Identity | The Jew with the Magen-David Tattoo

Once considered seriously sinful, Judaic attitudes towards getting inked are changing.

My grandfather always had great fashion sense.

He owned a lot of those great 70s-style shirts, the ones Kramer would wear on Seinfeld. But it was when he dressed up that he really looked styling. Pinstripe suits with a nice tie, he’d often top off the ensemble with his favourite hat , an old beaten fedora-style hat, but with a wider brim, and a jaunty feather that stuck out.

I remember going to his and my grandmother’s apartment one night for Shabbat dinner. I’d been working a lot of Friday nights at a shitty minimum wage job, missing my family’s traditional dinners so that snooty customers could get their extra hot, half-sweet skinny vanilla lattes.  I finally managed to get a night off. Earlier that day, I’d gotten my first press pass, a little piece of brown paper saying that I was a student in Concordia’s journalism program, and thus I should be treated with all the respect that said program entails (as I would find out over the next few years, that would amount to somewhere between jack and squat).

Dumb as it was, I’ll never forget how happy that little piece of paper made my grandfather. He had that typical back-story – grew up poor and not terribly educated (though very smart), and managed to battle his way firmly into the middle class.  I think that piece of paper meant something to him; a symbol that he had accomplished something, that somebody he helped raise now had paper proof of being an Important Person. You’d think my brother’s medical degree would have been the clincher on that, but the press pass seemed to give him as much joy as the day my brother graduated med school.

He plopped his hat on my head, and stuck the press pass in the brim, just like those old-time journalists in movies, and we all shared a laugh.

He was dead the next day, the victim of a heart attack as he napped after morning services.

That was almost two years ago, and I still remember it perfectly. I’m not entirely sure why, but every few days, I look at my arm and wonder if I should get a friend to draw a picture of the hat (which currently sits in my room) and get the image inked into my skin.

The funny thing is, he would have hated the idea of a tattoo.

But let’s back up a second here.

When I was a little kid, way back in the 1990s, growing up in the suburban Jewish wasteland of Hampstead, tattoos were like earrings or long hair on guys. Sure, you saw them. But it always evoked a little bit of a surprised reaction – there was something vaguely shocking and rebellious about them. And that was just on people who weren’t members of the tribe. Jews with tattoos? It simply didn’t happen. I’m sure you know the reasons why.

Jews can’t get them because it’s disrespectful to victims of the Holocaust (not true), because you can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo (doubtful), because we shouldn’t emulate the Philistines (I’m no yeshiva graduate, but I did a ctrl-f of the Bible, and couldn’t find any mention of the word tattoo.  I did however find out how to treat my slaves, so I’ve got that going for me.)

I’m not trying to insult the Tanach; far from it. But let’s face it, there’s a lot of stuff in there, and we don’t follow a big chunk of it. For example, most Jews I know don’t believe in stoning (though a lot do believe in getting stoned. Then again, I went to Bialik- a private Jewish high school in Cote St-Luc).


The point I’m trying to make is, when I was a little pischer, tattoos were one of those big no-nos. To this day, there are few rules I can’t violate that my (fairly conservative) family won’t forgive me for. Don’t keep Shabbat? That’s cool. Kosher? I think my last meal at Gourmet Burger violated that in at least three ways. Sex before marriage? I really hope my mom doesn’t read this.

In fact, here’s a list of the big whoopsies that would make me persona non grata for at least a few weeks at the shabbas table.

1)    Skip Rosh Hashana and/or Pesach.

2)    Eat on Yom Kippur.

3)    Marry a shicksa (non-Jewish woman).

4)    Get a tattoo.

That’s it. The big four sins. And if we’re going to compare those to another famous big four, then the shicksas and holidays are the Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer of ways to piss off mom and dad, while getting a tattoo is Metallica: the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

When I was in my late teens, I decided that being the little suburban aspiring punk-rocker that I was, I needed some piercings. One night, I finally got the courage to ask my mom for permission – Sid Vicious, I clearly was not.

Being not entirely stupid, I eased her into the idea gradually. First I asked if I could get a lip ring. She did not take it well.

So I took it down a notch and asked for an eyebrow ring.

Again, not a great reception.

Having worn her down, I said “What about a cartilage ring?”

I should have been a hostage negotiator, because she said yes. To this day, I have two stainless steel rings through the cartilage of my left ear. And to this day, despite having the same desire for a tattoo of my papa’s hat, I can’t even muster the courage to bring it up as a hypothetical.

So, how come tattoos? What’s so bad about a bit of art etched into the skin?

It was the burial thing that always got me. Up until Amy Winehouse, bless her 90 proof little heart, passed away, I never questioned the established wisdom that a tattoo means having to find a new plot in a different boneyard. I’m not going to go into the halacha here. If you’re curious as to the interpretation of the laws, that’s why God invented Google. But it turns out that the conventional wisdom isn’t entirely true.
Which brings me back to square one: why are tats so frowned on?

I think it has to do with identity.

Jews dig uniformity. Look at the Fiddler on the Roof. None of the guys in the shtetl are out there making crazy fashion statements. That ‘blend in, don’t cause trouble’ instinct followed us to North America, and who can blame our ancestors for that?

