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
He took out a stencil of biblical block letters and asked me to confirm which ones I wanted. “No, Yoni,” I said in an annoyed voice. “I don’t write the letters in biblical text, I personally write it in cursive and freestyle, and that’s what I want you to do. That’s why I wanted a natural Hebrew writer to tattoo me.”
I wanted the experience of being tattooed by someone who knew the meaning of the words and could write it without a stencil. I wanted that connection with the person who would instill in my arm something so meaningful to me that would remain with me for the rest of my life. Yoni snapped me out of my sappy thinking. “You know, you can go to the Village and get this done for $20,” he said with a slight Israeli accent. “As I usually perform artwork, my starting cost is $100 for a tattoo, so I’d have to charge you that.”
I wasn’t deterred. I wanted it done here on the west side of the tracks, by tattooed Yoni who grew up twenty minutes from Tel Aviv.
He began his work, placing the tattoo on the very spot to forever remind me of my past and connect me to my present. The tattoo would replace my daily wearing of tefillin, as I wanted to be reminded of the strength and presence of G-d in my heart etched into my T-spot forever.
“Wait! You forgot the dagesh in the beis!” I yelled as Yoni finished inking my arm, referring to the central dot in the Hebrew letter that would properly give the beis the hard sound of a B, rather than a veis, which would give the letter the soft sound of a V.
“We don’t use the dagesh in Israel,” he said sternly. “It would be incorrect to write it that way.”
Now we were getting into the territory of Americanized Ashkenazi writing and pronunciation of the Hebrew letters that still amuse El Al flight security who interrogate American Jews on their Hebrew knowledge prior to passing them through security on the way to Israel.
“It’s how I wrote it growing up, and it’s how I want it,” I said. Yoni complied with his client’s request and laughingly added the dagesh.
I walked back to the Marcy Avenue subway stop thinking about what I had just done. “Just because you’re gay, it doesn’t mean you have to break other commandments of the Torah,” I thought to myself while at the same time envisioning the statements and judgments from my Orthodox friends.
Yes, a religious tattoo is a paradox, but I appreciate the paradox while simultaneously identifying as Orthodox and living as a gay man. The paradox felt right for me.
My tattoo healed and became part of my skin and became a part of who I am. Also, my struggle with faith and sexuality healed, and that struggle no longer was a part of who I am. These days, I frequently notice the tattoo and think of my past and how it connects me to the core of who I am. After a while, my friends accepted it as part of me, and our conversations on paradox, religion, and Leviticus were settled.
On a recent date with a non-Jewish man, he noticed the ink on my arm. He licked his finger to rub my bicep to see if it was permanent and asked, “Is that a real tattoo?” I responded with a yes, to which he replied: “But you’re Jewish, you can’t have a tattoo.” And yet, I thought, I can.
Usually my tattoo attracts the attention of formerly Orthodox Jews, who immediately high-five me; practicing Orthodox Jews look at it with puzzlement, unsure what to say about it.
“Do you know what that means?” asked an Orthodox rabbi, a kashrut inspector—someone who spends his life deciding what’s kosher and what isn’t—sitting next to me on a Delta flight from Detroit to New York.
“I surely do.” I said. More than he could ever understand.
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How people treat us in public often depends on what we’re wearing on our heads, whether it’s my wig or his yarmulke