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.
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