Standing in line while waiting for fresh towels on one of my first visits to the Sabes JCC, I couldn’t help but notice the Hebrew writing tattooed on the back of the neck of the woman in front of me. Interesting, I thought.
A few days later, my eyes were drawn to the tattoos on the young mother dropping off her children at the Jewish camp my son attends. Also interesting, I mused.
One evening soon after, my college friend and her family came over for dinner, and I saw her Jewish husband was sporting a bright green tattoo on his ankle. Must have been a drunken college dare, I assumed.
And then I met with a local Jewish human resources professional, and as she leaned over to grab a job description off of the printer, I saw her large, Jewish-themed tattoo on her lower back.
I finally realized perhaps this wasn’t coincidence. My fellow TC Israelites are inked, and proud of it. I grew up believing Jews with tattoos couldn’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and tattoos were taboo for Jews due to the horrible permanent marks the Nazis made on those in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Why are so many young Jews brandishing body art here in MSP, I wondered. So I decided to go straight to the source and ask some local tattooed Jews why they decided on this particular kind of self-expression.
Why they did it
I chatted first with Ian Schwartz, a 27-year-old married social media strategist/marketer who currently lives in St. Paul but was raised in St. Louis Park. He boasts 11 tattoos, ranging from nautical stars on his shoulder, to his lucky number 7 written in Japanese on his left forearm, to the lyrics “when one makes 20 million dollars, 10,000 people lose” written backwards on his chest.
He got his first tattoo as a young teenager, without parental permission.”At first, my mom was disgusted” with his tattoos, he says, but he’s “always done his own thing, so eventually she accepted it.” Ian never really thought about whether or not, as a Jew, he should tattoo his body – “I just kind of shrugged it off.” He admits however, to “covering them up around his grandmother.”
Similarly, the other four JWT (Jews with tattoos) I spoke with for this story chose the location of their tattoos carefully, all making sure the tattoos could be hidden under clothing if so desired. Andrea, a 24-year-old married resident of Minnetonka who works in a copy center, had the popular, romantic Hebrew phrase from the Song of Songs ani l’dodi v’dodi li (I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me) inked on her back. She had to make sure the tattoo would not be visible at her wedding, however, because “my mom wouldn’t pay for my dress otherwise,” she says with a laugh.
Andrea’s other two tattoos adorn her feet. Her first foray into body art was another phrase written in Hebrew on the outside of her left foot that says “Live Laugh Love.” She decided two years ago to get this first tattoo because a lot of her friends were getting them, she says, and she found them interesting.
Her parents and husband don’t mind her tattoos, but she’s not sure if her grandpa knows. “If he has, he hasn’t mentioned them.” She doesn’t believe that Jews can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries so that “eased her mind.”
Tammy, the 36-year-old Jewish HR professional, has five tattoos. “You can’t just have one,” she insists. On her hip she sports a fairy, “not like Tinkerbell,” and on her foot she has has a rose, the logo of her dance team. Peek at her back and you’ll see a dolphin, a sea turtle (she thought she wanted to be a marine biologist), and a large tree of life image with the Star of David and a Chai. The Jewish tattoo was her gift to herself when she became bat mitzvah at the age of 33.
“I’m convinced I have selective hearing because I didn’t know that Jews aren’t supposed to get tattoos until someone pointed it out to me after the fact, ” she says sheepishly. But, “I’m a good person regardless of my tattoos, and in the scheme of things (the tattoos) don’t affect anything.”
Her parents have been very supportive of her permanent markings ever since she got her first tattoo with her best friend when she was in her early 20s. “I don’t remember why we did it, but we did everything together.”
A parent herself, Laurie, a 40-year-old mother of two, preschool music teacher and West Metro resident, has a tattoo that represents her children. “They are my sun and my moon,” she says, pointing to the tiny art on her chest she got two year ago. She also has a butterfly tattoo on her hip.
“Someday the nurses in the nursing home will see my tattoos and say, ‘Damn, this woman had fun,'” she says with a gleam in her eye. The tattoos aren’t for anyone else but me, she adds. Her family, including her 13- and 10-year old children, “frankly don’t care” about her body art.
Lonny Goldsmith, a 35-year-old journalist from Plymouth, is also married with two small children. His green Michigan State University logo inked onto his inside left ankle is about “two times the size my wife would have liked it to be” but she’s still been supportive of his tattoo. A 30th birthday present from his brother, Lonny decided to get a tattoo because he was always “intrigued by his brother’s tattoo and tattoos in general.” A sports fan and native of Detroit, he was hesitant to get a professional sports team logo because franchises often move. However, “your alma mater is always your alma mater, ” he explains.
It’s addicting…but doesn’t it hurt?
Lonny, along with Ian, Andrea, and Tammy, would all like at least one more tattoo. “You kind of get hooked on it,” Lonny explains. “Just like coffee and the ocean, there’s something about the smell of the ink” that’s very appealing, Tammy adds. Ian insists “you get a euphoric rush” when you get a tattoo.
What about that pain factor, I wonder. From what my interviewees say, the pain of the tattoo needle is more intense depending on how large the tattoo is and where the tattoo is located. For example, Tammy’s large Jewish tattoo on her back didn’t hurt as much as one might think: “The whole area just went numb,” she says. Andrea’s small toe flower tattoo felt like “it took an hour” even though it didn’t, and Lonny’s tattoo was more painful when it was directly on his ankle bone than on the “fleshly, muscle part” of his leg.
Reclaiming Jewish body art
So why are tattoos so popular with the TC Jewfolk? Was I just noticing Jews with tattoos because I started looking for them, or is there more to the story?
“Minnesota can be odd and puritanical, with liquor stores closed on Sunday, but is fairly progressive socially,” Lonny points out. The Twin Cities can be very liberal, adds Tammy. “What we want, we go after.” And MSP boasts some of the best tattoo artists in the country, Ian says. None of the folks with whom I spoke were concerned that more traditional Jewish teachings didn’t support permanently altering one’s body; “it’s just like getting your ears pierced” was a popular refrain.
Plus, notes Andrea, “this generation is not set in the ‘old’ ways. People are more willing to express themselves.” Ian agrees.”Times are changing, people are evolving, (tattoos are) less of a concern, more of an expression. The Nazi party tarnished a lot of beliefs. The swastika at one point was a symbol of protection.”
Just like the GLBT community has reclaimed the word “queer,” perhaps the young Jewish community of MSP is reclaiming tattooing, as a way to “take back” something that was once used for horrific reasons. These Jews are using body art to express themselves and oftentimes, their love of Judaism.