Monday, February 24, 2014

Jews with Tattoos? Tattooing Traditions of the Beta Israel

In looking through some statistics for my blog, I discovered that seven people have found my blog by searching “beautiful Ethiopian women.” At the risk of increasing that number, I thought I would devote some time to traditions of body art among the Jewish communities of Ethiopia. While henna is used among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Ethiopians, in this post I’m going to go (a little) out of my field and talk about tattooing.

The origins of the Ethiopian Jews are murky and, to my mind, irrelevant to this discussion (but see Kaplan 1992, Parfitt 1999, or Weil 2011 for some approaches). Suffice it to say that by the 19th century there was a large community of Jewish Ethiopians, living mostly in the areas of Gondar, Wegera, Semien, Wolqayt and Shire in Tigray (yes, there is both a Gondar and a Shire in Ethiopia; no, it is not Middle Earth). A related community is known as Feresmura or Falashmura, Jews who had converted (or been converted) to Christianity in the nineteenth century, but maintained a separate communal identity. Ethiopian Jews are also known as Beta Israel, ‘the House of Israel’ (an older term, Falasha, literally ‘exiles,’ has been largely rejected by the community).

Ethiopian Jews in Israel celebrating Sigd, Jerusalem, 2010.
Photo by Noam Sienna
In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel practiced a Torah-based form of Judaism — that is, without the additional customs, explanations, festivals, and practices of rabbinic Judaism as codified in the Talmud and later scholars. Since coming to Israel, they have largely been assimilated to the structure of normative Judaism; the Feresmura have also reverted to Jewish practice in Israel. Some excellent introductions are here, here, and here.

One of the most striking features of the Ethiopian Jewish community is their tattooing. Historically, the vast majority of Jewish communities generally refrained from tattooing, even when living in environments with established tattoo traditions, due to the prohibition on tattoos in Leviticus 19:28. Technically, in the Biblical context this was a prohibition on imitating Canaanite mourning practices of cuttings and tattooed inscriptions for the dead. The rabbis, however, eventually identify this with any form of putting ink permanently under the skin, whether writing or drawing, for any purpose. While I’m on the subject, let me remind everyone that tattooing, while thus prohibited, does not disqualify one from burial in a Jewish cemetery or access to any other Jewish service (so hopefully that myth can finally be busted).

Beta Israel woman, Jerusalem, 2010.
Photo by Noam Sienna.
Ethiopian Jews, however, did develop traditions of tattooing (note: even though the sacred text of the Ethiopian Jewish community was not the Hebrew text of the Bible but its Ge‘ez translation, known as the Orit, this prohibition still appears there as well). This is often one of the first things people notice; anthropologist Hagar Salamon writes that she “could not shake off the shock of the first sight of them. The crosses tattooed on their hands and foreheads remained a vivid symbol for me, shattering long-standing perceptions of Jewish identity” (1999, pg. 3).

That last point is important for me. When we say “Jews don’t get tattoos,” the truth of that statement depends on excluding Jews who do get tattoos from the authority to speak as authentic Jewish voices. What would it mean to consider seriously what Beta Israel tattoos might mean as a Jewish practice? At the very least, it would mean foregrounding the diversity of embodied Jewish experiences in our discussion of what ‘Judaism’ is.

The Ethiopian Jewish experience in Israel, however, has been otherwise. These tattoos, as one might imagine, are frequently invoked in describing the Beta Israel as Other. For example, Abbink describes their “‘strange and exotic’ African appearance: black, living in primitive conditions, women with tattoo signs on their arms and heads” (1984, pg. 242). They also reinforce the Israeli suspicion — both on a state level and in public discourse — of the validity of their Jewish identities. 

Hadas Nogah, an Ethiopian-Israeli who immigrated at the age of 9, remembers: “[Officials] told me that whoever has a tattoo on their body won’t enter Jerusalem.’ When they told me I cried all day. I tried to quickly remove my tattoo but a mark remained” (Arnon-Ohana 2005, pg. 163). It is no wonder that many Ethiopians attempt to have their tattoos removed, if they can afford it.

Ethiopian Christian woman
(Parkyns, 1853, pg. 28)
Of course, tattoos have a deep history in North and East Africa in Muslim and Christian communities (see Johnston 1844 or Parkyns 1853 for some descriptions of the tattooing process in 19th-century Ethiopia). But the rarity of tattooing in a Jewish community makes this case especially worthy of attention. It is (in my opinion) essential that these customs are recorded now while we still have access to elders and carriers of this tradition. 

If we don’t, we will end up with the situation we have now with henna practices: the generation growing up in Israel abandons it, and then in fifty years from now people like me are going to wonder about the traditions, try to reconstruct them from childhood memories, and regret that no-one recorded them while they were still vibrant.

