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. B efore 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. 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.
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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.
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:
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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? 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, 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, and sexuality. 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.