As the first anniversary of my mastectomy approached, I viewed the occasion with mixed emotions. It had been a year of challenges and discoveries, sadness, fear and fortitude. It had also been, I realized, now that it was over, twelve months of mourning. I had suffered a terrible loss, grieved that loss, and had begun to heal physically and spiritually. It was time to re-enter the world and look towards the future.
I don’t remember when the idea of a mikveh immersion ceremony came to me, except that, like so many of the blessings of that year, it came when I both needed it and was open to receiving it.
The healing powers of wafer had played a big part in my physical recovery from the surgery. Six months before the cancer diagnosis, for reasons I’ll never know, I began to swim at the Y. It was an exercise I had attempted a couple of times over the years with no real enthusiasm. Surprisingly, this time I stuck with it and, even more miraculously, began to enjoy it. I built up my strength and endurance and began to feel a sense of peace in the water. It was as if my body knew of the impending trauma and wanted to be prepared. After the surgery (and even now, almost two years later) I continued swimming a few times weekly.
In my mind, a visit to the mikveh offered a ritual cleansing from the ashes of mourning to the freshness of one reborn. It was an appealing thought, but it was only my thought, not the halakhic idea of our ancestors. Would it, I wondered, be kosher? I consulted my rabbi, Lisa Edwards, at Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. She supported me. I had yet no clue, however, as to what my ritual might actually be.
When I was young, our rabbi ended every Shabbat service with the Priestly Blessing. We would rise as a congregation; he would stand in the center of the bima, arms raised, and intone this most personal benediction in Hebrew and then in English: “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s countenance smile upon you and be gracious unto you. And may God grant you peace. Amen.” It was a blessing I could wear as I left the synagogue to face the world outside.
I realized, all these years later, that I wanted the comfort of that same blessing again. It was somehow very embarrassing for me to tell Rabbi Edwards that I wanted to be blessed. But, I reasoned finally, desperate times call for desperate measures. If you can’t ask a rabbi to say a prayer on your behalf, whom can you ask?
In the days before going to the mikveh, I started to read up about its significance in The Jewish Catalogue, The Jewish Book of Why, Miriam’s Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year, and elsewhere. I began reading the Torah, to catch up to the portion for that week (it was Genesis 35:1-36:43). Several passages jumped out at me and I wrote them in a notebook, with no obvious plan.
Besides the rabbi, a dear friend, Fran Chalin, was accompanying me to the mikveh. She had also decided to perform an immersion (in a ceremony completely separate from mine) to celebrate the birth of her first child. Several times we talked about our feelings surrounding the ritual and our expectations. She was particularly fearful that the moment would not instill in her the feelings she wanted to feel.
Hearing her voice these concerns made it easier for me to realize how important it was to let go of expectations. The mikveh would not guarantee me a life free from cancer any more than it would guarantee my friend peace of mind, but if we had no expectations, we could not be disappointed. To enter with an open heart.. dayenu.
The night before my visit, still unsure of what I would do at the mikveh, I sat at the computer consolidating the biblical passages that had struck me. I copied the prayers—the Sh’ma, the blessing concerning immersion in the mikveh, and the Shehechiyanu. This last prayer especially, thanking God for “allowing us to reach this day,” would have particular significance as I stood in the healing waters.
I copied ‘a brief explanation of the states of tumah [uncleanliness] and taharah [cleanliness] that exist before and after immersion. And suddenly all these passages and prayers fell into an order that would become a service.
At the mikveh the next day, I handed everyone a copy of my ceremony, and then showered and cleaned myself according to custom. Without jewelry, contact lenses, perfumes or anything that would impede the contact of my body with water, I entered the small tile-lined mikveh-room in a towel, disrobed, and went down into the water.
It was a sunken tub, about five feet square, much like any Jacuzzi at a health club, but without the jets. I walked down seven steps to stand in the shoulder-high water. The water was warm and the room quiet. Standing above me were four people—the rabbi; the “mikveh lady” Lillian Zelcer (I had invited her to participate as the ‘woman who cares for all women’); my friend Fran; and her newborn, Eli. It felt unexpectedly life-affirming to have Eli there.
I stood, arms outstretched and legs apart, as Lillian had instructed me. Each of the three times I immersed, I curled up so that the water enveloped me completely, as it once did in the womb.
Before and after each immersion I relaxed and breathed deeply and let the water and the words of the Torah wash over me, acknowledging my struggle, welcoming God’s presence, and preparing me to face the future with hope.
When it was all over, I walked outside into a magnificent late-fall day. The sky felt very close (we were on a hill), very blue. The air was really clean. It felt good and it felt right.
Jerilyn Goodman is a 45-year-old television producer in Los Angeles.
by Jerilyn Goodman
[To commemorate my mastectomy of November 18, 1993, To mark the end of a year of mourning, And to celebrate my life ahead.]
Rabbi: Tumah [uncleanliness) is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah [cleanliness] is the result of our re-affirmation of our own mortality. It is the re-entry into light. Tumah is evil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle.
[from The Jewish Catalog]
Rabbi: Be strong and of good courage. Fear not nor be afraid. For the Lord, thy God. will not fail thee nor forsake thee.
[Joshua I : 19]
Fran: For I am on the road on which the Lord has guided me.
Lillian: I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.
Jerilyn: Sh’ma Yisra’el, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. Hear. O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Jerilyn: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu Yotzer ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al hatvilah. Blessed art Thou. Lord our God, Creator of the world, who has made us holy with your commandments, and commanded us concerning immersion.
Fran: Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your garments. Let us promptly go up to Bethel and I will build an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.
[Genesis 35:2, from the week’s Torah portion]
[Jerilyn recites the immersion prayer a second time.]
Jerilyn: Baruch Atah Adonai. Eloheynu Ru-ach ha’olam. shehechiyanu. v’kimanu. v’higgianu lazman ha’zeh.
All: Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Spirit of the world, who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.
Rabbi: T’var-khekh Shekhinah vehtish- merekh. Ta’er Shekhinah panehhah eh-lei-ikh veh-teh-hunekh. Tisa Shekinah paneh-hah eh-lei-ikh veh-tahsem lakh shalom. May God bless you and protect you. May the light of God shine upon you and God’s grace be with you. May God be always with you and bring you peace. AMEN, [the Priestly Blessing, with ‘Shekinah’ substituted for ‘Adonai’; and ‘you’ grammatically changed in Hebrew so that the prayer is bestowed upon a female rather than, as is traditional, upon a male]
[Note two changes in the Hebrew prayers: The word “Creator” and later “Spirit” are substituted for the word “King.”]