Posted: Jan 17, 2014 7:00 AM
Some people say that Jews should never get tattoos out of respect to Holocaust survivors. But some Jews do get tattoos, sometimes to honor survivors. So are Jews allowed to get tattoos? The answers to this tricky question are varied and heated; we’ve gathered a few of them.

Jews and tattoos. These two words don't often go together, and there are religious and heart reasons for that. On the heart side, many Jews feel that their ancestors were branded with tattoos in the Holocaust and it would be disrespectful to willingly tattoo their bodies. Also, their mothers (and mine!) told them that they wouldn't be able to be buried in Jewish cemeteries if they have tattoos. Besides, what would the neighbors say?

It turns out that many tattooed Jews are, in fact, buried in Jewish cemeteries. An article in The New York Times says, "[This] is an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time, their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine."

Traditionally, we have a prohibition against gashing the body. Leviticus 19:28 reads: "You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died]. You shall not incise any marks on yourselves."

Even though the cemetery rules might be different than we thought, religiously, there are some thoughts about why Jews and tattoos don't necessarily go together. Erin Polansky, a rabbi at Neshamah Congregation of York Region, explains, "Traditionally, we have a prohibition against gashing the body. Leviticus 19:28 reads: 'You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died]. You shall not incise any marks on yourselves.' It's unclear as to whether this passage outlaws tattoos in general or just those referring to a god in imitation of pagan customs."

Polansky adds, "In considering whether to tattoo one's body, we also have Deuteronomy 4:9 to consider: "Guard yourself and your soul." The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: "'Guard yourself' means taking care of the body and some would argue that tattooing is potentially dangerous to the body, that it desecrates it (think of aging skin with a tattoo on it!) and that the choice of art could be seen as offensive depending on what it is and who is judging."

These thoughts have kept some Jews away from tattoos, but definitely not all. Polansky says, "Jews have always incorporated customs from the surrounding cultures and our laws have evolved to support those incorporations — pierced ears, clothing styles, culinary customs, etc. It's only natural that tattoos would become enticing to Jews as well." She also adds, "A tattoo can be seen as beautifying the body and enhancing God's creation. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder." Many Jews agree.

Our generation is not disrespectful of our heritage, just more blended with modern society and other cultures.

Author, speaker and host of the women's business podcast Lady Business Radio, Jessica Kupferman is one of them. Kupferman says, "My opinion is that if there's something meaningful enough to wear your whole life, by all means, tattoo it. Our generation is not disrespectful of our heritage, just more blended with modern society and other cultures. Younger Jews are less "separate" than our ancestors were and therefore our religious beliefs are as well. I'm hoping by the time I'm buried, Jewish cemeteries will have a section for Jews with tattoos."

Jews and tattoos: Jessica Kupferman

Some Jews have chosen to abandon all of these thoughts and not let them define them. Others get tattoos with a Jewish intention to them. And still, others use tattoos as a way to connect with their ancestors and history. We spoke with four tattooed Jews about their tattoos and what, if anything, is Jewish about them. Their responses are fascinating.

Kupferman says, "I was in New Orleans for spring break and my friends were getting tattoos. I wanted something meaningful so I drew out a chai, the Hebrew letter meaning life, and intertwined a yellow rose for friends and a red rose for love. My mother would later call this — my homage to my heritage and religion — 'the ultimate insult to Judaism.' (Over dramatic, much?)"

Tamara Schane is a San Francisco native who loves nature and design (and combining the two in ink). She practices children's rights law at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

Jews and tattoos: Tamara Schane

Schane says, "I got tattoos because I love nature and wanted flowers that represented my heritage. On my back I have a peony done in a water color style which is popular in Chinese art. My mother was born in China (Shanghai) in 1948. My grandparents met and married in the Shanghai ghetto after fleeing Hitler in Austria and Germany. They luckily went to Shanghai instead of a concentration camp. But those in concentration camps were tattooed with numbers. Getting a peony tattooed on my back was a way of saying there's something beatific that came out of something horrific." For Schane, this served as a way to "take back the tattoo." Schane's second tattoo is of poppies and was also chosen purposefully. Schane says, "After my mom left Shanghai as a baby, she and her parents came to San Francisco, and then Oakland, California, where she grew up. The poppy is California's state flower so it kind of tells the next part of my family's story."

I love our people.
And my love is written all over my body.

Shoshana Kohn is a writer, director, interviewer and the editor of the Jewish VOICE in Delaware. She's also a tattooed Jew.

Jews and tattoos: Shoshana Kohn

Kohn has the Hebrew words Hineini — here I am — tattooed on her right wrist, an idea born from a The New York Times magazine article about grandchildren who get their grandparents' Concentration Camp identity numbers tattooed. The story called out to some as offensive, but to others, like Kohn, it beckoned a following. Kohn explains, "I went to graduate school for Jewish literature and Holocaust studies. However, while in graduate school, I had an epiphany that most of our connection to the Jews who experienced the Holocaust in both our everyday lives and our education had become a death cult. We focus on death. We are bound by death. We connect through death. Do you want your death to define your entire being? The lives of the Jews leading up to the Holocaust were not darkness, gloom and horror. It was rich. It was cultivated, cultured. It was alive with art, music, literature, politics — light. In our journey to never forget, we've forgotten the wonder of life — the wonder of their lives. The placement of Hineini vertically on my right wrist is very purposeful. It's a testament to their lives, not a march to their deaths. Here I am. I am alive. I am a Jew who is proud to be a Jew. A Jew who walks around with Hebrew letters on her arm reminding everyone of my life — our lives — in all their beauty, their horror, their wonder, their strength, their brokenness, their complication, their vitality. I love our people. And my love is written all over my body."

Jason Lambright is a marketing/inside sales & service manager for Redco Foodservice Equipment and a married father of two.

Jews and tattoos: Jason Lambright

Jason says, "As a Jewish male with tattoos (one being my Hebrew name, and my second tattoo being the phrase "My Love" in tribute to my wife, a non-Jew), I obviously have no qualms with other Jews getting tattoos. However, my tattoos are only Hebrew lettering and I feel that this is one of the best accepted methods of getting a tattoo along with any other Jewish symbols. It's a great way to educate and display my ethnicity. For me, it allows Jews to take the practice of tattooing... and turn it into a positive image celebrating our heritage. I am regularly stopped and asked about my tattoos by people's curiosity. It also serves as a beacon to other Jews, much like wearing a kippah, so they are aware, and possibly more comfortable, to approach me knowing that I am a part of the tribe."

In the end...

What struck us most in these (beautiful) tattooed stories is the Jewish intentionality behind them. In maneuvering this, up until now, widely frowned upon practice, many Jews have felt the tug of what they want personally to what their community accepts, and what it doesn't. This thoughtful decision making, though, is exactly what Jewish practice is based upon. Polansky says, "In the end, to tattoo or not to tattoo is a personal choice. But if it is to be a Jewish choice, then one should consider the intent of the tattoo, its placement on the body, the safety to the body and how the tattoo may enhance the holiness of God's already beautiful and superior creation."

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