I remember one of my Jewish women friends telling me in tears about how her 20-something son got a tattoo (the first time). He did it without telling her, knowing she would be horrified and view the act as a betrayal against their religion. She did. There were many tears and screams. The two have gotten through it okay, but it took my friend awhile to find any kind of peace with this.
This past week, a colleague of mine, another Jewish mom, told me with sadness about her 18-year-old son coming home recently with a tattoo. While she was (somewhat) touched he chose a symbol to honor his deceased grandfather, she couldn’t help but feel that her son crossed a Jewish line. “It’s hard to put into words exactly what upsets me,” she confessed, “but I do worry he may be a little less connected to his Jewish heritage, or that the tattoo may be some kind of deal breaker for what could have been a future Jewish wife.”
All around the country Jewish parents and their grown-up children are having heated discussions around tattoos; the fact is, 40 percent of Americans age 26 to 40 have a tattoo now, according to Pew Research.
What’s the exact problem here? It depends on whom you ask. Some parents consider it against the Jewish law, referring to Leviticus 19:29, which states “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” Others find it, if not unlawful, then extremely disrespectful to the Jewish community. Some find it low-class, and plenty of parents just worry it’s an impulsive bad decision that will last a lifetime.
Here’s what’s fascinating: Many young Jews are getting tattoos as ways to solidify and strengthen their feelings of Jewish identity. They are choosing tattoos of a Biblical quote, Hebrew word, or Jewish symbol, such as a hamsa or Star of David. An increasing number of young Jews are even having the Holocaust number of a deceased relative tattooed on their forearm. Can tattoos make a young Jewish person more connected to their religion?
This question is creating a tremendous amount of discussion and controversy, and questions about what this latest trend means for the Jewish people. That’s why 614, the online magazine of the HBI, decided to devote the Jan/Feb issue to “Jews and Tattoos.” We hope you’ll read through the collection of essays, see where you stand, and join the conversation.
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. Additionally, she is the author of I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms (Seal Press, 2012) and I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You: A new understanding of mother-daughter conflict (Viking, 2012), as well as the filmmaker of “Seeking Happily Ever After” and “One and Only”. Visit michellecove.com.