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Jews with tattoos

Hillel students, professionals debate the ethics of getting inked
by Shana Medel |Oct 04, 2018|Comments

Kyle Frank faces a dilemma: To get inked or not to get inked?

The 21-year-old wants the Hebrew word Hineni (“Here I am”) tattooed on his bicep, but believes his Judaism forbids it.

His parents are dead set against it.

But the tattoo he’s yearning to get would be an expression of his Judaism, he said. He wants to showcase his pride, not fly in the face of his tradition.  

Still, he’s torn.

Frank, a history major at University of Michigan, recently shared his struggle in a d’var Torah at Michigan Hillel on Rosh HaShanah: “Am I just being impulsive? Should I go against my parents’ wishes and disobey a commandment in the Torah? Does the word Hineni mean enough to me to put it on my body permanently?”

Jews with tattoos appear to be a growing trend. Some say the biblical prohibition of “making gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incising any marks on yourselves” has lost its relevance in the modern world.

Walk into any Jewish space and you’re likely to find ink-wearers. Perhaps even the rabbi.

For Lily Coltoff, an American University student who’s active in her Hillel, tattoos are an artistic form of self-expression.

A pair of vibrant red rainboots add a splash of color to her ankle, inspired by a favorite childhood story her mother used to read to her and her older sister. The paper crane inked onto her wrist is a reference to the ancient legend of folding 1,000 paper cranes.

“They show parts of me that I don’t wear so openly,” said Coltoff, a communication studies major. “And they’re conversation starters, a way to connect with others on a deeper level.”

If Coltoff, 20, continues to add to her collection of body art, Jewish-themed tattoos won’t be on the list. She cited Leviticus 19:28 and the notion that permanently marking one’s body dishonors Holocaust victims, whose individual identities were reduced to a number tattooed on their arms.

“Getting tattoos that relate to Judaism rubs me the wrong way,” Coltoff said. “I don’t keep kosher and I don’t observe Shabbat, but that’s where I draw the line.”

Others have crossed that line, including Elyssa Hurwitz, an engagement associate at Greater Portland Hillel. The 24-year-old is reminded of her personal connection to Judaism when she glances at the Hebrew crossword puzzle inked onto her left wrist and the colorful chamsah on her upper left arm.

“I just think God’s going to be excited to see all of my tattoos,” Hurwitz said.

Aesthetics, symbolism and a slight rebellious streak played into Allie’s nine tattoos. The Jewish college student, previously an intern at a Florida Hillel, asked that her last name be withheld because she’s still reluctant to tell some of her Jewish family members about her tattoos.

There’s a small Jewish star behind Allie’s ear, easily concealed by her hair. On the side of her body is a verse from the Book of Isaiah: “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” Her next tattoo will most likely be a chamsah, she said.

Tattoos may be gaining in popularity, but the stigma associated with them hasn’t been stamped out.

Allie, 21, has been able to hide her ink from her more religious family members — even at the beach. Her family will eventually discover her tattoos, she predicted. When that day comes, she’ll be ready to defend her decision.

“Having tattoos doesn’t make me any less Jewish,” said Allie, who identifies as a cultural Jew. “And because of my tattoos, no matter where I go, what I do or who I’m with, being Jewish will always be in the back of my mind.”

Noah Glazier, a 21-year-old political science major at Indiana University, said getting a tattoo nowadays is “a different story than it was 100 years ago.”

Before making his way to a tattoo parlor, Glazier, a member of IU Hillel, asked his rabbi if getting a tattoo would prohibit him from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Nearly every Jewish person has heard the cemetery edict. But it’s an urban myth, said Rabbi Daniel Smokler, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as chief innovation officer for Hillel International.

“The decision about whether or not to get a tattoo should be based on how you live your life, not where you get buried,” Rabbi Smokler said. And for the record, he’s against it.

So is Jesse Slomowitz, 23, an observant Jewish student at the University of Central Florida and member of Central Florida Hillel. The film major believes tattoos are incompatible with the teachings of Jewish tradition. Their growing popularity shouldn’t be a deciding factor in whether to get tatted, Slomowitz said.  

“What Western society likes or does is always changing — there’s nothing consistent for generations to hold onto,” said Slomowitz, who previously studied for two years at an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel. “But the Torah, in my eyes, is truth and it’s the foundation that keeps us Jews together as a nation and in existence.”

Rabbi Joshua Bolton, a senior Jewish educator at Penn Hillel, sports four tattoos, including an outline of the Lion of Judah, based on a design he found in a medieval Jewish text, and an image of him being embraced by the shekinah, a Hebrew word denoting the divine presence of God.

But don’t read his tattoos as a statement that the Torah’s teachings — even its prohibitions — are irrelevant to contemporary mores, stressed Bolton.

“It’s good that there's a Jewish voice calling out to us from across three millennia saying, ‘Thou shalt not enter that tattoo parlor to get that infinity symbol tattooed on your bikini line,’” he said. “The body is sacred and perfect. Nothing could make it more beautiful. We should be careful with it and we should be able to celebrate the decision to leave it unchanged.”


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