Super Subcultures

Why Breast Cancer Survivors Are Reclaiming an Ancient Jewish Ritual

When her best friend started chemo, Chaya wanted a way to make her monthly mikvah as special as possible. She ended up finding a new kind of holy cleansing—even though it broke all the traditional rules.

Why Breast Cancer Survivors Are Reclaiming an Ancient Jewish Ritual

Before she can meet God, Rachell Goldberg needs to get rid of all the nail polish on her toes.

An immersion in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, is supposed to be an encounter with the divine, she says.

Goldberg widens her eyes. “I mean, like, imagine!”

At its best, mikvah gets you so clean, body and soul, that God is right there with you. But first, you have to make sure there is nothing between you and the water. That means being vigilant for everything from belly button lint to a stuffed nose and going head to toe to ensure no crevice or fold is forgotten.

So, Goldberg sets to work on her toes. First, she lets acetone-soaked cotton balls rest on her nails. Now, she’s scraping away at what’s left of the polish with a pair of tweezers, chin on her knees.

Goldberg is crouched on a chair in a private room at Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. It feels like a spa. The room is warm, smells like flowers, and is full of every conceivable cleaning implement: drawers of pink razors, glass jars stuffed with Q-tips, a comb floating in shockingly blue Barbicide.

Rachell.

This will be Goldberg’s first immersion since beginning chemotherapy and radiation seven months ago. Before that, she immersed every month for thirteen years, since becoming a married woman (aside from the months when she was pregnant with her five children). As of today, Goldberg is done with the worst of her treatment, and her immersion is laden with meaning. When Goldberg was first diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she thought she would never go to a mikvah again.

Jews are commanded in the Torah and Rabbinic commentaries to immerse for three reasons: conversion, marriage, and monthly menstruation. This last one is controversial. Some see it as an insult, the insinuation that a natural process makes a woman unclean or untouchable, and that before she reunites with her husband she must become pure. Others see monthly mikvah as a powerful way to mark a transition between two states of being. In fact, the mikvah waters are often kept at body temperature and can feel womb-like, like a spiritual rebirth. Either way, for many Orthodox women in the United States, monthly mikvah is a part of life.

But what happens when a woman stops menstruating? Is her decades-long relationship with mikvah suddenly over? This is not an idle question. For many women, Goldberg included, chemotherapy for breast cancer means the end of their period. Ashkenazi Jewish women are at unusually high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ashkenazi Jews on the whole carry the BRCA gene mutation, which leads to both these cancers, at a rate ten times that of the general population.

At traditional mikvaot, the spotlight is on a woman’s fertility and sexuality. But for Jewish women with breast cancer, treatment means not only the end of their childbearing years, but also a deeply altered relationship to their physical and sexual selves. There is no formal place at a traditional mikvah for these women. Their bodies have changed, but the ritual hasn’t caught up.

Mikvah has traditionally been known as more of a utilitarian in-and-out chore than a personal or holy experience. Mikvaot are often built to be functional, not comfortable. Goldberg recalls immersing in an ultra-Orthodox mikvah in Israel, where she lived as a young adult and served in the military. The mikvah was small and crowded, and she recalls the process of being “checked” by the mikvah attendant to make sure the immersion was halachic, following the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.

“She was a stickler, looking at each one of my fingernails and just poking and prodding me,” Goldberg says. There was little dignity in being examined with such brusque efficiency.

Enter now through June 27

Win $3,000 and a lot more!

These issues become more pronounced while a woman is being treated for breast cancer, or after she has finished treatment. She may have scars across her chest. As she combs her hair to get rid of tangles, as per the custom, it may fall out. She may be more concerned about the spread of infection through the communal waters of a busy mikvah. She may be feeling vulnerable and exposed in her new body. After breast cancer, many women choose to leave mikvah behind. Before her diagnosis, Goldberg immersed every month out of obligation. After her diagnosis, she had an out — but she didn’t take it.

