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

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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”

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