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Inked: A Jew and his Tattoos

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08/19/2008

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Josh Rosenberg, a walking canvas of Jewish pride

We’ve all met Jews with tattoos—people of the Hebrew persuasion who see no conflict between their heritage and their body art. But how about Jews who consider their tattoos to be an expression of their Judaism? Meet Josh Rosenberg, a 28-year-old union pipefitter who wears his heart on his sleeve and his religion just underneath it.

Josh’s left wrist is encircled with tattooed Hebrew script that says: “Ben Yisrael”—son of Israel—and his left elbow is ringed by an enormous Star of David, a twin tribute and statement of loyalty to his parents. “I don’t know the ethnicity of my blood parents, but as far as I am concerned, I am my [adoptive] parents’ son—and they are Jewish,” Josh says.  That lineage is intense. His great-aunt, a Holocaust survivor, was among many members of his family who emigrated to Israel after WWII, and her testimony helped convict the notorious Adolph Eichmann of war crimes.

How could the descendent of Holocaust survivors in particular choose to get tattoos? “I think a lot of people these days are embarrassed of being Jewish,” Rosenberg says. “Not too long ago, Jews even had to hide their identity. This is my way of saying I am proud of it.”

Rosenberg’s pride is apparent both coming and going. Just below the nape of his neck is another Jewish tattoo, a colorful lotus flower in full bloom, with a Jewish Star at its heart. “The lotus flower grows in stagnant water,” Rosenberg explains. “Who could believe that something so beautiful grows in something so stagnant, that such beauty grows out of shit?”

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Josh’s lotus flower tattoo with a star of David, such beauty growing out of such shit

Speaking of shit—how much does Rosenberg get about his Jewish body art? “I asked my rabbi if it was true that a Jew with tattoos couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” Rosenberg says. “He told me: ‘There are 613 laws, and one of them [also] is not to lie, but if every liar couldn’t be buried [in a Jewish cemetery], there would be no one buried there. Live your life.’”

Rosenberg definitely is a man who does just that. The inside of his right forearm is emblazoned with a dramatic image of Miriam the prophet. “The only problem I have ever had with the Old Testament is women aren’t represented,” Rosenberg says. “The only woman who always stood strong was Miriam. She was amazing. She kept the Jewish people together in the desert, where [a well of] water followed her. Without her, there would be nothing.”

Below the tribute to Miriam is a tribute that is more personal: The monogram “MAM” is emblazoned on his right wrist, a permanent memorial to Rosenberg’s beloved friend, Matthew Aaron Morrison, who died two years ago. “I have known Matt since I was 5,” Rosenberg says, speaking at a party marking what would have been Matt’s 28th birthday. “He was my brother, and I lost him. We were inseparable. Now he is dead and I am not.”  The tattoo, he says, is a way of keeping Morrison’s memory with him always.

Rosenberg’s most recent tattoo, inked on his left inside forearm, is less bittersweet,  It is a quote from the Torah that declares: “Any place a man turns his eyes to heaven is the holiest of holies.” “It has a lot of relevance in my life today,” says Josh. “The whole reason to have tattoos as a Jew—the whole irony—is that you don’t need a synagogue or a structure to find God or praise God. There is another way.”

With ink.

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