So guess how many published sources there are on Beta Israel tattoos? If you guessed zero, you win, um… the same sad feeling I have (sorry). There has not been a single academic study or even description of Beta Israel tattooing practices. The most treatment the subject has received is half a paragraph in the ‘Ethiopia’ volume of the (usually excellent) Ben-Zvi series on Jewish culture (Salamon 2008, pg. 157), and one medical article (Lapidoth and Aharonowitz 2004) describing the use of laser technology to “improv[e] the quality of life of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and eas[e] their social integration in their adopted country” (pg. 908) by removing their tattoos.

'Before and after' pictures of Beta Israel tattoo removal,
from Lapidoth and Aharanowitz, 2004, pg. 907. 

Beta Israel woman, Jerusalem, 2010.
Photo by Noam Sienna.
From the little published material, and my own observations, I can make a few basic comments. Beta Israel tattoos, known as tukurat, are done primarily for women, on the face (forehead, temples, and chin), neck, and hands. Men are occasionally tattooed as well, mainly on their hands. 

The tattooing is done with charcoal, although the exact process is unclear. The lack of serious study also means the symbolism and purpose of tattooing among the Beta Israel is not fully known, but most reports suggest tattoos were seen as both a sign of beauty and as protection against negative forces, and some tattoos had medicinal or healing properties as well. 

The motifs range from simple circles and crosses to more elaborate sun-like shapes and necklace-like rings around the throat. In my own work in Israel, I observed a variety of different motifs and placements, and attempted to record them, but unfortunately I was not able to do any fieldwork directly addressing them. 

The suggestion has also been made that the tattoos, the crosses in particular, were intended to disguise Jews in a hostile Christian environment, or to deflect potential anti-Jewish violence, but it remains unclear. It is a topic to which I hope to devote further study.

Some Beta Israel facial and hand tattoos.
From my field notes, Israel, 2010.

My goal in highlighting these traditions is to not only to protest the ongoing marginalization of Ethiopian Judaism, but to suggest that it is part of a larger trend, so prevalent in Israel, that has understood Jewish Diaspora culture — especially culture that originates outside of Europe — as unimportant, irrelevant to Jewish life, or even un-Jewish. In focusing on this particular bodily Jewish experience, I am attempting to push back against a conceptual definition of Judaism which privileges the authority of the (male) rabbinic textual tradition and which centres Jewish authenticity in European Jewish culture. 

After all, the rabbinic tradition from which 'our' Judaism emerged is in many ways farther from Biblical Judaism than that of the Beta Israel (in areas such as kashrut and niddah, for example, not to mention things like Hillel's prozbul). It seems unfair to hold Beta Israel responsible to a standard developed in the rabbinic tradition, unless we're willing to say explicitly that the only acceptable vision of Jewish life is that of contemporary Ashkenazi rabbinic Judaism (and in Israel, that means specifically that of the Orthodox rabbinate). What I'm proposing here is the possibility of widening our vision of Judaism to include multiple possible conceptions of Jewish flourishing.

Have I gone too far? Have I not gone far enough? I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

Abbink, Gerrit Jan. The Falashas in Ethiopia and Israel: the Problem of Ethnic Assimilation. Nijmegen: Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology, 1984.
Arnon-Ohanna, Yuval. Jewish Exodus from Ethiopia: Children Describe Their Journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem Through Sudan, Jerusalem: Misrad haBitahon, 2005.
Johnston, Charles. Travels in Southern Abyssinia, Through the Country of Adal to the Kingdom of Shoa. London: J. Madden and Co., 1844.
Kaplan, Steven. The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: from Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century. New York University Press, 1992.
Lapidoth, Moshe and Gali Aharonowitz. Tattoo Removal among Ethiopian Jews in Israel: Tradition faces Technology. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Vol. 51, no. 6, 2004, pp. 906-909.
Parfitt, Tudor and Emanuela Trevisan Semi. The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on the Ethiopian Jews. London: Curzon, 1999.
Parkyns, Mansfield. Life in Abyssinia: Being Notes Collected during Three Years’ Residence and Travels in That Country. London: John Murray, 1853.
Salamon, Hagar. The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia. University of California Press, 1999.
Salamon, Hagar. Ethiopia (Jewish Communities in the East in the 19th and 20th Centuries Series). Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2008.
Weil, Shalva and Emanuela Trevisan Semi. Beta Israel: The Jews of Ethiopia and Beyond: History, Identity and Borders. Venice: Cafoscarina, 2011.


Gella said...

