An Orthodox Jew with a Tattoo

When I was 18 years old, before I knew anything about Orthodox Judaism, I got two tattoos. It was the thing to do – I was in college and a bunch of my friends were doing it. As well as the fact that it was an excellent opportunity to upset my parents. I didn’t know that halacha said you are not allowed to get tattoos, I wouldn’t have known what halacha was anyway.

As the years went by, and I became frum, it was a problem. One of the tattoos is in a place where no one sees it, but the other is on my ankle. I had three options – get it removed, either cover it up all the time, or deal with Orthodox Jews seeing (and possibly commenting on) my tattoo.

I didn’t have the money or the pain tolerance to get it removed (yes, it hurt a lot to have it put on, but I didn’t care – for the reasons stated above). So that wasn’t really an option.

For a long time, I always kept my ankles covered. In the summer, I wore socks with my tennis shoes, never braving sandals. When I wore shorter skirts, with stocking, I always put a Band-Aid over my tattoo. I didn’t want it to be so obvious that I was a BT. And I didn’t want to endure the comments and judgments that I knew would be hurled at me when people caught glimpse of it.

But after a couple years, it got hot always wearing socks in the summer. And I got tired of having to always be stocked up on Band-Aids. I started allowing my tattoo to show.

I reasoned that if someone judged me for it – that was his or her problem. To me, my tattoo was a statement of how far I have grown in my life. It shows where I came from, something I am not ashamed of. And it shows that I have made huge changes in my life to get to where I am today.

So now my tattoo shows on many occasions, and while it isn’t something I show off, it isn’t something I hide either. To me, that tattoo is part of me, and is a symbol of the journey I traveled to arrive at the place I am today.

30 comments on “An Orthodox Jew with a Tattoo

  1. Great post. I myself am also a BT and have quite a number of tattoos. I get stares all the time at the mikvah etc. Although sometimes it works in my favor when it’s very packed and they tend to give me room. I personally am self conscious about it considering I’ve been dating and am trying to get married. It would be ideal that others recognize the lengths I have come. Some do others do not. I find that most of the time words do not correlate to actions.

  2. It was such a relief to read your story because I felt I was the only one. I’m a Dutch Jew and I became observant before I went to university. In High School I wasn’t popular and became a loner. One of the few friends I had also got the wonderful idea to get a tattoo by hand because his dad also had tattoos. After we had done this I regretted it. It was removed by laser in one treatment because it wasn’t deep at all.
    It is also very annoying that many non-Jewish people I know don’t understand my problem. Most reactions I get are something like this: ‘If you wanted to get a tattoo you should have gone to a professional artist.’
    After such a reaction I always tell them that in Judaism it is wrong to have your body mutilated either way ‘professionally’ or not.

  3. If I recall correctly, an touching story about a tattooed Jew in a mikvah appears in the beginning of Hanoch Teller’s “It’s a Small Word.”

  4. When I was in Yeshiva in Israel in Bat Ayin I would go to the mikvah regularly. It was unbelievable how many of the chassidic men of BA, obviously Chozer B’Teshuva, had tatoos.

  5. I have heard recently that in Eretz Yisra-l there are frum communities that stick by each other living within certain streets…..the address becomes a “Uniform”…certain types of Frummers live here….another type live there….if one frum lady is sitting in a park wearing something that isn’t tsniyut enough ( in someones opinion) the former will be called a “prostitute” !

    I believe that some of our Jewish brothers and sisters have really lost the plot.

    I admire that you do not hide who you were…..as a Rabbi once told me ….” it’s where you are now that matters ”

    You may …in time….feel that as you grow spiritually I Y H….that having a tattoo is no longer “you”…..or you may find yourself reaching out to a non observant Jew…and the fact that you have an ankle tattoo may impress her enough to take you a little more seriously.

    There are far worse things that BT’s have done before becoming frum……..but that’s not where we are right now.

  6. Ralphie-

    I actually read that freshman year [mid becoming frum] for my women & religion class. I actually was not such a fan of the way Orthodox Jews were portrayed in that book, but then again maybe that was because I was in a class where traditional religion was an open target for attack, mainly for being anti-feminist. [And I mean Judaism, X-ianity, Islam, and Hinduism here]

  7. Anyone here ever read Anne Roiphe’s Lovingkindness? The main character’s daughter is a ba’alat tshuvah who has a tattoo. Her fiance’s rav tells her to keep it (at least temporarily – I forget) so she doesn’t deny her past. Of course, it’s a big ol’ dragon on her back so probably wouldn’t be easy to remove it, anyway…

    That said, and regardless of the tattoo issue, I am a little uncomfortable with the “be yourself” theme here. I think it was sensitive of you in the beginning to be wary of “flaunting” the tattoo. Of course, I have no recommendations on how to proceed, since I also understand your not wanting to wear socks all the time or whatever.

