram to show off their tats.
A knee-jerk response would be to recoil or at least let out an exasperated, “Oy! Kids these days!” But that would be giving only skin-deep thought to this interesting trend. Among the types of tattoos adorning younger Jews are Hebrew phrases, Jewish symbols and—incredibly—the very numbers that their survivor grandparents were branded with in concentration camps.
The play “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon uses [spoiler alert] such a “never forget” tattoo as a powerful crescendo in an emotionally charged story about identity, the future of Judaism and the lingering effects of tragedy. That a tattoo can make an entire theater weep speaks of the power that forced ink still has on our collective psyche. We don’t really abstain from tattooing ourselves because the Torah tells us not to or because it will complicate our funeral arrangements. We do it because the Nazis branded our people as though they were cattle.
By making the conscious choice to wear a permanent memorial to these horrors, the descendants of Holocaust survivors commandeered what was supposed to be a humiliation and turned it into the ultimate symbol of defiance and survival. I can definitely get behind that.
Now, I am not about to get a tattoo (relax, Mom), but the trend of “never forget” tattoos and the proliferation of Hebrew words on flesh have greatly changed my perspective about what it means to be a Tattooed Jew. I get it. (I mean, I’m not “getting it,” I merely understand it. Seriously, Mom, relax.)
I’ve come to see tattooing as a legitimate and deeply personal art form. Often the art is quite beautiful or provocative. But even when people ink corporate logos or cartoon characters into their flesh, they are making personal (and sometimes winking) statements about who they are and what they care about.
Clearly, this is art. As Jews have always been inspiring creators and engaged consumers of art, it makes sense for us to join this artistic conversation as it enters the mainstream. Even the act of flouting Jewish custom is—at its core—super-Jewy. We question old ways, we challenge assumed norms. That’s what being Jewish is. Doing these things while expressing ourselves artistically, what could be more Jewish?
That said, I feel the need to reiterate: Mom, I am not getting a tattoo. Well, maybe a small one. Kidding!
Stay tuned for a response to this article from Rabbi Eliezrie in next month’s issue
Mayrav SAAR IS a contributing writer to JLife magazine.