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Marking My Jewish Journey Through Tattoos

My body is a colorful passport: my passage through life marked with stamps from destinations along the way.

As I reclined on the cushioned black chair, I tried to focus on the smell of ink around me and the taste of the peach lollipop in my mouth, distracting myself from the stinging sensation emanating from my left arm. I was 18 and it was my first tattoo. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into or how important the ritual of tattooing would become to me in the next few years. During the brief interludes when the buzzing of the tattoo needle paused, I took deep breaths and reminded myself why the message of my particular tattoo was something I wanted permanently inked onto my body. When the artist was finished, I looked in the mirror at my new piece: a teal and pink planet Earth emblazoned with the words “kehilah kedoshah,” or “holy community” in Hebrew.

In high school, the holy communities I was a part of opened my mind to Jewish learning, spiritual practice, and profound connection with others. As the president of my temple youth group and a member of my NFTY region, I spent countless evenings and weekends engaged in the act of building community. I discovered the joy of singing (particularly Dan Nichols’ “Kehilah Kedosha”), practicing Jewish ritual, and discussing critical issues with like-minded and not-so-like-minded teenagers. By the end of my four years, I knew that I wanted to take this world that I had uncovered with me wherever I traveled in the future. I wanted a constant reminder of the sacredness of Jewish community and its ability to bridge divides and create powerful change-oriented momentum. That’s what eventually led me into a Dupont Circle tattoo shop the summer before moving to Philadelphia for college.

We’ve all heard the old bubbe-meise that someone with tattoos can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, a myth I quickly debunked through research before getting inked. But despite not having to worry about that specific misconception, I was initially a bit concerned when I learned that the Torah states that we are not to “incise any marks on yourselves” (Leviticus 19:28). I had never been steered away from tattoos by my Jewish family—both my parents are tattooed—and I wondered whether this passage was relevant today to Jews who feel called to mark their bodies with Jewish or non-Jewish art. I ultimately decided that a tattoo could serve as a powerful expression of my deeply held Jewish values, and that the prohibition wasn’t relevant to my desire to perpetually carry my beliefs on my skin.

Growing up, I learned that tikkun olam—repairing the world—is one of our essential tenets. What better way to represent that than to adorn myself with a permanent reminder of my Jewish values and the healing power of my communities? Three years and nine tattoos later, I continue to think of my body as a canvas for meaningful, fun, and unique artwork. My tattoos are scattered across my skin and none relate explicitly to each other. Some are incredibly meaningful, and yes, some were obtained on a whim. However, all of them represent facets of my personality, pieces of myself that will remind me of who I was at the ages of 19, 20, 21—even when the ink has long since blurred or faded. My body is a colorful passport: my passage through life marked with stamps from destinations along the way. Literally wearing my Judaism on my sleeve has taught me so much about myself and the world; being outwardly Jewish both allows me to live proudly and openly, and helps me connect with others. It makes my day whenever a new friend or someone I encounter in public is able to read my Hebrew ink. Getting tattooed has become a ritual of self-expression for me. Every time I find myself sitting in a small shop surrounded by the smell of ink and the buzzing of tattoo needles, I’m reminded of my kehilah kedosha, which I know will welcome all with open arms, ink or no ink.

Madeleine Fortney is the Innovation & Impact Assistant at Reconstructing Judaism, and a Drexel student studying Communication and minoring in Judaic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies.

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