The night before Goldberg began chemotherapy, her friend Chaya Topas invited her to Mikvah Chaim, one of a wave of new mikvaot reimagining immersion in the United States. This mikvah revolution centers around opening mikvah, allowing patrons to come to the mikvah for any occasion that is holy to them, Biblically-commanded or not. It’s also about empowering women once they’re there, says Lisa Berman, a director at Mayyim Hayyim, one of the hubs of modern mikvah. Mayyim Hayyim and its protégée mikvaot allow patrons to engage with the ritual in a way that feels right for them, whether that means asking that some body parts not be checked or reciting a poem after the Hebrew blessing. Today, Jews of all denominations are using mikvah to mark everything from miscarriages to gender transitions.

And according to Berman, it’s all still kosher. In the Rabbinic commentaries, non-commanded immersion actually gets plenty of discussion. For instance, some ancient Rabbis recommended immersing on the holiday of Yom Kippur. Even though Jews are not commanded to immerse on this occasion, the Rabbis thought that doing so might still be powerful and good.

In traditional communities today, however, few take the license to stray from commanded immersion. Rivkah Slonim, editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, says that there’s a “distinction between doing something because it’s Biblically mandated and engaging in a practice because you are moved to do so.” She poses the question — what if somebody felt moved to hold a Passover Seder on Thanksgiving? “Finite connects to the infinite on the infinite’s terms,” she says.

In addition to being open, progressive mikvaot also value comfort. Topas recalls a conversation between synagogue board members as they discussed building Mikvah Chaim. One member assured the others that, not to worry, the mikvah would be nothing like a spa. But that’s exactly what it should be like, Topas thinks. “It’s supposed to be wonderful,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a spa-like experience so women will want to come back.”

Goldberg and Topas met because their children go to school together, and for a while, they were both at home during the day. They would talk and laugh and snack on the kosher Parmesan cheese Topas always keeps in her fridge. Topas is a mikvah attendant, and she wanted to use the mikvah to bless her friend as she headed into treatment. Jews are encouraged to come to the mikvah with kavanah, or intention. Topas says her intention for Goldberg that night was simple: that the blessing of the mikvah would bring her perfect health.

Every time Goldberg had ever gone to the mikvah before, she had done it for her family. She had prayed for shalom bayit, peace in the home, and reveled in the care she brought to preparing each part of her body for her husband. The night that Topas brought her to Mikvah Chaim was the first time she had ever gone to the mikvah outside of her menstrual cycle. It was the first time she had gone just for herself.

“It was really empowering to be like, ‘I can do this? This is allowed? I guess it is.’”

Goldberg could barely undress. She was in pain from her recent double mastectomy. But her mother was there to help. Her mother was the only person, aside from her doctors, who had seen her scars, so she was the one who guided Goldberg into the water. Traditionally, an attendant would be present to judge the body and immersion kosher or not, but this mikvah gave Goldberg the option of privacy.

Having her mom there reminded Goldberg of her first immersion, the night before her wedding. She had no idea how her life was about to change. Water, both times, was a sacred force.

“You go into the water and it holds you and it gives you so much. I don’t know. It surrounds you completely,” she says. “You’re floating at the same time you’re also so grounded.”

Goldberg’s favorite part was when her mother had left the room and she was alone in the mikvah — for the first time in her life.

“I was swimming around and I was like, this is amazing!” she says. “What is it, did they not trust me before? I mean, the whole concept of having your own time in there by yourself is incredible. It felt like this is probably the way it used to be.”

Goldberg pictured Jewish women in the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada. She imagined that they immersed just like this — no hovering attendant, just holiness. But soon she started feeling that she was breaking the rules.

“No woman should have that feeling,” she says. “Every woman should feel like, this is my time. I deserve to be in here alone.”

That night, Goldberg realized that she had found a mikvah where she could immerse and be held exactly as she was. She found herself looking forward to going back.

Now, Goldberg has returned to the mikvah for the first time since that night, and she’s nervous. So much has happened since her last immersion. Goldberg says if she had known what kind of suffering was ahead, “I would have booked a one-way ticket to I-don’t-know-where.”