  8. Dear Shoshana,
    I heard a true story told by Rav Leff, the Rav of Moshav Matityahu here in Israel. Before making aliya many years ago, he had a shul in Florida. One of the founding members had a large anchor tattoo from his days in the Navy.Feeling uneasy in the mikva, he asked the Rav if he should have it removed. The Rav’s answer was NO for the following reasons:
    1) It is forbidden to have your body tattooed, but once done, there is no prohibition in leaving it.
    2) Getting on in years, it would put him in some danger and pain removing it.
    3) He should be proud where he is today as opposed to his Navy days.

    G-D bless you with a long healthy life in body and soul.

    Tsvi Cohen

  9. Rachel –
    Thanks for the link – it is quite interesting! I always find it quite fascinating to see the similarities between different religions.

    Soen Joon –
    Thanks for visiting. I think it’s incredible that you have been able to find pride in both your tattoos and their removel. I hope if I ever get mine removed, I can have the same perspective.

    Chava – You are right, most of the treatments are done by laser these days.

  10. Shoshana,

    I’m the Soen Joon from Rachel’s comment…and I, too, am intrigued by the similarities of our situation. I was also proud of my tattoos–they also meant something to me, not just frivilous or vain markings, but actual records of time and change more or less permanently engraved on my body. And yet, when it came time to remove them for spiritual reasons, I was happy to do so. I have scars–and it’s obvious that they’re tattoo scars, and not some other surgery–and I’m equally proud of them. Like the tattoos that they were, the scars are signs of change, and I hope growth; and in this sense, they are as beautiful as the tattoos were. They aren’t “hiding” anything, although they are certainly conformity to the requirements of Korean Buddhist monasticism. Because I’m unfamiliar with the complications arising from Jewish law, I can’t advise you on whether or not you should remove them, only say that as someone in a similar position, removing them was as important and proud an experience as having them was.

    Peace and joy on your journey–
    Soen Joon hapchang

  11. I’m really inspired by your courage to not worry about judgemental people and your attitude (both Shoshana’s, even) towards being yourself and acknowledging your past as a part of you.
    Thanks.

  12. OY! My apologies — I meant to say, “tattoos are strictly forbidden in her branch of Buddhism.” :-) The meaning was probably clear from context, but I feel a little sheepish anyway…

  13. You might find this post interesting — it’s by my friend Soen Joon, an American woman who is now living in Korea beginning the long road toward Buddhist ordination. Tattoos are strictly forbidden in her branch of Judaism, and she, like you, got some as a young woman before she was religious; she had them removed before beginning her postulancy…

    Anyway. Fascinating common ground, in some ways. :-)

  14. J. Ross – That’s an interesting point! I am not realy crazy about the idea of elective surgery (or any surgery for that matter) to begin with. I don’t currently have plans to get it removed, but when I have children, it will be something to consider, and at that point, I guess I’ll have to ask about halachic permissibility of it.

    Rabbi Schwartz – I have heard similar stories and analogies made. While I appreciate it, I am not positive my teenage decisions can even be compared to that of someone who was tattooed in the Holocaust. Thank you – I am not sure I am ready to read k’vitlich either (as I am not even sure what that entails), but I appreciate your outlook on the matter.

    Gershon – You have no idea what a small world!

  15. Item: Many concentration camp survivors were conflicted as to whether or not they should have their forearm number tattoos surgically removed. My parents z”l had theirs removed.

    Item: Chasidim have a custom to give k’vitlach=written petitions to a Rebbe. Receiving/reading kvitlich is the traditional “job description” of Tsadikim/Rebbes in Chasidic culture.

    Story: When the Satmar Rebbe zt”l was getting ready to leave Yerushalayim and move to New York a Yid approached him after davening and asked him “Rebbe, when you leave who will we give our kvitlach to?” He pointed to a Holocaust survivor getting ready for the next minyan and said “You see that Yid wrapping t’filin over his number? To such a person you can give a k’vitil” The point being that a Yid who’s faith survived Auschwitz to the point that he was still davening and putting on t’filin is a great and exalted individual.

    It would probably be hyperbolic to compare the level of the tests of contemporary secular Jews embracing emunah to those of Camp survivors maintaining theirs in the face of unprecedented “Hester Ponim”. Yet in both cases the telltale tattoos are testimonies to prevailing over severe nisyonos to achieve or maintain the observance of Torah Judaism.

    Shoshana… I don’t know if you’re ready to read k’vitlich but IMO, as was the case in the shtiblach in Yerushalayim so long ago, your tattoo ought to arouse respect and inspiration in all those who see it, not judgmental ridicule.

