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The Jewish Tattoo

The Jewish Tattoo

Daniel expected his Star of David tattoo to provoke a physical struggle with others. Instead it provoked a spiritual struggle within himself.


Growing up as a rather unaffiliated Jew in Dallas, Daniel didn't exactly have what we might call a "positive Jewish upbringing." His two days of Hebrew school per week meant getting shuttled to his "Jew school" when the rest of his world was off.

At Hebrew school, Daniel recalls the teachers wanting to be there even less than he did. They didn’t seem to believe in what they were teaching. It was as if they saw themselves as an assembly-line of sorts, robotically passing the torch of Judaism to the next generation in a zombie-like state of melancholy. Daniel learned about Jewish "traditions"—that Jews were to separate milk and meat and to keep Shabbat, but he had never actually seen such a thing in practice.

Once a year, Daniel was sentenced by his mother to a day of synagogue confinement. That's how it felt anyway.

He would inform his friends that due to his having to do the whole Yom Kippur "Jewish thing" he would not be coming into school the next day. When they'd break out into their envious "No way, that's so awesome!" routine, he'd let them know that it was the one day he'd rather be in school.

But something changed for Daniel in his teenage years.

He got off the plane he found a land flowing with broken Jewish stereotypes.

At age 16, Daniel's non-observant but proud Jewish father sent him on a trip to Israel, and Daniel came in contact with a type of Jew he had never met before. Growing up, a Jew meant the antithesis of anything cool — whiny, unattractive, easily pushed around, and not someone you'd want to be seen with. To Daniel's surprise, when he got off the plane he found a land flowing with broken Jewish stereotypes: pushy cab driver Jews and in-your-face street vendor Jews, police Jews and soldier Jews, criminal Jews and street musician Jews.

Daniel finally met a Jewish people that he could relate to, enjoy being around, and that radiated with Jewish pride.

For the first time in his life, he actually felt a certain affinity with his people, a certain identity and joy in being Jewish.

A number of years later, as Daniel made the transition into college, he felt a sense of yearning for clarity about who he was and what he was about. His friends were getting into a piercing and tattoo craze. Daniel decided that if he was going to get a tattoo it was going to be something that would express who he was. He felt that his tattoo should exemplify his Jewish pride and therefore settled on a Star of David. He wanted it so that if anyone would ever try to force him to wear a Jewish star in the future, he'd be able to say, "Look, I beat you to it!"

Daniel wanted to show that he was not afraid of his Jewishness and express his Jewish pride by defending the Jewish people. He decided to put his Star of David tattoo in a place where everyone would see it, showing the world that he is not afraid of them. Since everyone wore shorts all the time in Dallas, he put the tattoo on the back of his calf muscle.

Related Article: What's A Nice Cosmo Girl Like You Doing With An Orthodox Husband?

A Different Kind of Brawl

After getting the tattoo, Daniel would scan every bar, park, and public place he’d walk into, trying to spot the guy that was going to mess with him. He couldn't wait to get into a fight defending the honor of the Jewish people.

But the fight never came. At least it never came in the manner that he expected it to…

Someone came up to him and said, "Hey, you Jewish?"

"Yeah," said Daniel, "what's it to you?"

"Well, actually I'm Christian and I was just wondering about this thing that I heard Jews do with separating between milk and meat."

Taken aback, Daniel responded, "Well, I'm not religious, so how should I know?"

Other times people would approach him and say, "Hey, you Jewish?"

"Yeah, what's it to you?"

"Oh well, I'm Christian and I think you guys are great. I love the Jews!"

"Uh… okay… thanks a lot…"

On other occasions: "Hey, you Jewish?"

"Yeah, what's it to you?"

"Well, I'm Jewish too."

"Uh, okay… Are we supposed to be friends now?"

Instead of the fight he anticipated, Daniel was embattled with questions from Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Tattoo Kippah

Daniel's tattoo turned out to be his kippah of sorts. Not only did it espouse Daniel's Jewish identity to all, but it forced him to be aware of his Jewish identity wherever he went and whatever he did. When Daniel would consider doing something that wouldn’t look all that good for the Jews, he’d now think twice about it. What would people think about Jews if I get caught?

Daniel started to sense that he was representing the Jewish people. He could no longer remain ignorant.

Daniel started to sense that he was representing the Jewish people. He felt like he couldn't remain ignorant, unable to answer people's questions about Judaism, so he began looking up the answers. He started making time to learn about the Jewish people, their history, and their Torah.

All of this triggered his own questions: What does it really mean to be a Jew? Is there anything real to all this anyway? Is Judaism relevant to my life?

Daniel expected his Star of David tattoo would provoke a physical struggle with others; instead it provoked a spiritual struggle within himself.

He decided to make his way back to Israel to explore Judaism further and determine what it really means to him. He searched out the depths of Judaism – its philosophies, its spirituality, and the “whys” of Judaism. Slowly but surely, Daniel began to piece together a picture of Judaism that resonated with him. Through learning, asking, and exploring, false stereotypes and stigmas were broken, and Daniel was able to bring meaning and understanding to the seemingly hollowed “traditions” and “rituals” of Judaism.

As Daniel grew in Jewish wisdom and experiences, he found himself in dialogues with others about similar topics and enjoyed the positive back-and-forth and being able to share what he has gained. At that point, Daniel connected with an Israeli tour company and began helping others come to Israel and get the type of eye- and heart-opening experiences that he had been privileged to receive when he was younger. Daniel saw that this is what he wanted his life to be about, so he enrolled in a course to become a certified Israeli tour guide.

