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Jan 17 2011

Just Another Jew with a Tattoo

By at 2:02 pm

The other morning Frieda, my 2 year old, asked to see “Mommy’s sunshine.” I lifted up my pant leg and showed her.  My sunshine is my tattoo.

Yes, I am a Jew with a tattoo.  And no, Jews do not traditionally get tattoos. (Although the practice has become so common that the New York Times published an article about it a couple of years ago.)

Leviticus 19:28 states that “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” Scholars over the years have suggested that this prohibition was an attempt to separate Jews from other ancient religions that used tattoos, and that we should not permanently mark our bodies, which were created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God).  I know all of this, and yet I don’t regret my tattoo.

I’m not a halachic Jew, and I neither pretend nor aspire to be one. I drive on Shabbat. My Rabbi is a woman. I think gay and lesbian Jews should have the same rights and opportunities as other Jews. Sometimes I even wear linen and wool together–you know, just for funsies. But I digress.

That I have a tattoo is not of concern to me. The question is, how will I explain it to my daughters? I guess I could go with the good old “Do what I say, not what I do” but quite frankly, that’s just lame. I could point to my tattoo as yet a terrible outcome of being raised in a secular home, except I don’t believe it. I don’t see my tattoo as a relic of a problematic childhood or misspent youth.

I can attribute many of my life choices to my values and beliefs. I can tell my daughters that we don’t eat pork or shellfish because observing kashrut brings Judaism into our lives every day as we choose our meals. I can explain that I use the phone on Shabbat because keeping in touch with family and friends who live far away is a greater mitzvah to me than not using technology on the Sabbath.

But how do I explain the tattoo, such a blatant violation of Jewish law?

I guess I’ll have to be honest. I just wanted it. I think tattoos are cool. And hot. (My favorite tattooed Jew is Ami James, of Miami Ink fame.) My sunshine is particularly meaningful to me. It’s based on the Zia symbol, which is most commonly found on the New Mexico state flag. I was born in Santa Fe, and I feel a strong connection to my birthplace. My sunshine, however, is a six-pointed star, which I find interesting given that I got my tattoo long before Judaism became an important part of my life.

Judaism acknowledges the importance of beauty in our lives. The enhancement of ritual objects is known as hiddur mitzvah, and while I know the Rabbis weren’t talking about tattoos, I think mine is beautiful. Sometimes we do things just because we want to, or because we think they make the world, or ourselves, a little prettier. I don’t need to explain those ideas to my daughters–they don’t need help remembering such basic truths that we grown-ups can so easily lose sight of. And I’m ok if my daughters decide to get a tattoo.  When they’re 40 years old and have already gotten their doctorates, found their life partners, and given me at least three grandchildren each.


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9 Responses to Just Another Jew with a Tattoo

  1. Ron says:

    I think the Biblical mandate is there to remind the world, and the children of Israel, that we have a common identity. We are commanded to regard the bodies we are given as a loan from the creator, and not to show disrespect for this most precious item.

  2. Hope says:

    Allowing freedom of expression is the best lesson you can share with your daughters. Another great piece. Your girls are very lucky to have you as their mom.

  3. Daniela says:

    How about ear piercing? Are you going to allow that? I always thought that if I had girls, it would be a ‘gift’ for their bat mitzvah. But, alais, i have two boys…. so maybe I’ll allow it for their bar mitzvahs …. ; )

    • Carla says:

      Daniela – I think pierced ears on little girls are so damn cute that if it weren’t for the plethora of grandparents and great-grandparents that would FREAK OUT if I did it (and the fact that I think the girls should have the right to choose for themselves), I would have pierced them on day 8. Like a bris, but hipster. :)

  4. Anna says:

    Not getting a tattoo is one of those things I’ve always felt rather strongly about as a Jew. (Just for myself, not for others.) But I’m 100% sure that’s because I’ve never really wanted one. Goodness knows, there’s no reason it rises in importance above other laws I, like you, choose not to agree with or follow. Though as a tattoo free mom, I reserve the right to play the “jewish cemetery” card with my kids down the road. Because, frankly, I assume I’ll need all the cards I can get. :)

  5. Sara says:

    I think the biggest difference for a Jew with a tattoo is the social stigma of tattoos being placed on Jews vs the other things that we do ourselves that might be going against the fray. With all the rejection of traditional practices or law, I think this particular taboo still holds ground in the collective subconscious. I am an observant Jew but religious law isn’t what made me avoid getting inked but the connotation to tattooed Jews in particular.

  6. michelle says:

    So, instead of the flower lady, why not show us your “sun”????

  7. Josette says:

    I am so glad to hear that the Jewish graveyard thing is an urban myth! My mom found out about my tattoo several years ago when I was shopping for wedding dresses with her. She gave me that disappointed look and repeated it. I’ve been considering getting another one…

  8. I have two tattoos, and while I’m not totally in love with one of them anymore, I don’t regret it. My parents were surprisingly sanguine about it when I told them, which amused me because it took me a looooong time to work up the nerve to tell them. They aren’t even that religious! I guess watching all of their daughters marry outside the tribe lowered their expectations… LOL.

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