  16. “Nevertheless, it is important for the veteran BT’s and FFB women to know the importance of having legs covered. It is a shame to see how many are lax in this area.

    In any case, it is interesting to see how “mitvah goreres mitzvah.” Being Makpid on Tznius solves many problems. ”

    Shmuel normative p’sak is that women only have to cover to their knees. If it were not, women would not would be walking around in stockings, just as they are not wearing miniskirts with stockings. The common standard (think of it as minhag hamokom in some communities or chumra) of wearing stockings is just a nod to shitos that require full leg covering.
    Some people (mostly only some chassidic groups) insist on thicker stockings so that the covering be “Real,” but even they distinguish as they would not allow stockings-only above the knee.

  17. Shoshana

    One thing no one mentioned yet is the halachic problem with elective surgery. Thanks to the responsas of the Minchat Yitzchak and Rav Moshe (and in your case even the Tzitz Eliezer), I believe that there would be no problem having it removed if you felt it was harming you emotionally or socially. However, if you are comfortable with your tattoo and what it says about where you are now, it really might be a halachic problem to remove it simply because of the reasoning that a religious Jew wouldn’t have a tattoo.

    Good luck either way!

  18. Mordechai – That sounds painful! But so does getting a tattoo by hand – wow! It was incredible that so many costs were waived.

    Jeff – Thank you!

    David – I appreciate your view on someone having the courage to show up for Shabbos like that – I am sure the fact that you didn’t give her a hard time about it made an impression.

    Shoshanna – I totally agree, and like the imagery of spiritual tattoos as well as physical ones.

    Gershon – I think you have the wrong person, I don’t think I know you. But I definitely agree that you have to be yourself. I have tried in the past to conform and fit in, and it just doesn’t work.

    Shmuel – I have a wonderful Rav who knows halacha rather than chumra and gives it over quite well. The laws of tznius stipulate that you must cover your knees, elbows, collarbone and everything in between. There is no actual halacha about covering legs, that is a chumra that many women choose. I don’t.

  19. Shmuel F,

    Would you care to enlighten us where it states in Halacha that beyond wearing a dress that covers your knees a woman can’t have bare legs or feet?

    There is a big distinction between Halacha and chumras (self-imposed stringencies) that certain groups use. Please be clear when making statements.

    Thanks.

    Great post Shoshana!

  20. You are correct. In my defense though, her post does not reveal the length of time she is a BT.

    Nevertheless, it is important for the veteran BT’s and FFB women to know the importance of having legs covered. It is a shame to see how many are lax in this area.

    In any case, it is interesting to see how “mitvah goreres mitzvah.” Being Makpid on Tznius solves many problems.

  21. R’ Shmuel F., a little at a time. If this is who I think she is, I can personally attest that she is making great strides, and will get there, in the right time…

  22. While I respect your courage in growing in your observance, I would urge you to consult with a Rav regarding the issue of Tznius. It is likely that it is improper for you to bare your legs and or feet in public.

    If you were to cover your legs properly, you may avoid the whole issue.

  23. Shoshana,

    I think we know each other, no?

    Be yourself. Best rule I can think of in growing past old stuff. Hiding makes for a disjointed transformation (and arrival).

  24. Some of us have physical tattoos that everyone can see, while all of us have spiritual tattoos that are not so visible. The main thing is not to ever be embarrassed about how you are and where you come from.

  25. We once had a shabbos guest who had a tattoo and a tongue piercing. The first thing that popped in to my mind was how admirable it was that she was openminded enough to come for a shabbos meal.

    IMO, whether you decide to remove it or leave it, it clearly serves as a reminder of how much you’ve grown.

  26. Shoshana,

    An admirable attitude. I respect that you aren’t bothered by closed-minded people judging you.

    That was part of your journey to becoming frum. It’s part of your tikune.

    People will have to deal.

    Hatzlacha!

    Jeff

  27. ah, the indiscretions of youth…

    I got a tattoo in HS…trying to keep up with the other cool guys.

    Years later, in yeshiva, I started to regret it…walking around with a flagrant demonstration of violation of a mitzvah. Every time I went to the mikvah, I wondered if I should do something about it.

    At the time, I spoke with Rav Mordechai Eliyahu about this. He said that I was not obligated to spend money to remove it, despite my concerns that it might be a Hillul Hashem. He *advised* me to have it removed if I could.

    I found a kind dermatologist in Yerushalayim, who said it was so deep (we had done this by hand, in a drunken act of stupidity), it had to be surgically removed. Since I was religious, and wanting to set things right, he arranged for time and space at Shaarei Tzedek, and most of the costs were waved. I’m much happier with just the scar.

    I’d bet there’s quite a few of us who’ve had, or still have, tattoos…

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