Thank you for writing this! I love how what you write is so often eye- and mind-opening to holes in my perception of my religion and... religious peoplehood? In answer to your question, I'd say you've gone either just sufficiently far or not gone far enough, conceptually. Certainly not far enough in terms of practical gathering of information, narrative, and history, but you are not (yet) to be faulted for that.

My first impulse in response to reading this post is to try to rethink the way in which we, as "normative European Jews of the Rabbinic tradition" or some such might go about changing the language we use when addressing this question as it comes up in our lives, as it surely has in mine. Indeed I have said previously that "Jewish law forbids Jews from getting tattoos" while always also debunking the myths concerning Jewish burial. Your point is well taken that our particular interpretation of that law is a Rabbinic derivation from a much less clear-cut pasuk, and that if we are to include ancient-diaspora Jewish communities under our umbrella (as I think we do on the whole, considering what I've always perceived as the general support for Operation Solomon, not to mention Operation Flying Carpet which I think is not unrelated), we need to be more clear in general when we talk about "Jewish law" in specifying to whose version we refer.

I agree that to ignore these issues is to give in to what is ultimately an andro- and euro-centrically limited understanding of Judaism and Jewish identity, and that in striving to be in line with feminist and anti-racist ideals these issues must be deeply considered and rethunk. I hope that you, or anyone in the field, has and takes the opportunity to do the critical work of collecting and preserving the stories of this community's practices for our collective enlightenment, for the continuity of cultural narrative, and for the sake of letting a people's voices be heard, and faces seen.

Unknown said...

Thanks for an intriguing article, Noam. Sounds like your just the person to fill in this gap in the scholarship. When I was in Yeshivah in Israel in 1991, it was right after Operation Solomon that airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. While I was proud of how receptive our yeshivah was, I noticed that our yeshivah was particularly invested in inviting them for holiday gatherings which they traditionally did not celebrate (Hanukkah and Purim), though this may simply have been a product of the fact that those holidays are among the only ones that a large group can be invited to without having to house them as well (since it's permitted to travel on them). Anyway, the combination of receptiveness (or lack thereof for some groups) while attempting to bring them in line with "normative" practice was palpable from the start. They were interesting times. I still remember the gleeful squeals of the little kid on my shoulders as we danced around the room.

Unknown said...

I'm eating up and chewing on your articles. You bring up many thought provoking topics in Jewish culture and practice. It's a very enjoyable meal for this Alaskan Jewess.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! Interesting to note that Ethiopian Judaism is scriptural, like that of the Karaites. Prior to the dominance of the Maimonides sects after the 10th century or so, interactions, even marriages, between Rabbinical and Karaite Jews were permitted without any requirement for conversion. It's a shame that earlier forms of Judaism are now discriminated against by the later sects.

Anonymous said...

Love so hard, thank you for writing about this subject. I wish you the best of luck & hope you have the opportunity to research further.

Unknown said...

I did not even know so far how much you people are racist and ignorant!

rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rachel said...

If we are ignorant, teach us. If we are racist, tells where we went wrong. I see examples of racism and I go out of my way to understand what we need to do to improve things. Just saying things as you do does not help anyone grow.

Lee Aria said...

Reading about the Passover in Exodus brought me here: Exodus 13:9 - Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the Lord’s instruction may be in your mouth; for the Lord brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand. Wonder if it had anything to do with that.

Abby said...

So out of curiosity, I asked a friend of mine who is an Ethiopian Jew in Israel. According to her, her mother has one of the forehead tattoos because it was viewed as a beauty enhancement. Her mother didn't know it was a Christian cross and she didn't even know that tattoos are banned for Jews.
According to her, it was also fairly short lived. Her great-grandfather did not approve of the tattoo because he knew it was not Jewish but somewhere between her grandparents and her parents' generation, the fad caught on.

David said...

It's actually the bible that makes it seem like any tattoo is a problem. The rabbis explain that it might only pertain to writing but that regardless it's prohibited by rabbinic law. Now importantly rabbinic law ENDS in the 5th Century. It starts after Moses' death. Some rabbinic laws are explicit in Prophets and some are only traditionally attributed to that era. I am not aware that we know exactly when Jewish tradition coalesced around the prohibition of tattooing marks on the body in addition to letters, but it was well before the Mishnaic period in the 1st Century. And this leads to dispute sin the origins of the Ethiopian Jews. You act as if they are some sort of proto-Jews free from the taint of halakha. However, the current consensus is that their ancestors came to Ethiopia between the 1st and 6th Centuries. Meaning AFTER the "modern" tattoo traditions had been accepted by the Jewish people. Regardless, though, even if there are some proto-Jews who survived uncorrupted somewhere in the world (and actually kept their original traditions instead of forgetting them and then claiming that those maculated traditions are the real ones), the way that the Bible itself explains how Jewish Law works is by majority. As happened many times in the Land of Israel itself--we follow the majority rabbinic rule. Thus those mythical proto-Jews would still have to adapt to "normative Judaism." For all these reasons, the tattooing of the Beta Israel should not be condoned and they were right to end the practice in Israel. Tattoo removal is NOT required by halakha, however, and is a personal choice. But I can understand being strict with that first generation to teach them the taboo.

