It was my father who came up with the scheme to save Margie’s life. My sister had just been diagnosed with cancer, and now our family gathered around a kitchen table, trying to figure out what to do. My sister raked her fingers through her shiny chestnut hair; she couldn’t stop touching it now that she knew it would soon be gone. “I just want to see my kids graduate,” she said, and then blinked hard to stop the tears.
That’s when my father began to unbutton his shirt. On his strong, speckled chest, something gleamed. He ducked his head and pulled off the necklace, dangling it before all of us. From the chain hung a golden chai, the Hebrew word that brings luck. He had worn that symbol ever since I could remember. “Life,” he said (that’s what chai means). And then he pushed out of his chair and shuffled around the table to lean over Margie. His kissed her forehead and then fastened the talisman around her neck. At that moment, we all believed in his humble, homemade Jewish magic: my father was giving his own life to Margie.
What is the role of religion in times of crisis? We depend on prayer, of course, to commune with God. But we also need charms and talismans to comfort us. Magical thinking is woven into our religion’s roots, and some of its most ancient traditions. For thousands of years Jewish people have fastened mezuzahs to doorposts to ward off evil. More recently, Jews began wearing the chai symbol. Ritual objects are a way of drawing on God’s power — even when God doesn’t want to talk to us. They are religion’s back channels, its bribes, its fixed horse races.
My sister would squeeze her chai every morning and every night, as if it were a buzzer to summon a nurse. She was defiantly calling upon God to pay attention to her. She never used to be religious — none of us were. Before my Margie got sick, we would have called ourselves “spiritual Jews” rather than “observant.” But now, we needed more. Now, my 44-year-old sister had a death sentence hanging over her.
At first, the chai did seem to work a miracle. The doctor informed us we could be cautiously optimistic. In his small office at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, he calmed us by explaining his plan. Margie would get all he had to offer: chemotherapy, radiation, CT scans and MRIs.
“At this point,” he told Margie, “you can run a marathon if you want.” I watched as he scanned his computer, examining the x-rays. He assured us that there wasn’t much cancer in her lungs. The metastasis to her hips was shrinking from the radiation. Aside from the cancer, she was healthy. We felt indestructible in that office, during the first few weeks of the treatment. We never asked the doctor how much time Margie had. We didn’t want to know — because not knowing would make us lucky.
My duty was to keep that positive feeling alive after we left the doctor’s office. I convinced myself that her body would outsmart the cancer, even though she was Stage 4. As they say in the cancer circles, which we had reluctantly joined, there is no Stage 5. Miracles could happen, right? God’s parting of the Red Sea was a miracle, as was His daily supply of manna to nourish the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert. What could He do for us?
To improve our chances for divine intervention, my father gave Margie a siddur — a prayer book — and she began to sleep with it on her night table. He told her to read the Amidah: “We thank You and praise You for Your miracles which daily attend us and for Your wondrous kindness.” She chanted from this prayer book while the necklace danced on her throat. She begged God that she would be allowed to witness her 12-yearold son and 15-year-old daughter go to college. Why did she get cancer? Why her? Why not her?
One day, I told Margie that my friend would be traveling to Israel. So here was another chance for luck: we could ask my friend to put prayers in the Western Wall.
“Yeah,” Margie said, looking happier than she had in days. “Remember when Papa put a note in the Wall wishing you would get married? And then you did get married!”
During the week that followed, I collected notes from our family and friends, and folded them up into tiny pieces. My scrap of paper said, “Please heal my sister Margie; we need her, her husband and children need her.”
Then, days later, I imagined my friend in Jerusalem sticking the papers in the crevices of the wall, shoving them deep so that they passed to some secret other side, as if the Wall were God’s mailbox. That wall had become a charm for Jews all over the world, and we had joined this family of people with desperate hopes.
“Do you think the notes will help?” Margie asked.
“Absolutely,” I said.
And they did help, at first. Our doctor told us about a new cancer drug, fresh out of the lab, that would be our magic bullet. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, the pill was designed to attack just the cancer cells. It had few side effects.
