Non-Jews seem irresistibly drawn to Hebrew tattoos. Perhaps even more than Sanskrit letters and Chinese symbols (which are equally foreign to most of the people who have them emblazoned on their skin), Hebrew tattoos hold mysterious allure. In some cases they’re meant to convey woo-woo Kabbalistic mysticism; in others they say, “Whoo! I am so Christian I have the original language of the Bible on me!” Non-Jews don’t have to struggle with cultural prohibitions against tattooing; the (incorrect) notion that a tattoo means that one can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery refuses to die. So, while there are certainly Jews out there who choose Hebrew tattoos, for the most part, inking Hebrew letters onto one’s body seems to be a largely Christian phenomenon.
Perhaps the most famous Jewily-tattooed non-Jews on the planet are the Beckhams, former Spice Girl Victoria and underwear model/retired soccer personage David. (Defensive explanatory footnote #1: David’s maternal grandfather was Jewish but he grew up attending church and he has a humungous torso tattoo of Jesus. So I vote goy.) Both Beckhams are inked with ani l’dodi v’dodi li, ha’roeh bashoshanim, the Song of Songs wedding fave: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, who browses among the lilies.” Shockingly, hers is written and spelled correctly. His is ungrammatical (“my beloved,” dodi, is in the masculine form) but still sweet. FYI: His tattoo is above a Sanskrit rendition of his wife’s name, spelled wrong. (Becks also has a bonus, smaller Hebrew tattoo above his left elbow, from Proverbs 3:1; it means “My son, do not forget my teaching but keep my commands in your heart.” I can’t find any non-blurry pictures of it, but one must assume it features the correct gender pronouns. Yay?)
In her “Die Another Day” video a few years back, Madonna writhed around with a lamed, alef, and vav tattooed on her shoulder. What did the seemingly nonsensical letter-combo mean? According to Madonna’s Kabbalah leader Yehuda Berg, that’s one of the secret names for God. (Defensive explanatory footnote #2: Madonna’s version of Kabbalah is dismissed as “Jewish Dianetics” by the canonical source, Jew Or Not Jew. So again, I’m voting goy.) (Defensive explanatory footnote #3: As it turns out, the tattoo was temporary, but Madonna annoys me so much that I’m including her anyway.)
Poor Britney Spears. Her former Kabbalah bud Madonna reportedly encouraged her to get the letters mem, hey, and shin tattooed on her neck—an attempt at Hashem, another of God’s names. Alas, the letters were out of order. She apparently had the letters lasered off in 2008. Zei gezunt, Brit.
Christina Aguilera broke the fundamental tattoo rule: Do not get your lover’s name permanently inscribed in your body. Ptui Ptui Ptui! X-tina had her Jewish boyfriend Jordan Bratman’s Hebrew initials inked into her left arm: A yud and a bet (I’m guessing Jordan’s Hebrew name is Yarden?), along with the Spanish words Te Amo Siempre (“I love you always”). She also got the ever-popular ani l’dodi v’dodi li along with “JB” tattooed on her lower back. The couple broke up in 2011.
Foul wee homunculus Justin Bieber has a tattoo reading Yeshua—Jesus’ name in Jews-for-Jesus-y Hebrew. (In modern Hebrew, it’s Yeshu.) He got it with his dad, who got the same tattoo. I wonder if they also pee in restaurant kitchen buckets together. (P.S.: The Bieb also has a picture of Jesus’ face on his left leg.)
Once upon a time, my husband was the tour manager for Psychic TV, the seminal psychedelic electronic performance art group led by Genesis P-Orridge, who has a wrist tattoo saying Psehkch Tiv or Psekakh Tav in Hebrew letters. The incoherence is probably performance art.
Tween-scream inducer (and cause of concert-going dad misery) Harry Styles, of the boy band One Direction, has his sister’s name, Gemma, tattooed in (correct, woo-hoo) Hebrew on his arm. Styles isn’t Jewish, but according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, “he loves the Jewish community and wearing a Magen David. … All the [One Direction] boys love Judaism. They are fascinated by it and they enjoy the family atmosphere.” (We have a family atmosphere!) He is also known to have called his manager a “nudnik.”
Former American Idol contestant Jordin Sparks has Hebrew letters trailing down her back, reportedly reading, “If I am not myself then who will be me?” (“Reportedly” because I can only find pictures that reveal up to “If I am not.”) Is this a narcissistic version of Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
French swimmer Fabien Gilot has a tattoo on his upper arm reading אני כלום בלעדיהם—“I am nothing without them.” (Purely as tattoo critique, this one has the best and most confident line of the bunch. It looks like someone who both knows Hebrew and has a sense of style inked it.) As Tablet reported back in the day, Gilot got the tattoo in honor of his grandmother’s husband, Max Goldschmidt, an Auschwitz survivor. Sadly, Goldschmidt died shortly before Gilot won Olympic gold in 2012.
Torah-lovin’ New York Knick Amar’e Stoudemire, part-owner of an Israeli basketball team and potential bar mitzvah bochur, has a tattoo of a Star of David on one hand. But Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry goes bigger, with a Hebrew wrist tattoo reading ahava l’olam lo nichashelet—love never fails. It’s from 1 Corinthians 13:8 in the Christian Bible. Not so Jewy, but still Hebrew!
Perhaps oddly, I could find only two Jewish celebs with Hebrew tattoos. (Why does Adam Levine, a.k.a. “the human equivalent of testing positive for chlamydia,” have a gazillion tattoos from a zillion cultures, but none of them Jewish?) For non-Israeli Jews, famous and not, Hebrew tattoos seem to be a way to connect with one’s own heritage rather than co-opt someone else’s.
Adam Pally of the unfairly-prematurely-canceled, underrated-and-awesome sitcom Happy Endings has his own Hebrew name, Asher (which was also his grandfather’s name), tattooed on his chest. Former Jewcy editor Lilit Marcus noted that Pally’s character’s name was Max, and the tattoo was never explained on the show. “Therefore, I’m going to retcon it and say that Max had a Jewish boyfriend back in the day and got his name tattooed on him and just hasn’t bothered to remove it yet. And now I’m going to think about which cute Jewy actor they can get to play Asher in a flashback.” Missed opportunities! (Pally himself acknowledged, “It’s not the best tattoo. I got it when I was 19 and now it looks like I was in a Tel Aviv prison and that I am someone’s property.”)
Baseball’s Hebrew Hammer (the one who was not Hank Greenberg or Al Rosen and who did not abuse steroids—I think that covers all the baseball Hammers), Gabe Kapler, has legs covered in Jewy tattoos. On his left calf he’s got a Star of David that Heeb magazine said was “as big as a chocolate-chip cookie” (to which I would add: not a Chips Ahoy, a Pepperidge Farm Soft Baked). It is surrounded by Hebrew letters supposedly reading “strong willed, strong minded” (I can’t find a picture with enough of a close-up to corroborate this or critique the Hebrew, and oh, why didn’t he talk to Fabien Gilot about finding an artist who was skilled at lettering? I weep.) On his right calf, the ruggedly handsome but underperforming player has the English words “never again,” plus a flame and the dates 1933-1945. He also has his ex-wife’s name, Lisa, tattooed on his bicep. (He and Lisa divorced in 2013. He should have talked to Aguilera about the Curse of the Name Tattoo.)
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.