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Piercing in Israel

Piercing, although popular in the US for years, has only recently become widespread in Israel -- where Jewish religious law prohibits piercings because of interpretations of the Torah.

With black marker in hand, piercing artist Daniel Barrak draws small, even lines on fifteen-year-old Danya's left nipple. The Tel Aviv high school student is in Barrak's small tattoo studio off Ben Yuhuda street getting her fourth piercing in the past year. Along with a nose ring and a pierced tongue, Danya sports a purple safety pin in her right eyebrow - a piercing she did with the help of her boyfriend at home.

"I like to be different," Danya explains. "This is my way of expressing myself. It's a way of decorating my body that expresses who I am."

Danya is one of the dozen or so teens who come to Barrak for piercing each week. Most want ear or nose piercings, although a few prefer to have their belly button or genitals pierced. Though piercing has been popular in the US for years, it has only recently become widespread in Israel, a country where the state is closely connected with religious law (Jewish religious law prohibits piercings because of interpretations of the Torah.)

Officials at the Ministry of Health have no estimate for the number of minors who have body piercings. Barrak thinks that about 5,000 piercings are done each year. Recently, teens are interested in having multiple piercings, or piercing unusual parts of their bodies, such as the area underneath their bottom lip or between their nostrils.

"A couple of years ago, everyone had their nose pierced," Danya said. "But now everyone has their belly button or tongue pierced. They are looking for something new. A nipple or an eyebrow isn't extreme enough."

As her boyfriend and two other friends stand by, one with a camera in hand (snapping photos of the whole process), Barrak unwraps a new 10-gauge needle from its wax paper casing. "Just hurry up, hurry up," Danya squirms. "Why are you taking so long?"

Her friends, standing on either side, calm her and grasp her hands as Barrak quickly drives the needle through her nipple, pulling it out and replacing it with the silver ring that Danya chose earlier. "Ow, ow, ow! Is it over? Are you done?" Barrak has her lie down and gives her a short lecture about how to clean and care for her new piercing.

After paying 120 NIS (about $45), Danya and her friends settle around a table at a nearby McDonalds to explain why the younger generation of Israeli's secular youth are so crazy about piercing.

"Piercing is a form of body art," says Channah, Danya's 17-year-old classmate who came along to photograph her friend's nipple piercing experience. "We are saying through this art that we are the anti-culture, we reject everything about how the culture demands us to be."

For Miedad, Danya's 22-year-old boyfriend, piercing is less about making a statement and more about pain. "Body manipulation expands your mind because we have fear of pain. So we avoid anything we think will hurt. But when you willingly subject yourself to pain, you can learn to enjoy the pain. That is liberation."

Danya explains that many piercing-prone Israeli youth consider themselves "Modern Primitives," a social and cultural movement that embraces scarification, branding, and S&M. "When you transcend the pain, you find out that you aren't limited by this physical world."

Philosophy of pain and piercing aside, how does this particular form of body art play out in their lives?

"Most people think this is really extreme," Danya explains. "But I don't think I will have any serious drawbacks unless I got an infection or something."

Miedad adds, "Some people might discriminate against you because of your piercings. When I was in the army, they would prohibit wearing nose rings and people who had them had to take them out and then the hole closed up. But the type of person who would discriminate against you because you have a piercing would not want someone like me to work for them anyway. They would think I'm too mushuggie (crazy)."

And what do parents say about their teens coming home with piercings?

My mother didn't say anything," Channah replied. "My father didn't say anything either although I heard them discussing it. They just think I decided to do this because I'm young but I know that when I'm older I will still want to have these," Channah lifts her shirt to display the bar through her nipple and the ring in her navel.

Danya smiles. "After I pierced my tongue, my mother said, 'How can you even eat with that in your mouth all the time?' I couldn't eat the first few days. We were having dinner and food kept falling out of my mouth. My parents were annoyed and told me if I couldn't keep my food in my mouth I had to go eat in the other room."

Channah and Miedad laugh and after a few more tongue piercing anecdotes, the conversation turns to the more serious subject of the Ministry of Health and their recent calls for a government crackdown on teen piercings.

Danya gestures to her chest. "This is my body and I should have my rights to do what I want with my body. I don't want anyone telling me I'm not old enough to do this."

Channah agrees. "No one ever asks us for our identity card and if they refused to let us have a piercing, we would just do it ourselves. That could be dangerous because some younger children would not know what they were doing and could hurt themselves."

Recent calls by the community leaders have led the Ministry of Health to look into the situation of minors getting piercings. Although more upscale piercing studios, such as Jerusalem's Bizzart on Hillel Street, refuse to pierce minors in some areas of the body (tongue, navel, genitals) without parental permission, most hole-in-the-wall shops simply ask the teen if their parents think this is okay.

"One place wanted a note from my parents before they would do it [pierce me]," Miedad relates. "So I just wrote a note and signed my father's name. How were they going to know what his signature looked like?"

Currently, the Ministry of Health has no laws in place to regulate piercing studios. The only laws effecting such establishments are the routine hygiene regulations designed for establishments such as hair stylists or mainstream ear-piercing shops.

"We hope to have a completed set of regulations with the year," Dr. Yitzhak Berlovich of the Ministry of Health stated. "These regulations will help us address problems such as infections, the spread of disease and the possible contraction of the HIV virus."

Not using gloves or properly sterilized needles can lead to severe infections, Barrak explains. "We use brand new needles, straight out of the package. But not all people do that. Some places sterilize the needle and use it again. If it's not done properly, the person can get a blood infection and it can be serious, even fatal."

In addition to looking at the issue of hygiene, some community leaders have proposed that the Ministry of Health prohibit youth from getting pierced without their parent's consent. There are currently no laws addressing whether teens can get piercings without parental consent. "These are mostly teenagers and the challenge is to control what they have access to and what they are prohibited from. Without cooperation from the businesses, it is very difficult to control what happens." Berlovich said. "But it is better to focus on educating the teenagers about some of the dangers of piercings."