Lilith Feature

Jews & Tattoos

The day I turned 18 I made an appointment at the first tattoo shop I could find. My aunt accompanied me, and in less than an hour we left with matching om symbols.

When my Jewish grandparents found out, they did not approve. But my feminist Judaism holds that our bodies and their connections to the world are sacred. And so, to embrace our ability to make independent choices for our bodies is sacred—perhaps the most sacred.

I’m not alone. While traditionally, permanent ink on the skin may violate Jewish law, recent years have given rise to a diverse Jewish community that embraces it—some even incorporating it into their Jewish practice, either as a means to honor and celebrate Jewish tradition, or to subvert parts that feel dated. And if you wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, fear not—in a 2002 Lilith article, Charlotte Honigman- Smith debunks the common misconception that tattoos automatically bar Jews from a traditional burial. Yes, tattoos are technically forbidden by halakhah (Jewish law), but a 1998 quote from the Conservative movement confirms, “no sanctions are imposed.”

Still, taboos are hard to overcome for some Jews. The dehumanizing practice of tattooing numbers on the arms of Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps has come to symbolize one of the great traumas of Jewish history. More recently, it was the practice for some Jews in Ethiopia to tattoo a cross on one’s forehead in an effort to disguise Jewish identity and protect against antisemitic violence.

And yet, tattoos have also become a means for healing from trauma—personal or communal—and for taking back control of a body that may have experienced violence at the hands of others or from forces out of one’s control.

Whether it’s a full sleeve of biblical figures or a small flower on an ankle, every tattoo has a story to tell.

– Arielle Silver-Willner

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