I Reconciled My Gay Identity With My Orthodox Upbringing—Through a Tattoo
The mark on this yeshiva boy’s arm is a symbol of how I ultimately held on to my religious background after I came out
It was a cold day in February 2008 when I hopped on the M train from my home in Manhattan and headed to Brooklyn Adorned, a tattoo shop on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. The shop was spacious, clean, and comfortable—not what I expected from a tattoo parlor. Artistic pictures of tattoos hung on the wall as if they were featured in a museum. As I wondered if my tattoo would proudly be displayed on the wall, a tattoo artist named Yoni looked at me, glanced up at my yarmulke, and asked, “So, where do you want your tattoo, yeshiva boy?”
I chose what I call my T-spot, the place on my left bicep where I place my tefillin box when I pray every morning. I knew that until my tattoo healed, I would be unable to wear tefillin, which I had done every day since just before my bar mitzvah. Even though I was drifting away from the Orthodox identity I’d grown up with, laying tefillin was one of the only commandments that still made me feel a physical connection with G-d. I had learned that tefillin is placed on one’s bicep because G-d represents strength; when the box is placed on the bicep in a manner that faces your heart, it shows that G-d is truly in your heart.
Now my tattoo, a permanent mark on my T-spot, would represent the paradoxical relationship I had to Orthodox Judaism.
As an Orthodox Jew, I had to reconcile my tattoo with Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” However, this wasn’t the first time I had to reconcile Leviticus verses with my everyday life. The tattoo verse is sandwiched between two other verses that I, as a gay man, was grappling with at the same time—Leviticus 18:22, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they should be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.”
One verse commanded me to return my gifted body to my creator as I received it—tattoo-free—and the other verses insinuated that very same precious gift from God “should be put to death.” Was my body precious enough to preserve … unless I was gay?
I grew up in Washington Heights in a “black-hat” Orthodox family and attended Breuer’s Yeshiva from kindergarten through twelfth grade. While I appeared Orthodox on the outside, I’m not sure if it matched what I felt in the inside when I was growing up. But living in an Orthodox community, it was the only identity I knew.
During my two years in yeshiva in Israel after high school, my inner passions began to match my outer appearance, and I felt closer to G-d and Orthodox life. But during that time, I also came out to myself as gay. I sought guidance from anonymous Ask the Rabbi websites that were popular at the time. It was difficult for me to imagine identifying as Orthodox and gay at the same time, and to me, being Orthodox was more important. One rabbi who understood my desire to remain part of the community referred me to reparative therapy.
After five years of trying to change my sexual orientation, I realized that while I enjoyed remaining a part of the only community I knew, I was not being true to myself and to those around me. While I was unable to fathom acceptance from the Orthodox community as a gay man, I always believed that G-d was more forgiving than family and friends, and I remained close to him. I remained in the familiar Orthodox environment of the Upper West Side, but I found a new therapist who could help me accept being gay as I began to explore new communities within Judaism.
By the time I was 30, sitting in that tattoo parlor, I still hadn’t figured out whether G-d made me gay through nature or nurture, but I knew my orientation came from him. I battled with G-d as I sought to reconcile my sexual identity and my Orthodox values. “If you gave me this body as a gift,” I would tell myself, but talking to him, “why did you make me gay and cause me to struggle? If this indeed is your body, then perhaps you should have made me straight, the way you intended it to be?”
For me, getting a tattoo was meant to be a physical divorce from G-d. I was taking ownership of my body and who I was; while my soul is a gift from G-d, I was saying, my body is mine. I would still maintain an emotional relationship with him, but it was time for me to view myself in the context of my identity and break away from the codependent relationship I had with G-d that seemed to direct all my decisions in life.
I wanted the tattoo of beis samech daled, the three-letter acronym for BeSiyata Dishmaya, an Aramaic phrase meaning “with the help of Heaven.” Growing up Orthodox, I recalled how this acronym was reproduced at the top of every written document as a reminder that everything comes from G-d. Some communities within Orthodoxy used a similar acronym, beis heh, spelling out B’ezras HaShem, meaning “with G-d’s help,” but more ultra-Orthodox communities like mine believed that if the name “G-d” was written, then the paper was holy and could not be discarded for fear of desecration.
I knew I would follow this line of thinking, which I’d been raised believing, in the tattoo on my arm. I wanted to avoid disrespecting G-d by writing his name on my body, even though I knew I was “desecrating” my gifted body merely by getting a tattoo in the first place.
When I put an ad in the “Miscellaneous” section of Craigslist, I asked if anyone knew of an Israeli tattoo artist in New York City. I wanted a natural Hebrew writer who wouldn’t slip up. I quickly received a response referring me to Yoni, an Israeli tattoo artist in Brooklyn.
As I rode the subway toward the Marcy Avenue stop in Williamsburg that February afternoon, memories came rushing back; I hadn’t been to Williamsburg since I was a child. My only memories of the Hasidic neighborhood involved day-tripping to the borough with my dad from our apartment in Washington Heights to bring our newly bought clothes to the Shatnez Laboratory on Lee Avenue, where Hasidic inspectors would inspect fibers from the clothing under a microscope to make sure they didn’t contain an unkosher blend of wool and linen that was also proscribed in Leviticus.
As the M train crossed the Williamsburg Bridge and went deeper into Brooklyn, more and more Hasidic Jews got on and off. I was changing inside but had not yet broken away from my Orthodox appearance; I still wore a yarmulke and tzitzis tucked in to my conservative attire. Even so, I felt out of place. As I left the station and went down the steps toward Bedford Avenue, I noticed on the east side of the tracks was the Hasidic section of Williamsburg, and on the west side of the tracks were the neighborhood’s trendy hipsters. The dividing line seemed familiar to me as I myself was balancing between Orthodoxy and the gay world. I walked west.
The back of the tattoo shop seemed somewhat similar to the Shatnez Laboratory just a few blocks away on the east side of the tracks. Clients in both shops waited their turn for service: one ripping into their bodies to place a mark of meaning, and the other ripping into their clothes. Each of the shatnez checkers and the tattoo artists was in a uniform that seemed out of the ordinary, and each had a unique set of instruments.
As I rolled up my sleeve, we discussed what I wanted and why I wanted him to tattoo me. As Yoni took out alcoholic wipes to disinfect my bicep, I told him what I wanted; he smirked and told me that Hebrew tattoos were becoming popular, mostly in kabbalistic forms of G-d’s name that represent different traits in people. As he prepared his tools, Yoni told me how when he was a kid “living 20 minutes from Tel Aviv,” he and his friends used to make fun of the Orthodox kids who wrote the acronym for BeSiyata Dishmaya on their papers. They would poke fun by telling them that the acronym of beis samech daled actually stood for Beit Sefer D’Midgets—“school for midgets.” “That’s rude,” I told him. “We were kids,” he replied.
How people treat us in public often depends on what we’re wearing on our heads, whether it’s my wig or his yarmulke