Five years ago, Ziva Siboni, a 50-year-old mother of two from central Israel’s Rehovot, decided to celebrate her ethnic heritage by having the words “Made in Morocco” tattooed on her ribcage.
The decision, she said, came after her son, who was serving in the IDF at the time, called home and said no one believed he was actually of Moroccan descent.
“He said, ‘Mom, everyone here thinks I’m Russian. My name is Michael, I have blue eyes and nobody believes that I’m Moroccan. Can you teach me some Moroccan curse words, so they’ll believe me?'” Siboni told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.
“I told that we don’t use that kind of language and assured him that I would make sure he has some sort of proof,” Siboni said.
She got the tattoo the very next day.
“I sent the photo to my son and told him, ‘Now you have bona fide proof,'” she said.
“I was never ashamed of my heritage. I grew up in a religious home and I was taught that at the end of the day, a person is judged by their character and actions — not their origin,” Siboni said. “My daughter is dating a Georgian guy, my son is dating a Caucasian girl, and I have an albino dog. It’s time we accept each other regardless of religion, race, and gender. We just have to make sure not to lose sight of our heritage and to have basic respect for people regardless of where they come from.”
Asked how, as a woman who was raised in a religious home, she was able to get a tattoo — which Judaism prohibits and deems a pagan practice — Siboni said, “To each his own.”
“I respect religion and choose to subscribe to the beautiful parts of Judaism. I’m not religious and the tattoo is a part of me. I think religion is for functionaries and faith is for everyone,” she said.
Siboni’s choice of commemorating her heritage with a tattoo is not unique.
Sonja Gershaft, 31, from Petah Tikva, had a Matryoshka doll, also commonly known as a “Babushka,” tattooed on her arm as an expression of her Russian identity.
The Babushka is an iconic Russian symbol. For Gershaft, who has shied away from her Russian identity since arriving in Israel when she was 3 years old, this was a momentous step.
Gershaft came to Israel in the early 1990s as part of the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union.
“[As a child,] I did everything to deny that I was Russian. The other kids knew, of course, but I did everything I could to pass as a Sabra,” she said, using the Hebrew nickname for native Israelis.
“I didn’t speak Russian, not even at home. When my mother spoke to me I would answer in Hebrew. I don’t want to think what my mother — a Russian linguist — thought about her daughter denying her first language for 18 years,” Gershaft said.
According to Gershaft, the first time she was able to sympathize with her heritage was after the 2001 Dolphinarium discotheque massacre, in which a Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up outside a popular nightclub on the beachfront in Tel Aviv, killing 21 Israelis. Sixteen of the victims were teenagers, 10 of them Russian.
“Suddenly I felt that it was mine — that the kids that were killed were part of my identity,” she recalled, adding that her journey of re-affiliation with her Russian identity intensified when she joined the IDF and was instructed to join Nativ — a conversion preparatory course for immigrants.
“I was very upset that they sent me to this course,” Gershaft said. “I felt that I was Israeli through and through, and I was very surprised when I was still differentiated as a Russian. Who are you to tell me that I’m not part of society? Naturally, they placed me with Russian speakers. Our Israeli sergeant used to call us ‘The Russian Mafia.'”
“It was there, in the military, at the age of 18, that I started speaking Russian,” she said.
Since completing her military service, Gershaft has been teaching Hebrew to children, teens, and adults who immigrated to Israel from Russia and the former Soviet Union.
“The more familiar I become with the language, the culture, and the people, the more I realize how much I don’t want to give up that part of my identity,” she said.
The tattoo of a Matryoshka — stacking dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another — symbolizes the story of an identity within an identity, Gershaft explained: “The fact that I’m Russian doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m Israeli. These [identities] are not mutually exclusive.”
Doing away with the social melting pot
Prof. Michal Frenkel, head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the phenomenon of tattoos as an expression of ethnic origin is part of the multicultural phenomenon that has replaced the melting pot that characterized Israel since its inception until the 1990s.
A tattoo that expresses ethnic identity gives one a sense of meaning, makes them unique and reduces anonymity
This phenomenon, she said, has expanded further in the last decade, thanks to social media.
“The processes of globalization are gnawing at the power of the state. It used to be that the state would shape nationalism and force uniformity through culture and the media, thus giving us a sense of belonging,” Frenkel explained.
