Tattoos Reign in Israel — Jewish Law or No

Body Ink Takes Off Despite Halacha Prohibition

yardena schwartz

By Yardena Schwartz

Published February 19, 2014.
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(Haaretz) — Hamutal Song would turn heads no matter where she lived. But walking the streets of Israel with two blue birds etched onto her chest and the words “you rock my world” in caps above them, she’s rarely ignored. As she puts it, decorated head to toe in colorful tattoos, “not a lot of people pass me by on the street and have nothing to say.”

Yes, branding one’s body with permanent ink is one of the strongest forms of self-expression. But that may be even more true in Israel. After all, this is the Jewish state, and Jewish law forbids tattoos. Yet as tattoos become more popular here, it’s clear Israeli culture doesn’t always mirror Jewish culture.

According to Israeli sociologists and tattoo artists, tattoos have become much more common here over the past decade. But because of the unique cultural and religious backdrop – the legacy of the Holocaust as well as Jewish law – they’ve taken longer to go from taboo to trendy.

Oz Almog, an artist, professor and author of “The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew,” has studied the evolution of tattoos in Israel. According to Almog, Israelis’ adoption of Western values and American trends is a main factor behind the shift in attitudes toward tattoos.

“For its first two decades, proletarian and resource-poor Israel set store by a modest, ascetic and frugal lifestyle, and rejected expressions of aesthetic refinement and showing-off,” Almog says.

As American artists and musicians turned body art into a stamp of cool in the 1970s and ‘80s, tattoos gained popularity in America. It took more than a decade, according to Almog, but the trend hit Israel, as so many American trends do. Tattoos became a prime example of modern Israel’s desire to be more Western.

“The tattoo fad symbolizes Israel’s transition from an austere and khaki-clad society that played down the importance of aesthetics to a society that pays homage to beauty, splendor, ornamentation and glitter,” Almog says.


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