An artifact from my life before I’d ever met a Jew or knew anything of Judaism, I have tattoos. Not just small, cute tattoos, no…we’re talking tattoos that scrawl across empty spaces, for the most part hidden now beneath modest clothing, but always there, a reminder of a life I once lived.
My first tattoo was an act of wild rebellion at age 19. The others were later, but also a sort of rebellion. It was a way of trying to make my body my own in a world in which I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I thought I was growing my confidence. I was more trying to hide. None are idolatrous and since removing them would cause more hard to my skin, the Rabbis I’ve told of them have told me to keep them.
Cover them, but keep them.
I smile nervously whenever people talk about how “awful” or “gross” tattoos are in front of me. I’m not the sort of person now that you’d guess would have any. At the time, I thought they were artistic. I thought they were creative. I thought they were empowering. Now, though, they rather symbolize a battle I fought both with the world and myself. I embraced the hurt of them trying to find meaning in other pain. I wasn’t ready to forgive myself or believe that I didn’t deserve to suffer. I wasn’t ready to let go of needing to feel in control of my life.
And so, like so many others now, I sought solace under the tattoo needle, mistaking adding more pain for catharsis, for healing. Without a Yom Kippur and teshuva, ink seemed my best option. I paid someone money to scrawl my pain across my heart, to give visual form to what I felt inwardly because I was too strong to cry out.
Now, I really don’t need them anymore, but they remain. I look at them and think to myself how far I have come and what I have learned and what they continue to teach me. They remind me to be humble, not to judge others by their appearance, not to judge them by their past. They remind me to be kind to those still searching for meaning, still hurting and not knowing where to take that pain. They remind me that I’m very human and they also remind me of how far I’ve come.
I carry them, but they do not define me.