Tattoos: a fading taboo
Tattoos are banned by the Torah and have a strong association with the Holocaust. So why are so many younger Jews queuing up at the parlour to get personalised body art? Alex Kasriel investigates
Jews and tattoos have never sat too comfortably together. But this has not stopped legions of young Jews flouting halachah, and, in a growing trend, adorning their skin with body art. The tattoo taboo comes from the Torah. In Leviticus 19:28, it states: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”
Not much room for argument there, then. Yet despite this rule, and the Holocaust-related connotations of tattoos, which were used to brand Jews in the camps, the wider fashion for body art has filtered into Jewish culture — even if it is a sure way to cause a family broiges.
Ruth Eden, 33, an energy therapist, had a rose tattooed at the top of her right thigh when she was 16. “I actually asked the rabbi at Stanmore Synagogue before I went ahead, because people said I wouldn’t be able to have a Jewish burial,” Eden says. “That was a scary thing to hear. The rabbi said he advised against it, but that I could still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
“At the time, of course, it was a massive taboo. But it was a rebellious thing. It was a phase. My family didn’t know at the time. I only told my mum last year, because we were in the changing rooms together. It was too late by that stage for her to get angry. She just shrugged her shoulders.
“Now I’m waiting to have a ‘Chai’ tattooed at the back of my neck. It’s a really powerful symbol to have.”
Thanks to Madonna and the Beckhams and their Semitic skin scrawlings, Hebrew lettering appears currently to be the symbol of choice.
House DJ and Jewish hell-raiser Brandon Block has many Celtic and Chinese designs permanently inscribed on his arms and legs. Seven years ago, he had a “Chai” printed in Hebrew on his back. He had it done while on holiday in Eilat.
“It felt like the right thing to do at the time,” says Block, 32, from Harrow, Middlesex. “We’re not that frum in my family so it’s not a big deal.”
Of course, for some, tattoos are more than just a fashion statement. Danny, 19, a North London art student, had “Shalom” inked in Hebrew on his upper arm during a trip to Tel Aviv earlier this year.
“I was thinking about it for quite a long time,” he says. “Technically I’m Israeli. Jews have a massive connection with Israel and I feel something special towards it. The actual tattoo has more to do with being Israeli than with being Jewish. It’s to remind me of who I am and where I come from.”
Danny’s sister also has “Shalom” written on her lower back. But their tattoo artist, Snir Rozensal, of Vision Tattoos in Tel Aviv, insists that the trend for Hebrew lettering only exists outside of Israel.
“It is very fashionable to get Hebrew letters like Madonna and David Beckham did,” Rozensal says. “The Kabbalah stuff is mystical and people want to be mystical. First it was Chinese lettering, next it will be Kurdish. But Hebrew writing isn’t interesting or exotic for Israelis.
“Tattoos used to be rebellious and only for prostitutes and criminals. But now they’re trendy and everyone gets them.”
Danny is aware that the art form is not yet accepted among the British Jewish community. “I got it in a place where it’s private, so it’s just for me. There are people I don’t want to show the tattoo to because I don’t want to be offensive. I know about the connection with the Holocaust. I know it’s against Jewish belief. At first, when I subtly introduced my mum to it, she wasn’t very keen on the idea. But she respects my reasons.
“The first thing my religious friend did was to try to talk me out of it. Then I explained why I wanted it. Afterwards, she didn’t encourage me, but she understood why I wanted one.”
The death of a parent inspired Chris Hoffman’s body art. The 21-year-old administrative assistant got his tattoos just after he turned 18. His most striking is the large tattoo across his back with angel wings and an inscription which reads “RIP…”. The tattoo, which cost £350 from Eclipse in Camden Town, North London, is in memory of his mother.
“My mum died when I was 12. It shows my love for her. It shows she was an angel. And it’s part of me. She’ll always be with me.
“She might not have liked the tattoo, but the fact that I am working hard and supporting myself would be more important to her. The only person who doesn’t like it too much is my grandmother, but she is a little bit more religious.”
Hoffman also has a dagger bearing the words “Live by the sword” on his lower arm. “It means I fight for what I believe in. Sometimes people see it and just see the big dagger on my arm. They might take it the wrong way.”
He admits that the barcode featuring his date of birth on his upper arm was more of a fashion statement.
“I’m not religious in the slightest,” he says. “But I did hear that when I died, I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. It would be nice to be buried next to my mum.”
Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue insists that this idea is a red herring. “The Bible opposes tattoos partly as a form of skin mutilation and partly because of the sin of idolatry.
“The Nazis branded Jews as part of a deliberate policy of dehumanisation. But the idea that a Jew cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if he has a tattoo is simply nonsense.
“We bury all sorts of people who have committed far worse crimes like being dishonest, deceitful and incestuous. I certainly wouldn’t stop anyone being buried, and I would be very surprised indeed if an Orthodox rabbi would. I regard it as a bit of a non-issue.”
Shimrit Elisar, 31, an Israeli living in North London, got her tattoos to celebrate the completion of her first book — a guide to online dating — published in November. On one arm it bares the banner “Live” and on the other it reads “Tell”.
“I wanted to remember that no matter what I go through in life, I should share it with other people so they can learn from it too. When I finished my book, I realised for the first time that I had a purpose and I wanted to have something to remind myself of that. I had the tattoos done on my arms so that I could always see them.”
Elisar — whose book was inspired by her time working as a marketing manager for an internet dating company in London — had her tattoos done while in San Francisco, the home of the tattoo.
“I wanted to get it done somewhere colourful and exotic. San Francisco has a historic connection to tattoos because it’s a sailor town. The writing is in the Sailor Jerry style. I had it done by a woman — that was significant,” says Shimrit, whose 18-year-old brother Yonatan also has a tattoo, a scorpion on his ankle.
But being Israeli, Elisar and her brother were not troubled by the “mother effect” after getting their skin tattooed. “It’s not such a big issue in Israel,” she says. “There’s quite a lot of tattoos here. My mum thinks they’re great. My family haven’t seen them yet, but they are really secular. If they don’t like it, it will be because they don’t like tattoos, not for religious reasons.”
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen admits that while recent halachic literature does discuss the issue of tattoos and whether one can lay tefillin over them — suggesting allowances can be made for converts to Judaism — he does not see body art as a clever idea.
“Real value lies in something far deeper than tattooing or piercing one’s body,” he writes on his blog. “Their current omnipresence is a sign of our times, and not everything in our times is for the best. When Angelina Jolie’s or Madonna’s or David Beckham’s body decoration becomes the touchstone of society, we are in real trouble.”
Clockwise from left: Amy Winehouse displays her body art; Chris Hoffman, who had his angel-wing tattoo inscribed in memory of his mother, who died when he was 12; and writer Shimrit Elisar, who has a pair of tattoos on her arms saying “live” and “tell”