Our parents and grandparents abided by that old axiom: Dress British, Think Yiddish. And for a while, it worked. For a lot of Jews, you stayed in your Jewish neighbourhood, you dressed like the other Jews (i.e., presentably), and that was your Jewish identity. Unless you were Gene Simmons, you didn’t want to stand out too much. But it doesn’t work anymore.

Sure, lots of people still live in little ethnic enclaves. But it’s getting harder and harder to do. Nobody works the same career all the way through anymore. And nobody stays in one spot, in one synagogue, in one community. Jews have returned to their nomadic roots. Except the rest of the world has joined us now, too. And they’re all struggling to hold onto their roots, just like we are.

“In my experience working in several [tattoo] shops there is always a demand for religious work. Lots of crosses are done and they are usually tied to a family, friends, lost ones and other special meanings,” said Mitch Sohmer.

Mitch is kind of an expert in the field. A former president of Concordia University’s chapter of Hillel, he’s a former high school classmate of mine. He’s also got 12 tattoos equalling over 30 hours of work.

As a tattoo artist, he told me that he’s seen chais, magen davids, and Hebrew writing etched into the skin of clients. The weird thing is, it seems that even the people who don’t have the guts to actually go under the needle kind of want to.

A friend of mine recently posted a picture of himself on Facebook, shirt off, flexing a bicep and smiling. On his arm were a lion and the word Yerushalayim in Hebrew.

Figuring I’d just lucked into another person I could talk to for this article, I asked him when he got inked. Bursting my bubble, he told me it was photoshopped. What’s weirder is, he isn’t even the only friend of mine who has done that recently.

My friend Cynthia is not what you would call the tattoo type. A bit neurotic, she’s lived her whole life in her parent’s house in Cote St. Luc, recently moving to Israel for a summer internship. Basically, a bit of your stereotypical, sheltered Jewish girl (sorry, Cyn).

And yet, there she is in her Facebook profile picture, back turned to the camera, Hebrew lettering prominently displayed.

“Whenever I feel low, whether from heartache, anxiety, or loneliness, I just tell myself ‘gam zen yaavor,’” she told me when I asked her about the picture. (Gam zen yaavor translates roughly to “This too shall pass.” Maybe George Harrison was secretly Jewish, and not one of those Hare Krishnas.)

Of course, she cited the usual stuff when I asked why didn’t just do it. “My parents would be furious with me.” “There is something about “forever” that stops me.”

Oh, right, and “It would scar. I scar from everything. I have a scar from every mosquito bite I’ve ever had.”

Remember what I said about neurotic?

Sorry, Cyn.

Even when the tattoo isn’t real, it’s the new black hat and tsistis, but for the 21st century. It’s Judaism, rebranded.

We want the world to know we’re Jewish. We want to identify ourselves. But we also want to fit in, both in the shtetl and in the real world.

It’s the same reason the song “The Brews” by NOFX was so popular with my friends when I was a teenager. Cool punk rock that our non-Jewish friends wouldn’t find weird? Yeah, but there were also lines about Manishevitz, shicksas, terrorizing goyim and even a rousing chorus of Dayenu.

You toss a magen david onto somebody’s skin, and they’re a badass with a tattoo, but they are also unmistakably Jewish.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I was intending to write a lot more about Mitch. But then I remembered the last time I saw him. And so now I have to write a bit about my friend Tanya, who has a Dr. Seuss verse on her ribcage. “Be who you are and say what you feel” it says, in big Hebrew letters.

I’ll never forget the day she got it. You don’t usually forget the day one of your closest friends calls you and tells you that her dad is dead.

He’d been sick a long time, of a brain tumour that first went into remission and then came roaring back. He was a tiny little French man, and despite his Jewish heritage, from what I could tell, he had almost no connection to the religion. And Tanya, despite having played in a band with me and two other Jews, had never spoken of having any real interest in it either. I didn’t even know she had Jewish ancestry until I’d known her for a few years.

So I was a bit surprised that on that terrible day, she told me she wanted to go to Adrenaline, the famous Montreal tattoo and piercing parlour, where Mitch was working at the time.

She told the artist what she wanted. We waited. She went in, and next thing you know, the landscape of her skin was changed for good.

For years, I wondered why she wanted that tattoo, but I never asked. I considered asking for this article, but it seemed a bit too much. “Hey Tanya, remember when your Dad died?”

But I thought about that day a lot. And now I think I know why she got it.

I still don’t have any ink on my body. Maybe I’m a pussy who avoids needles (for my next article, I’ll write about the time I passed out in the McGill student centre bathroom after giving blood). Maybe I feel deep down that my punk rock days are over, and have been for a while. Maybe I realize my papa would have hated a tattoo, and getting one just seems kind of disrespectful. But I think I know my motivations for wanting one in the first place, anyway.

We get tattoos to remember. To remember the Dad’s and granddads who have passed. To remember that they came from somewhere, too, and that their history is our history.

“Be who you are and say what you feel.”

That seems about right.


Adam Kovac is a journalism student at Concordia University and the Current Affairs editor at The Link.  He has two piercings and no tattoos….yet.