Unknown said...

Beautiful article...I thought I'd find a lot of articles related to this topic.. But there aren't. Thank you for this article. I hope we record this or its gonna be unknown history forever...
Love and support from fellow Jew from India

Samri said...

I am en Ethiopian Jew. We are called or referred to has Falasha. All the woman who are older or many have neck and face tattoos. Both my grandmas babe neck and face tattoos. My older grandmother,(paternal side)had a lot of tattoos. And become a nun in older age and decided to dedicate her life to the lord and dismisses worldly ideas.

Yehoshua said...

David wrote: "Tattoo removal is NOT required by halakha, however, and is a personal choice." I am acquainted with a practicing American Jew here in Israel, who became observant when he already bore a rich collection of tattoos. He still has them, and it doesn't seem to trouble him or anyone else.

Back around 1985, when the first Beta Israel started coming to Safed, I remember having a young couple to Shabbat lunch with our family. As the wife had no tattoo marks, I asked her what their significance was on other immigrants (I would never have asked someone who had tattoos, so as not to cause embarrassment). She and her husband answered "We come from Ambover [which was regarded as the spiritual centre of the Beta Israel] and no-one with tattoos was allowed into our synagogue!" I don't know if that was true, and if so, whether it was based on rabbinic influence or if it was based on the prohibition in the Torah (Orit) which the kess may have taught.

Another point that I noticed at the time was that the "necklace" tattoo was commonly associated with immigrants who had goiter. I see that there was a link, as reported here:
Yelfign Matebe told us that Niksat was also believed to be curing goiter - enlarged thyroid glands on the neck. “As there was no modern medication for it, we used Niksat as a remedy.”

There is no question but that many younger women still want to have their tattoos removed. From the same site:

Moshe Lapidoth and Gali Aharonowitz elaborate this in their study on tattoo removals saying, “Many Jews in Ethiopia adopted the Christian custom of tattooing various parts of the body, either after conversion or to hide their Jewish origin. After emigrating to Israel, they sought to remove these foreign symbols to better blend with society.”
The Beta-Israels who lived among Ethiopians, mostly in Gondar, had to use tattoos as one means of concealing their true religion to avoid stigmatization while living under a strict Christian culture. The marks of the cross, visible on their faces or hands, gave them Christian identities to observers.

See: (in Hebrew). Our Committee, which has been functioning ever since 1985, was recently asked to subsidize the cost of removing tattoos from 3 sisters age 19, 21 and 25. This is their choice, and we have undertaken to pay about 25% of the cost.

Yehoshua Sivan, Chairman
The Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed

Anonymous said...

Ethiopian Tattoo is not only Ethiopian Jewish practice. It is widely practiced among all northern Ethiopians. Although beautification is the main objective, driving away evil spirit and as a means of healing aliments are also other reasons. There are a wide variety of tattoos. Both men and women get the tattoos.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother on my mother's side has a tattoo on her neck, I asked her about it and she just didn't know so I went to ask my father (he lives in the Tigrai area compared to my mother's side who lives in Gorava Then they moved to Sahramala (Jewish village) I don't know much about why I asked my mother why grandma left her village and she said they murdered my grandma's family and killed her brother in front of her eyes so she just went with her children For Sahramela (it is important for me to note that they have very Jewish names, for example her brother was called "Elazar" and my grandmother's mother was called "Rebecca" and my grandmother's mother's mother was also called Mazal, so there are many Jewish names including on my father's side, for example his elder brother It is called Baruch, which is also a common name among Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia. It is important for me to mention another thing that I have on my father's + mother's side uncles who are priests (priests) among Ethiopian Jews! But I still don't understand why my grandmother on my father's side has a cross on her forehead and why my grandmother on my mother's side has a tattoo on her neck. My grandmother herself said she was a little girl and had a very Jewish family and I also don't know what they had in the village in Gorava I did not understand how they lived there and why they killed her family there I have no idea, my mother says that it could be the non-Jews in the area who killed her but it is still evident to see that she does not know much about it and also to talk about it with my grandmother It's just opening a wound that was close . (I translated a lot)