“In this age of cultural diversity there is a great deal of pressure for individualization, and people want to belong to smaller groups. A tattoo that expresses ethnic identity gives one a sense of meaning, makes them unique and reduces their anonymity,” she said.
Dr. Suzi Kagan, the founder and president of the Association for Play Therapy-Israel and professional counselor, says the need to belong to a group is one of the most fundamental components in the development of the human psyche.
“It can be an affiliation with family or with a state, but a tattoo expresses another need — the need to declare this affiliation to the world. People who have a great need for affiliation delve into its symbolism and want to declare it unequivocally, for example in the form of a tattoo, because it gives them peace of mind,” she said.
‘Being Ethiopian isn’t the only thing that defines me’
Eden Amera, 25, from Haifa, was born in Israel to parents who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1984. Two years ago, after a trip to Ethiopia, she decided to get a tattoo of a tree growing inside an outline of the county’s borders.
“The roots of the tree in Ethiopia are my roots, but they break through the borders, which symbolizes my parents’ immigration to Israel,” she explained.
Amera said her connection to her Ethiopian identity comes from a place of respect.
“I don’t speak the [Amharic] language, but I really love hearing my parents’ stories about Ethiopia. Our community is unique in that we have respect for others, especially for the elderly older people, and also for the great food. Yes, I’m Ethiopian but I have always felt very Israeli. Being Ethiopian isn’t the only thing that defines me,” she said.
Asked whether she identified with the Ethiopian community’s protests over discrimination, racism, and police brutality, Amera said that what bothers her the most is actually the ignorance of many Israelis with regard to her community.
“Personally, I haven’t experienced racism, but I know that there is discrimination. I know that being black catches the eye of police, and that they look at us differently. But what bothers me most is the ignorance about the Ethiopian community,” Amera said.
“Many times I’ve come across questions like ‘How come you’re only three siblings?’ Or, ‘Your name is Eden, but what’s your original name?’ And, ‘How is it that you speak such good Hebrew without an accent?'” Amera said. “Sometimes I also get a ‘You’re not like…’ meaning the Ethiopian community.”
“There was a time when I would try to answer, but I’m not as polite nowadays. I don’t feel the need to apologize. I just say I don’t have the time to answer stupid questions,” she said.
Naomi Solomon, a 47-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Ashdod, immigrated to Israel from Romania. She chose to commemorate her connection to the Romanian people and community three years ago with a shin tattoo depicting a she-wolf with two cubs.
“Not many people know this, but wolves were a symbol of royalty for the ancient Romanian kingdom,” she explained. “I discovered that, as well as how deeply I feel about my link to the Romanian people when I studied medicine there in my 20s.”
“I’ve always loved my heritage, but I also had to deal with a lot of prejudice. For example, the Romanians are inferior to all other Europeans, and that we’re ‘all thieves.’ My tattoo symbolizes my pride in my Romanian heritage and, of course, my motherhood,” Solomon said.
According to Yasmine Bergner, a multidisciplinary artist who studies the history of tattoos, the thing that has been pushing people to get tattoos from the dawn of time is the need to express values and worldviews.
“In tribal cultures, a tattoo is a status symbol, part of an initiation ceremony, or part of the desire to adorn the body. Today, people are tattooing symbols on the body as a permanent expression of something they believe in, be it their ethnic origin or other values,” said Bergner. “Tattooing something on your skin means putting the value you hold dear as close as possible to you, for life.”
Getting a tattoo that declares one’s heritage “seeks to show the world that your heritage is important to you,” she said, adding that “a tattoo also serves people’s need to take ownership of their bodies and to define themselves in a unique way via an irreversible — fully elective — act.”
Tattooing something on your skin means putting the value you hold dear as close as possible to you, for life
Judaism may not be a fan of permanent body art, and the Bible even states, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves.” (Leviticus 19:28)
But according to Bergner, “There’s plenty of evidence in the scripture and in the halacha [Jewish law] that show that at one point the Jewish people had a tradition of tattoos. For example, writing the person’s name or God’s name on the body. The Kabbalah [a school of thought in Jewish mysticism] also describes ceremonies of stamping letters on the body for spiritual worship.”
Social media, she added, has had considerable influence on tattoo culture.
“There are endless images on social media that impact and inspire us. In the 1980s, for example, we were influenced by what we saw on MTV and the tattoos we saw on the singers. Today, we have that and we’re also exposed to new imagery on social media.”
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.