At Narratively, Abigail Holtzman tells the story of Rachell Goldberg, who goes to a mikvah (specifically, Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C.) as solace during treatment for breast cancer. According to Holtzman’s reporting, visiting a mikvah for spiritual reasons, but beyond the times required by Jewish law, is “still kosher.” Kosher, and, for some, deeply meaningful:
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.
Holtzman also explains why there’s a broader need for non-mandated mikvah options:
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.
To my (secular) mind, this sounds very much like a religious version of women (secular or otherwise) participating in beauty rituals as antidotes to tragedy. Sure, one can pick apart the feminist implications of this or that choice, but ultimately at times when comfort is most needed, whatever feels empowering is empowering. From the sound of it, Mikvah Chaim is doing incredibly important work.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a former editor of the Sisterhood blog at the Forward. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including The New Republic and The Atlantic. Her book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” was published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017. She has a PhD in French and French Studies from New York University, and has read a lot of 19th century French Jewish newspapers for a 21st century American.
Jewish Woman With Breast Cancer Soothed By Mikvah