COVER STORY: Tattooed Jews — Despite prohibitions and censure, some wear Jewish symbols as bad

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Riqi Kosovske did it to mark a life transition.

Sean Farnan did it out of pride.

Avrille Polack did it to confirm her identity.

Scott Shiff did it because it would mean something to him forever.

And it will. It’s permanent. It’s a tattoo, and no matter how big, how small, how artistic or how Jewish a symbol it is, what these Bay Area Jews have done is forbidden by Jewish law.

The law that makes tattoos taboo for Jews is Leviticus 19:28, which states: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

It’s the second half of this passage that’s critical, according to Rabbi Judah Dardik of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland.

“Judaism has always seen our bodies as a gift from God. You should use your body as a house for your soul. It’s given to us on loan, and if you lease a car, you try to keep it in good shape for return,” says Dardik. “We should treat the body [well] and keep it in as good shape as possible. That’s part of the philosophical idea of it.”

Regardless, many committed Jews are marking their flesh, and even using Jewish symbols to do so.

With tattoo parlors dotting boulevards and main streets in cities across the Bay Area, bodily markings are no longer the insignia of skid-row types, bikers or sailors. They have entered the mainstream, and their popularity is undeniably growing. A Harris Poll released last year estimates that 36 percent of people ages 25 to 29 have at least one tattoo. In 2002, Esquire Magazine estimated that one in eight Americans was tattooed.

The reasons Jews are getting tattooed are as varied as the designs they proudly — and often defiantly — display.

Riqi Kosovske, 35, a third-year rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, has a hamsa tattooed on her ankle. A Middle Eastern and Jewish good-luck symbol featuring an open hand, the marking epitomizes her conflict between traditional Judaism and creative, expressive spirituality.

It’s also a constant reminder of her struggle.

When she got the tattoo, she was leaving freewheeling Berkeley and her life as a Jewish educator for a new beginning in Israel and rabbinical school.

“Something about the hamsa feels very connected to me,” adds Kosovske, who is now a student rabbi at Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley. “I wanted some kind of proof to myself that what I was going through was a real spiritual struggle, that it wasn’t some little phase…

“Marking that permanently spoke to me. When the pain goes away, you have something beautiful,” she says.

Beautiful, yes, but at the same time, because she is training to be a rabbi, there is a part of her that is ambivalent about it. “There are many things in the Torah that I don’t agree with 100 percent or don’t fit with me,” she says. “You really have to check in with yourself and check in with God.

Others take a more defiant stand toward the Leviticus decree.

Scott Shiff, 32, doesn’t believe in God, so the law means little to him. Raised in a Reform household in the San Fernando Valley, the San Francisco resident decided to get a chai tattooed on his shoulder as an act of solidarity with Israel and also because it’s a symbol of good luck and life. But he’s also a proud Jew.

“I’m so proud to be Jewish I wear it on me permanently,” he says.

Avrille Polack doesn’t regret getting her three tattoos, but the 33-year-old Oakland resident is not sure she’d get them now. She’s in the midst of studying with the Conservative movement for conversion to Judaism.

“I can’t say that I felt a sense of disapproval or that I’ve done something wrong,” says the member of Temple Beth Abraham. “I feel like if I’m doing the things that are the most spiritually right things I can be doing … and the rest is very secondary.”

But it’s not just Leviticus 19:28 that gives tattoos a bad name in Judaism; there are some other taboos associated with bodily marking.

Many Jews believe a tattoo will keep them from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. That’s a myth, Dardik says, that doesn’t seem to go away.

At least two Bay Area Jewish burial facilities have no policy against burying a tattooed Jew in their hallowed ground.

Home of Eternity in Oakland does not have an anti-tattoo policy, and Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco has “never had an issue with it,” according to its executive director, Gene Kaufman.

“I’ve never been told by a rabbi that it can’t be done,” Kaufman says.

In fact, Kaufman’s daughter, Nina, the teen director for Camp Tawonga, has tattoos all over her body.

“It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me,” Kaufman says. “I think tattoos are a growing phenomenon.”

Says Nina: “For me, it’s totally an art form. It’s not about rebellion; it’s about your body as a canvas.”

Many older Jews don’t see it that way.

Since World War II, some think getting a tattoo disgraces the memory of the Holocaust and its survivors. Sean Farnan, however, defies that thinking. He has a Holocaust memorial tattoo on his chest: a Star of David with “Jude” written in the middle, all engulfed by flames.

“A lot of people see that and they’re really offended,” the 34-year-old Oakland resident says. “It’s a real personal thing for me. I’m really fascinated by the Holocaust.”

While Farnan, a network engineer, obviously doesn’t walk around with his shirt off advertising his tattoo, he does have a sense of provoking thought among those who see it.

Farnan shows it off proudly when he sings with his band Jewdriver, a sort of Jewsploitation punk band. “It makes you think,” he says. “I want to be reminded — as if I would ever forget — but it reminds people around me, too.

“It would be really stupid for me to get this tattoo as a mockery of all our people have gone through. But sometimes people take it that way, but that’s their prerogative.”

Scott Shiff has heard that, too, from people who tell him tattoos are a slap in the face to survivors. He disagrees vehemently.

“I got a Jewish tattoo because my feelings are I will never hide my Judaism from anybody,” Shiff says.

The Holocaust inspired Steve Abern to get a tattoo, too. In 1978, he participated in the famous Skokie, Ill., counter-demonstration against an American Nazi march in the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb.

“All these old women and old men peeled back their sleeves and showed their tattoos from the camps. It was really poignant.”

Galvanized by the survivors’ defiance, Abern, 46, got his Social Security number tattooed on his forearm.

“It made [the Holocaust] real to me,” says Abern, who sees his tattoo as a memorial.

