Tattooed Jew

Dear… Everyone,

Rosh Hashanah is approaching, and I’ve been struggling with what to say. It’s a time of introspection, a time for looking back at all of the things in the past year, reevaluating, reassessing, and moving forward. We will feed each other apples and honey for a sweet and bountiful year to come, and we will pray for each other to be sealed into the Book of Life for the upcoming year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I am hoping for in the next year. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would wish for you for the upcoming year. Here is the best I’ve come up with:

I hope that you live dangerously. I hope that you make mistakes. I hope that you speak to G…d, that you have moments of meaningful prayer, that you create and dream and live dangerously. I hope that you love beyond boundaries. I hope that you know the feeling of a first kiss – that dizzy, silly, beginning of the world feeling that signals new love. I hope that you weep when you need to weep, and that you care enough to need to weep. I hope that you fight for justice, feed the hungry, house the poor. I hope that when you are in need someone will be there for you in whatever ways you need.

I hope that you have one moment of absolute awe at the magnificence of the world.

Because it is so magnificent.

It is dark and messy and beautiful and brilliant and I hope you will see this in the new year. Rosh Hashanah is a chance to see things differently, and I hope that you do.

It is so easy to get lost in the darkness. There is so much darkness in which to become lost. There is poverty and hunger. There is despair and desperation and a desperate intense isolation. I know that I don’t have to list for you the darknesses of the world, because I know that you see them too.

I know that you want to make these big huge changes in the world, that you want to be able to see the changes, and that this sight is so often practically impossible.

I hope that this year you will live searching for the light, because it is there too. Children smile. Lovers meet. Babies are born. Rivers are cleaned up, and species are brought back from the brink. Girls learn Torah. Men commune with G…d. Prayer happens and it is deep and meaningful and brings light into the world. Heartbreak happens, but it is followed by healing and repair and love again.

And the light is there because you create it. You smile. You are kind. You buy a man who can’t afford it coffee, and it is a little change, but it’s a change. You sit in prayer with someone grieving, and it is a little change, but it is a change.

There is light because you risk everything. There is light because you are afraid and yet still move forward.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for you to recommit to this moving forward. It’s a time for renewal and rejoicing at the new year to come. Be brave. Be strong. Be dedicated to moving forward with joy and awe. Work to live life in radical amazement at the world around you. It is dark. It is scary. But it is also blessed and beautiful. Follow in the footsteps of one of our greatest sages, the blessed Abraham Joshua Heschel, and “live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

It’s the work of a lifetime. It’s difficult. Don’t expect yourself to be amazed every moment of every day. But hold out – expect it once a day. Make it happen once a day – in a flower or a lover’s sigh or the sheer joy of a puppy when you open your door. These are the gifts G…d gives us to help us see the light.

I can pray for no more for you in the new year than this awe, than a single moment of this awe.

It is Rosh Hashanah. We are inscribed into the Book of Life—and the Book of Life is good. Life is good. The world is good – brilliant and beautiful and messy and chaotic and so so very good. Be brave this year and let Rosh Hashanah mark for you the beginning of awe.

With all of my heart, and my prayers for your joy,

Malachi Kosanovich



Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name.


This is the beginning of the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of the most beautiful and moving prayers I have ever found.

It is a prayer said in memory of those we have lost. It is a prayer more of of America should be paying attention to.

In the midst of death and sorrow, Judaism turns to a prayer that never mentions death. It never mentions anger or rage or revenge. It never mentions judgment. It mentions peace. It mentions life. It mentions the praising of God for what has been given to the children of Israel and to all the world.

Every year I think of the Kaddish often as 9-11 approaches. I wonder who, if anyone, is saying the Kaddish for the Iraqi soldiers or the al-Qaeda. I wonder who is saying the Kaddish for Osama bin Laden. I wonder if anyone remembers a story about him where he gave a child a toy, where he was kind to a woman on the street, where he drew a beautiful picture that brought joy into the world.

We, as a collective people, have vilified Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to the point where we can forget that they are people. They have, for many, become faces so evil that there is no humanity left. We forget that they too worshiped and prayed. We forget that they strove towards God in the best ways they knew how.

I am ashamed.

Our national grief has made us monsters incapable of forgiveness. It has turned us away from the glory and joy of acknowledging God that is found in the Kaddish and towards hate and vengeance. We are festering, rotting – being eaten alive by fear, distust, and anger that lives in the collective American heart.

What happened to forgiveness? What happened to turning the other cheek? Our sins do not go with us unto death. God is better than that. We have defended. We have attacked. Now, it is time to find God within ourselves and heal. We must forgive. We must be willing to love enough to pray for forgiveness for our enemies.

We have an opportunity to show the world that we are better than they think we are. We have a chance, this 9-11, to talk of peace and forgiveness, instead of celebrating the ‘victory’ of Osama’s death.

I will wake up that morning and say morning prayers. I will finish the traditional ones with the Mourner’s Kaddish, as I always do. But I will not end there. I will pray for the soul of Osama, for the souls of every al-Qaeda member, for every innocent victim of every attack. And I will pray for the souls of all Americans, that we might find healing and forgiveness in our hearts, that we may heal from the rot that has taken over our souls. And I will pray with the words of one of the great prophets, as Muhammad taught us to pray:

“O God, forgive our living and our dead, those who are present among us and those who are absent, our young and our old, our males and our females. O God, whoever You keep alive, keep him alive in Islam, and whoever You cause to die, cause him to die with faith.O God, do not deprive us of the reward and do not cause us to go astray after this. O God, forgive him and have mercy on him, keep him safe and sound and forgive him, honour his rest and ease his entrance; wash him with water and snow and hail, and cleanse him of sin as a white garment is cleansed of dirt. O God, give him a home better than his home and a family better than his family. O God, admit him to Paradise and protect him from the torment of the grave and the torment of Hell-fire; make his grave spacious and fill it with light.”