My sister took the pill every day. Her hair grew back. The nausea ended. She had energy. Now we could pretend that her life would be normal again. All she had to do is take that pill and see her doctor every three weeks. The doctor told us about a patient whose tumor had been destroyed by the pill, so that for months she’d been cancer-free.
“Could that happen to me?” Margie asked.
“It’s possible,” he said. “You’ve had positive results with the chemotherapy.”
I touched the mezuzah I had started to wear under my shirt. Had the chai worked? Was it the notes in the Wall?
Later that week, I attended a bat mitzvah and participated in the traditional Jewish prayer for healing the sick. This prayer, the Mishe’bayrakh, is said on Shabbat during the Torah reading service, and congregants are invited to come up to the bimah to announce the names of friends, family, and loved ones who are sick, so the entire community can pray on their behalf.
“Excuse me,” I said as I shimmied past the people in my row of seats, feeling their eyes on me while I made my way to the bimah. I told the rabbi my sister’s Hebrew name, Miriam Etka, Marjorie Ellen, with a strapping voice, as if pronouncing her name loud and strong would give her a better chance.
I listened as he chanted in Hebrew, “May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal Miriam Etka. May the Holy One in mercy strengthen her and heal her soon, body and soul, together with others who suffer illness. And let us say, Amen.”
The next week I went again, this time to my own synagogue for the Mishe’bayrakh. Here the rabbi told us to stand in place, rather than go up to the bimah, if we wanted to give him the name of a loved one who is ill. I rose in the middle of the congregation, my face hot and red, and spoke Margie’s name. After the service, the rabbi told me he would say my sister’s name every week, whether I was there or not. I felt good, as if I were doing everything I could to stave off the cancer.
Why do we say the names of the sick out loud? “One’s spirit and soul can always be in marathon shape even if the body cannot be,” my rabbi, William Hamilton, told me. And if the sick know that people are praying to God on their behalf, they can’t help but feel cared for and nourished. The miracle can be the community itself — the way that friends and family respond to an illness, how they come together to focus a beam of love on the sufferer.
During the next few months, Margie kept a vial of her special medicine by her bedside next to her siddur and other lucky charms. Before she popped a pill into her mouth, she would give the pill a special, conscious touch, just as an observant Jew might stroke a doorway mezuzah. The pill was working — but for how long? Before each doctor’s appointment, while we sat in the waiting room, Margie would simmer with anxiety.
“I don’t look like her, right?” she asked one day, pointing to a pale woman with no eyebrows with a scarf wrapped around her head.
“Of course not,” I said. “You don’t look sick at all.” And it was true; she didn’t. It’s amazing how the inside of the body doesn’t always translate to the outside. Margie wore tight jeans and a cashmere sweater; she painted her big blue eyes with strokes of smoky mascara. Although her hair was thin and wispy, she kept it styled in a chic cut.
“How do you know I’ll be okay?” she asked.
“You will be,” I said as I squeezed her hand. She nodded in agreement. I scanned the waiting room and couldn’t help staring at an emaciated man in a wheelchair. And there was a young woman with her “chemo club” support group by her side, wearing false smiles and spitting out overzealous laughter. And then I glanced at my sister, who appeared to be the image of health. My sister wasn’t like them. She had luck, and the magic chai around her neck.
Eight months after taking the new pill, and one month after her son’s bar mitzvah, the smart drug stopped working and the cancer spread to her brain. My sister lost her hearing, her balance, and her ability to chew. But at the same time, Margie rarely cried anymore. She no longer asked me whether she’d beat the odds. The Jewish rituals and magic continued to be a blessing for us — though not in the way we’d hoped. When the rabbi visited Margie in her final days, she didn’t discuss her illness; instead, she asked him for news of his wife and children. She offered her compassion to others, grasping her chai from time to time. Even though her body was failing her, the rabbi said she could have won a marathon with her spirit and soul.
Our Jewish magic smoothed away Margie’s fear. Margie was able to defy her illness; she refused to let it get the best of her. It couldn’t save her life, but it gave her the poise to face what was coming with dignity.
Margie passed away peacefully in her sleep, with her family by her side, at the age of 46.
Sondra Levenson is a writer at work on her memoir. She has been a speech pathologist, and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.