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Hebrew Tattoos

February 9, 2010

I stumbled across a site today called and found this thread/article on non-Jews getting Hebrew tattoos. This particular thread asks if it’s “stupid” to get a Hebrew tattoo if you’re not Jewish.

Ignoring the fact that most of the people commenting on the thread are closed minded, ridiculous or just flat out wrong, the question of Hebrew tattoos is an interesting one for both Jews and non-Jews. Suffice it to say that no, in no way is it stupid to get a Hebrew tattoo if you’re not Jewish. First of all, Hebrew does not belong to Jews alone, the old testament is part of the Christian faith as well, but even that is beside the point.  Tattoos are about personal expression; if a particular Hebrew phrase has meaning for you enough to have it tattooed on you, then by all means, go for it. People get Japanese and Chinese kanji tattoos.  People get Buddhist  scripture tattoos; I have seen Sanscrit, Thai language tattoos, Tibetan and Nepalese language tattoos, Celtic tattoos, Hindu tattoos, Arabic and Farsi tattoos, and on and on.

Being a Jew myself, before I got my first tattoo, I looked into the supposed prohibition against tattoos in the Jewish faith. Ignoring for the moment that although certain specific cemeteries may choose to interpret the Torah’s prohibitions against tattoo to preclude burial in Jewish cemeteries, the notion that there is some sort of bright line rule against burying tattooed Jews in Jewish cemeteries is simply religious urban mythology run amok.  Furthermore, and just to be clear, this is strictly my own personal feeling on the matter, but on my list of life concerns the location of my burial site comes in a few slots behind what happened on the last episode of Hannah Montana.

My irreverence with respect to the burial issue is merely emblematic of one facet of my philosophy about tattoo as well as my personal ideology, but I fully recognize and indeed am curious to learn about the panoply of philosophies permeating the cultural dialog at the intersection of tattoo culture and Jewish culture.

I had a pretty typical conservative (some might say reform) Jewish upbringing, celebrating Jewish holidays, attending Hebrew school and being Bar Mitzvahed at 13, after which I refused to attend any further religious education. For reasons that have been revealed to me over the years, the religiosity is something that just never clicked for me. I went to College at UCLA where I majored in American Literature. I later received my JD from UC Hastings College of the Law and have been a practicing attorney since 2007.  If there is a common thread to be taken from my background, it’s that I have been skeptical, analytical and argumentative since I could form complete sentences.  It is these characteristics that brought lead me, in my quest for self discovery, to atheism, which for me, in many ways shares a kinship with my interest in tattoo.

I struggled with religion for many years after my Bar Mitzvah, all the way through college, when on my occasions I consulted the Rabbi and UCLA’s Chabad.  But in the end, as it is for many people, it was the intellectual environment of college and my proclivity for critical thinking the allowed me to ultimately accept what I had been struggling with since my first year of Hebrew school when I privately counseled myself about the implausibility of many of the old testament stories we learned about.  It wasn’t that I decided not to believe, it was more the realization that I never truly believed.  Make no mistake though, I cherish my Jewish heritage; it played a significant role in shaping the person I am today. To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone their sense of spiritualism, but I believe that my personal beliefs are integrally linked to my editorial voice, and for this reason I choose to share it with you all.

So what does this have to do with my choice to get tattooed?  Simply put, atheism opened the door the acceptability of turning my back on my cultural programming.  I have always been aesthetically motivated.  Over the years I have enjoyed drawing and painting in my spare time, I have worked as a graphic designer here and there and I ever attended a year of industrial design school before selling out to do something “practical” like go to Law School (gimme a break! you can’t escape ALL of your cultural programming).

Consequently, tattoos have always appealed to me, but I never really considered getting one until my younger brother had gotten into it and started talking to me about tattoo art and culture.  Even then I didn’t pull the trigger until I was 28, when I decided to express my longstanding love for Japanese aesthetic by getting a 1/2 sleeve from Japanese tattoo specialist Paul Dhuey of Guru Tattoo in San Diego.  In retrospect a half sleeve might have been a bit aggressive for a first tattoo, but fortunately for me I love it and am totally hooked.  I have since added a pair of humming birds on my stomach with plans to add to that piece, extend my ½ sleeve into a ¾ sleeve and add a complementary ¾ sleeve on my left arm.

Tattoo is a path I have been walking since I could speak, but was only able to commit to 4 years ago.  It is a physical manifestation of my aesthetic sensibilities, a rejection of the “old rules,” an invitation to judgment from the world, and in no way incompatible with my relationship with my Jewish heritage.

One Comment leave one →
  1. jamie summers permalink
    February 9, 2010 8:00 pm

    i am not racist against anyone but i think only jews should get jewish tattoos and thats cuz i also think it is stupid when white people get like japanese or chinese tats

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