She’s finally gotten the nail polish off of her toes and has begun to comb her new, short hair in quick strokes. “It’s going to be much easier,” she says lightly. “No worries about loose strands of hair on my back or anywhere.”

She moves on to her eyebrows and grabs the tweezers.

“You’re allowed to have, in general, the hairs on your body that you normally keep.” She grins. “So, if you’re normally getting a Brazilian wax, you need to go get one for mikvah night.”

Rachell at the Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C.

Goldberg is happy that both her eyebrows and eyelashes grew back — she lost them completely and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. “I got some tough Middle Eastern genes here, so,” she says.

Goldberg’s family is from Morocco — she describes herself as “purebred Sephardi.” Her face, as she stares into the mirror, is made of swift angles and wide eyes that hold yours without blinking. According to Topas, all of their friends say that Goldberg has never looked better. According to Topas’s husband, she’s the only one who could pull off her buzz cut, and it may be true. She looks beautiful.

Goldberg begins to file her nails, which became brittle and thin during chemotherapy. Now, she notices, there are a few cracks, but they have mostly grown in strong and healthy.

“The body,” she says, “has such a strong will.”

Goldberg’s intention for this immersion, her kavanah, is different from the last time. She’s hoping for a new beginning. She feels that cancer wrought havoc in so many parts of her life, from her body to her marriage. She looks very alone, squinting at her nails in this big, clean room.

Goldberg softly traces her eyelashes and eyelids with makeup remover, a strikingly caring the gesture. A ritual that might have been demeaning now demands a sort of meticulous self-gentleness. Mikvah provides a time to lovingly attend to each part of one’s body, even — and especially — when one’s body has changed.

Goldberg opens drawers, looking for floss.

“I know my dentist tells me I should be flossing every day,” she says, “but I don’t. I actually don’t. But before the mikvah, I always do.”

Goldberg is ready to go. She ties her robe tight and presses a buzzer. After a few moments, Topas arrives at the door and leads the way to the pool.

It’s small, and tiled, and deep. Goldberg looks at it, and then looks at me, and pulls her robe tighter.

“Let’s see. I don’t have nipples,” she tells me. “Just so you know.”

Rachell sits on the edge of the mikvah water.

She explains that her tumor was too close to the front of her breast for the doctors to preserve the nipple, so instead she has two scars on her chest, and she doesn’t want me to get freaked out. I turn my back as she walks down the steps into the mikvah. A mikvah attendant might cover her eyes with the patron’s robe at this time, until the patron is neck-deep in the water.

Goldberg floats a bit, and then pushes herself completely underwater, crossing her arms and legs. She does this three times, and says the b’racha, the blessing, out loud once: Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu b’mitzvo-tav v’tzi-vanu al ha-tevilah. Halfway through, her voice breaks and she cries.

Now that Goldberg has found Mikvah Chaim, she wants to keep coming back. But she’s not sure when. If she can’t follow her menstrual schedule, she’ll have to invent a new schedule. Maybe she’ll go on her birthday, and her children’s birthdays, and her anniversary, and also Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

Goldberg’s period will soon be gone completely, and it’s up to her to reinvent her relationship to mikvah. To ask why, and for whom, she immerses now.

“I’m not necessarily going to run to a rabbi and say ‘what do I need to do?’ from a halachic standpoint,” she says. “Just personally, what do I want to do? How much do I want to make it a part of my life? Because I’m going to miss it.”

Goldberg also wants to keep coming to the mikvah for her daughters. She doesn’t want to break the chain between generations. She wants her daughters to love mikvah, and to see their mother love mikvah. She’s glad they will have options like Mikvah Chaim.

Goldberg doesn’t think she’s doing anything too heretical by immersing outside of her menstrual cycle. In fact, she believes that women have probably always done this, sought out the mikvah for ritual and sanctity when they were struggling. All of the rules, the counting of days and plucking of hairs, were probably added in later. Of her immersion, Goldberg says, “It felt right. So, I’m sure it was.”