Now Abern’s son, who is studying for his bar mitzvah at Berkeley’s Kehillah Community Synagogue, wants a similar tattoo. His daughter, Rachel, got hers in July on her 18th birthday. She thinks her dad’s tattoo is “pretty bold. I admire him for getting it.”

You can’t talk about Jewish people and tattoos without relating to the Holocaust, agrees Andy Abrams, a former Bay Area writer and filmmaker now living in Los Angeles. “The fact that so many Jews were forcibly tattooed is a painful memory that restrains many Jews from getting a tattoo even today,” Abrams, 34, writes on his Web site, Kosher Hollywood.

Abrams and Justin Dawson, 30, another former Bay Area resident, confront that issue head-on in a documentary and book they’re working on, “Tattoo Jew,” in which they interviewed dozens of Jews, many with Jewish-themed tattoos and many in the Bay Area.

“There are people I have interviewed for whom it is an important political statement to be a Jewish person with a tattoo, particularly one with a Jewish theme. It takes a painful memory and turns it into Jewish pride. It reclaims our bodies symbolically,” Abrams writes. “It is a way for some to honor the tragedy their grandparents or parents experienced. It is a way to emphatically say ‘Never again.'”

One who has taken an extreme critique of Judaism’s view of the body — and women — is avant-garde British performance artist Marisa Carnesky, who explores tattooing, the desecration of the body, Lilith, the Holocaust and gender politics in a solo show she calls the Jewish Tattooess. In part of the show, which had its U.S. debut at UCLA recently, she outlines a Star of David on her navel with a tattoo gun.

“In a bizarre way, this show has made me think more about my identity. Tattoos have made me more Jewish,” the heavily tattooed and pierced 32-year-old told the Pasadena Weekly.

William Masback sees his tattoo as symbolizing the war on prejudice. As a teenager, he became entrenched in a hardcore, non-racist skinhead group in suburban New York. When he turned 18, he got a tattoo of a hammer crushing a swastika and words declaring “Smash racism.”

Now living in San Francisco, the 33-year-old Masback says the tattoo is a symbol of his “general distaste for people who are comfortable in hating somebody simply because of the blood that flows through their veins.”

When Jews get tattoos, some grapple with more than halachah and a little pain. Telling their parents — especially their Jewish mothers — is a whole different challenge.

When Masback’s mother saw his tattoo, she was inconsolable. While he tried to explain its message, she said, “But Billy, it’s a swastika!” and threatened to stop paying for his education.

“She still hasn’t adjusted to it,” says Masback.

“My mother is deeply offended by tattoos … She thinks it’s disgusting.”

With so-called “nice” Jewish girls and boys getting discreet roses on the ankle or hamsas on the arm, tattoos seem to have lost much of their shock value. But at some point, those “nice” Jewish girls and boys will be Jewish moms and dads, and grandmas and grandpas…with tattoos.

Although it’s expensive and can be painful, getting rid of those “permanent” tattoos is now possible using lasers, although small discolorations or scars may remain.

Some opt for henna or temporary tattoos, although some halachic authorities might object if the tattoos last for more than a week. (Oddly enough, Dover Publications once offered “Jewish Holiday Tattoos,” a booklet of temporary tattoos aimed for kids ages 4 to 8. The title has since been discontinued.)

Shiff, who lived in Israel for a while after college, says, “Quite frankly, more and more these days lots of Jews are getting tattoos, and lots of Israelis are getting tattoos.”

That reality prompted Michael Lerner, a 42-year-old New York-born Jew who made aliyah to Israel in 1985 to start an anti-tattoo “crusade” on his Web site, Tattoos are Not for Jews,

As a reservest in the Israeli army, “I was surprised to see how many of the younger soldiers had tattoos. When I was young, the only people who had tattoos were sailors and motorcycle gang members,” writes Lerner, who is not related to Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, on his site.

“I am the first one to admit that there are more pressing problems facing the Jewish people [but] I felt that part of the problem was that many Jews were just following the latest fad.”

Last year, the Knesset passed a law requiring Israeli minors to get parental consent before getting a tattoo — a result, Lerner says, of his anti-tattoo campaign.

Fad or not, Rachel Abern said one reason she wanted a tattoo is that many of her friends were getting them. “I think they look cool,” she says.

But it was a vision in a dream she had about a year ago — a tree of life whose roots spell out adamah (Hebrew for “earth”) — that led her to tattoo her lower back.

Although she feels a bit conflicted, the tattoo holds deep meaning for the first-year student at Lewis and Clark University in Oregon.

“I don’t think it should be [against Jewish law]. I understand it, but … it felt like a message to me.”

Many of Kendra Lubalin’s Jewish peers question her decision to get the Shehechiyanu tattooed on her thigh. But the San Francisco resident sees her tattoo as representing a melding of two sides to her personality: a self-described “fem dyke” and a Jewish educator at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.

The tattoo, which she got two years ago on her 30th birthday, became a celebration of accepting herself as whole — both her Judaism and her self-identity.

And, like Dardik’s description of the body as a gift from God, Lubalin says, “I try to look for a deeper message, that my body is a gift, and it was given to me to cherish and to live in and to really experience.

“I feel in a way that I am following the law, though I can see there are people I work with who do disagree.”

Kosovske the rabbinical student isn’t too worried about people disagreeing with her decision to get a hamsa tattoo on her ankle or feeling like she has to conceal it. It’s going to show, she figures, and if people question her about it, she will give them a straight answer.

“I want people to ask about it and let them know that there is a potential conflict with Judaism. The Torah is pretty clear; don’t get a tattoo.”

But she’s pretty clear that it fits in with the kind of rabbi she wants to become. “I sort of see myself as always having a job to sort of shake people up a bit,” she laughs.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.