Jews With Tattoos

Pride, Aesthetics and Rebellion Play a Role As Their Popularity Increases

By Ron Dicker

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Craig Dershowitz started with a Kabbalah Ladder on his back, then followed with the word ZION on his right forearm. His entire torso remains a mural in progress.

Marisa Kakoulas considers herself a Grecian urn, ready to be decorated. The suit she wears as an attorney conceals her black-ink tapestry, making her feel like a superhero, she said.

They are Jews with tattoos, a trend that began on the fringe and is moving toward the mainstream. Ink-wearing Jews are not as omnipresent as in some other groups, given the proliferation of tattoos in sports and the entertainment industry, but their numbers are increasing, according to tattoo wearers, artists and the rabbis who bear witness to the branding of their flock.

Joshua Andrews, operator of, an online catalog of Jewish body-art samples, said he receives 35,000 visits a month to his Web site and 50 personalized design requests monthly. Yoni Zilber, an Israeli tattoo artist in Brooklyn, said he gets a customer asking for Jewish-themed adornment at least once every few weeks.

Pride, aesthetics and rebellion all play a part. To these inked-up believers, the Leviticus exhortation to “not make 20 gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself” has lost its relevance in 21st century Judaism.

“There are a number of taboos that I believe restrict modern American Jews,” Dershowitz said. “I am excited to break these taboos and to show a New York Jew as a strong, creative, artistic individual who is not afraid to wear his religion and beliefs, quite literally, on his sleeve.”

Dershowitz, a 32-year-old Morgan Stanley alum who edits a tattoo magazine called Bombin’, stood on the balcony of his 15th floor apartment with Manhattan at his feet and a tableau of an ancient past draping his upper body. Mother Israel grows out of the earth on his chest. Archangel Michael protects a kibbutznik and a soldier. On his right arm, the Lions of Judah play bodyguards to King Solomon.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5

The artwork does not bolster his connection to Judaism, he emphasizes; rather it forces others to recognize it.

“The permanence of a tattoo can only, rarely, be reversed,” he said. “At the same time, the passion which motivated getting it cannot be reversed at all. My family and friends, forced by either the former or the latter, have no choice but to accept.”

For the 36-year-old Kakoulas, an international-law specialist who lives in Brooklyn, her tattoos are a canvas of patterns that chart her world travels. “It’s not about making a statement,” she declared. “It’s about beauty.”

Eric Silver, a Penn State University sociology professor who has written about tattoos, attributes the increase in the practice among Jews to a larger social movement. “Tattoos have become normal among adults, and Jews come in a lot of flavors,” he said. “There’s a big chunk that are pretty assimilation-minded and want to participate fully in mainstream culture.”

But for many, the Torah still holds sway.

“Tattoos are just incompatible with Jewish values,” said Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “We see the body as a holy and beautiful vessel, created by God. A tattoo only takes away from that divine beauty. So, we dismiss the practice of tattoos — but must remember not to reject the person with tattoos.”

Rabbi Eric Siroka of the Reform Temple Beth-El in South Bend, Ind., preached acceptance for the growing number of tattooed Jewish youth. “They’re wearing it the same as they would clothing or jewelry,” he said. “You have to be respectful as you would with any part of a person’s expression.”

And then there is Andrews, who appears to straddle both sides of the argument. Despite running the tattoo Web site, Andrews has no tattoos himself and declines to tattoo Jewish clients because it is “not Judaic in any capacity,” he said. “I get enough business from Goyim that I do not need Jewish business.” (He draws designs for everyone, but Jewish customers must go to another artist for the hands-on work.)

Andrews began the Hebrew calligraphy Web site on a lark and discovered a market, he said. He credits a recent spike in visitors to the his-and-hers King Solomon quote worn by David and Victoria Beckham. The words etched in Hebrew translate to “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

Zilber said most of his Jewish customers focus on religious themes and Hebrew lettering. As for his own body, the artist wears Tibet-inspired tats. (“I’m Jewish in the inside,” he explained.)

Although cultural mores have loosened for modern Jews — “the shock value has worn off,” Rabbi Siroka said — the decision to get a tattoo does not always come easily.

Will, an artist at a tattoo parlor in Greenwich Village where some customers have been ordering the Star of David, recalled a recent encounter. “One older guy … thought about it for a long time,” he said. “He was conflicted.” The man eventually got the tattoo, as do most of those who waver, the artist said.

There has long been controversy about whether having a tattoo prevents a Jew from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, though a spokesman for the Jewish Theological Seminary said scholars there have found no basis for this ban. Siroka called it “an old wives’ tale,” and some cemetery officials supported him.

“Internment sites here have to do with lineage of Jewish heritage,” said Kirk Taylor, the family service manager for Hillcrest Memorial Park’s Beit Olam Cemetery in Dallas. “… It has nothing to do with anything else.”

“We have a great amount of bodies coming in,” said Amber Hession, who answers the phone at Westlawn in Chicago. “I’m sure some have tattoos.”

The idea that tattoos dishonor Holocaust victims tattooed by the Nazis no longer resonates with many.

“The Holocaust wasn’t done with choice, and it was only to number people,” Zilber said. “I never get the association with the Holocaust and tattoos.”

With history and disapproval getting swept away, ink converts predict more of the faithful will visit tattoo parlors. And they’ll mean business.

Said Kakoulas: “We have not seen the saturation point.”

Ron Dicker is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.