Today, Daniel is living his dream in Israel. He is happily married with three children and he is a sought after Israeli tour guide. He works full time to bring the beauty of the Land of Israel and Judaism to Jews of all backgrounds, sparking in others the type of personal journey that had been sparked for him back when he made his way to Israel for the first time.

Click here to order Rabbi Eliyahu Yaakov’s new book Jewish By Choice: A Kabbalistic Take on Life & Judaism, a clear, accessible, and practical view of Kabbalah and the "whys" of Judaism.

June 23, 2012

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 40

(29) Miriam cohen, December 8, 2014 3:15 PM

Removal of tatoos

Tatoos can be removed should you want. Hadassah hospital plastic surgery can do it; there are many Jews who became observant and had this done and.
had their tatoos removed. In Biblical times slaves were tatooed, and that is where the prohibition comes from.

(28) Chava, May 7, 2014 1:13 PM

You Heard it Here :)

Nothing like Jewish stereotypes. There are so many.People have reasons for what they do. I hate tattoos so much but cannot judge any more. I"ve met some menshes with tattoos; Jewish & non-Jewish. Someone said ear peirecing isn't OK?
Cannot disagree more. I"ve asked very religious ppl & they peirce ears all the time. My daughter myself, Rabbis wives.
Don't pass false info. That is a no no. I wouldn't pierce anything besides ears. And only 1 ear piercing. 2 is cute; but
it looks almost cheap to me. ( Almost) The thing I hate about Jewish sterotypes is how it sepraates us. We're not all better, wer're not all richer or smarer. Unfortunately some Jews are so lazy you wouldn't even want to talk about it. Not all motivated. I'm Jewish for gernerations. We don't own a businesss, we are not of gifted intelligence, we are ordinary kind people. We are prod of who we are but we are Very Humbe most of the time. I come from generations of humble.
All Jews are more different than anyone realizes.

(27) Anonymous, October 3, 2012 1:43 PM

one detail I'm curious about

how religious is daniel today?

(26) Beverly Margolis-Kurtin, October 3, 2012 1:57 AM

I empathize with him...

It is perfectly understandable how Daniel felt when first being exposed to Judaism. My parents, whom I loved deeply, ate ham and insisted on dragging my brother and me to their orthodox shul on Rosh Hannah and Yom Kippur. Sitting in the balcony, smelling the burning of the scores of yahrzeit candles drifting up from the basement, listening to the buzz of mumbled Hebrew would soon lull me into a deep sleep. THAT was Judaism? Feh! Being the only Jewish girl in my grammar school mean being an open target for the kids whose fathers had died in WWII, supposedly because of the Jews. (Either we started the war or their fathers had died to save us...) I became TARGET ONE. Who needs to be a Jew? I didn't even know what it meant! No matter what happened in school, "I" was the "dirty little Jew" who caused the trouble. It seemed to me at the time that I spent more time in the principal's office than in class. At least in Dallas, there was a large Jewish presence, in 1945, when I began school, in a small New England town, life was not good...particularly for a Jewish girl. Then came the revolution: I refused to go with my parents to their shul. NO WAY. Then and only then did I discover that there were shuls of "other flavors." I began attending a Conservative shul...they even spoke some English! The place smelled good and people laughed. To make a long story short, had I not discovered that one did not have to sit in a balcony nor have to smell candles burning in the basement, etc. etc. I would not be a Jew today. My Hebrew teachers believed what they said, the rabbi believed what he said... Now, I attend a Reformed shul because we are a family of Jews with a wonderful rabbi and an equally wonderful core of Jews who love each other and love Judaism. My one source of disappointment is that I will never visit Israel. It will only remain a dream, thanks to the banks who destroyed life savings of so many of us. Such is life sometimes.

(25) Jason Eisenberg, August 7, 2012 8:11 AM

I am an authority on this subject.

As a professional tattooist and a Jew, I feel the need to chime in on this one. In my industry, I have never been allowed to forget that I am a Jew. From my nickname, the Hebrew hammer (long before the movie), to the negative remarks and comedic jabs I have endured for years, I have always been reminded of my faith. As I grew older, I felt less and less of a need to identify with my constituency as a tattooist and more of a need to belong to my community... A Jewish community. Having tattoos of Jewish subject matter aside, my tattoos have always drawn comments regarding the taboo. Fortunately I have always been willing to engage in conversation in a passive manner regarding tattoos and Jews, unlike our hero Daniel. This is primarily due to the fact that I really like(d) tattoos and a chance to discuss them was always welcome. Growing up, I too heard that we were NOT supposed to have nor do tattoos. Both forbidden by the torah, spelled out several times (yes, it's unfortunately in there). The problem I had as a youth was simple... "You cannot be buried in ..." I figured that when you are dead, who cares! I wanted to have and do tattoos. Oy, if I had only known then what I know now, I would have MORE Jewish tattoos than anything else. As a professional tattooist, I often times try to steer clients toward images that will reflect who they are from now until the day they die, sentimental images or meaningful on some level spirituality or introspection. Looking back, I regret none of my tattoos, however I do wish I had more tattoos that reflect what I am most proud of and that is my faith and heritage. In closing, I ask those of us with no tattoos to be as tolerant and understanding as the torah demands we be. By the way, I am a member of an Orthodox Shul, married to a wonderful woman, have a great job, run a successful business, I don't do drugs and have NEVER been to prison. Ps. Tattoo removal is a no-no as well as are pierced ears, shaven faces etc. :)

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