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I know I’m supposed to say the Mod(e)(a)h Ani first thing in the morning. Before I get out of bed. Before I say hello to my dogs. Before I have a first cup of coffee. After all, what greater gift is there than the return of one’s soul to one’s body. It should be the first thing you think of. The problem is, I’m not always sure my soul is awake when I first open my eyes. If I’m rushing through the prayer so that I can wash my hands, and then go make coffee, has my soul reached awareness for the day?

So I’ve been playing around with new times and ways in which to pray — not just the Mod(e)(a)h Ani, but all prayer. Sometimes it works. Other times it’s a disaster. The audio version of the Ma’ariv services on my iPhone while I walk the dogs was an unmitigated disaster. It’s impossible to focus while politely asking your dogs to “just, please, don’t eat that rabbit”.

For a long time, I felt like a failure trying new times and ways of praying. I wanted to do it Right. I wanted to do it Jewishly. Even when the prayer time or placement worked for me, even when it made me feel spiritually alive and in touch with Something Somewhere, I felt like a failure.

We all do it — we become so wedded to the way something is supposed to be done that we lose the point of why we are doing it. We want it to be right and proper and true — and we forget that we also want it to mean something, be authentic, and move us towards something beautiful. I find this to be particularly true of the fixity of Jewish prayer. There are laws to be obeyed. There are times and places and ways in which one is allowed to pray. The text is (more or less) fixed. The words are set. But we also want the work of prayer to be a movement of our hearts.

So this morning, I took my coffee and a random book of Jewish essays out onto my front porch, which is quickly becoming my favorite place to be. I hadn’t said the prayer thanking G…d for the return of my soul yet, because I was grumpy and didn’t really feel like my soul was where it needed to be. Instead, I opened my book, which happened to be a book of essays on prayer, and this is what I read:

Twice daily we try to impress upon our hearts the words, uttered in Hebrew, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all they soul with all thy might. However, there are those who know the meaning but not the right pronunciation of these Hebrew words. Does perfect love depend upon the perfect pronunciation, upon proper articulation?*

As in most cases, Heschel is right. I’m not a native Hebrew speaker. I may never get the words quite right. I am not a Jew from birth. I’m still learning how the laws and rules and rituals fit into my life. But Heschel goes on to say that “prayer is not judged by standards of rhetoric but by the good intention, by the earnestness and intensity of the person. Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self”.* I’ve got those in spades – intention and will and earnestness.

So this morning I sat on my front porch, and I drank my coffee, and I enjoyed the sunshine and I prayed, thanking G…d for the return of my soul to my body. And it may not have been Halachic, this impromptu morning prayer, but for the first time in a while, as I said it, I felt like my soul woke up.


From Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, by A. J. Heschel, p. 16, 17



Last week, Rabbi Daniel Alter of Berlin was on his way home from picking up his daughter. He was approached, asked if he was Jewish, and then attacked when he responded yes. Among the many responses to this attack was one from Gideon Joffe, who heads the Jewish community in Berlin, who stated that he would “not recommend that any Jew go around in parts of Berlin with a kipah.” Additionally, the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam has advised students to choose something inconspicuous to replace the traditional Jewish kippah. The rector of the school has explained that it is safer to not appear to be a Jewish person.

My immediate instinct was to start wearing my kippah full time. In solidarity with every Jew who is afraid to wear one. In honor and acknowledgment of the fact that I live a privileged life in which I don’t have to be afraid to wear mine. I wear my Magen David every day without a second thought. I rock a Magen David tattoo where it is practically impossible to miss.

After all, bodies are political. Every time we step out of our doors, people read our bodies to find out who we are. Our clothes, our jewelry, our manner of walking — everything we embody says something about what we hold dear, what we fight against, what we are, and what we want to be. The wearing of a kippah, particularly in my wealthy suburban neighborhood, is in some ways a political act. It states, in a way that tattoos don’t, that I am a Jew — not just a Jew with a tattoo, but a Jew who identifies, a Jew who practices, a religious Jew, a Jew you cannot ignore by pretending not to see the other markers.

But I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing the irony of donning a kippah as a political practice because it marks me as a religious Jew. I have no problems with religious acts being political — they frequently are. But they should not only be political. If I am to don the kippah, it must be a spiritual act as well as a political one.  For me, there is no way to move forward without balancing the two.

This complicates things. Women are not required (or even asked) to wear the kippah. From a biblical point of view, only the priests are required to cover their heads (Exodus 28:4). For men it is traditional, because of the law codes, which suggest that one should not walk four cubits without their heads being covered. Any wearing of a kippah, for a woman, is in some way a political act.

How then, does it become equally as spiritual? Talmud tells us that we wear a head covering because it reminds us of G…d, who is the Higher Authority “above us” (Kiddushin 31a). Problematic for a Jew who sees G…d as immanent as much as transcendent. But the truth of it remains, I think. The kippah reminds us, at the most inconvenient times (when playing sports or when a lover tries to run fingers through your hair, just to name two), that the joyous moments of your life are a gift. It’s a reminder that you are who you are, and that G…d is who/what/where/all the glorious things that G…d is. It’s a reminder every day that you are observant, in whatever ways that observance takes you.

It may be, as I am hoping it will be for me, a way into a more fully spiritual and observant life. As I struggle with the mitzvot, as I struggle to work more and more observance into my daily Jewish life, the kippah can act as a step out the door — a small thing that reminds me daily of who I am and why I struggle for the things I want in my life.


(See the referenced news stories here: and )