Holy water: reclaiming an ancient Jewish ritual

     Rachell at the Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. (Lauren Murphy for Narratively)

    Rachell at the Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. (Lauren Murphy for Narratively)

    After breast cancer and chemotherapy, Rachell Goldberg has a modern take on the mikvah. 

     “This is my first time at the mikvah with such short hair, ” says Rachell Goldberg. “My hair started growing back after my chemo. Up top here is probably what, one inch long?”

    Goldberg, 38, lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. She’s a mother of five, a personal chef, a breast cancer survivor, and an observant Jew.

    In Jewish tradition, women immerse themselves in a ritual bath called a mikvah each month after their menstrual period and before reuniting with their husbands. Some see mikvah as a powerful way to connect to the source of creation and sanctify the sexual union. For years, Goldberg saw it largely as an obligation.

    But, after going through chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer, she’s finding new meaning in mikvah. After the toxic treatments, she hopes the holy waters will cleanse her spirit.

    According to Jewish belief, God is there with you at the mikvah. The first step of the practice is to remove anything that stands between you and the holy water. Women vigilantly remove everything from toenail polish to belly button lint. No crevice or fold is forgotten.

    The preparation room at Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. feels like a spa, and it’s full of everything you need to ready your body for the mikvah waters. There are drawers of pink razors, jars full of cotton balls, and a comb floating in blue barbicide.

    “It’s always a good opportunity to tidy up your eyebrows and get pretty,” Goldberg says with a laugh.

    At first, Goldberg thought she would never return to the mikvah. As a result of her cancer treatment, her period has largely stopped. In Goldberg’s observant community, immersing outside of the menstrual cycle is just not done.

    But Goldberg’s friend Chaya Topas invited her to visit the mikvah where she works, Mikvah Chaim. It’s a progressive, open mikvah that allows women to immerse for any reason.

    Goldberg has practiced the mikvah routine since she got married; she’s used to it. But today, she’s bringing a radically changed body to the ritual.

    “My nails are almost all grown out from the chemo,” she says. She points to a small spot on her fingernail. “I don’t know if you can see a tiny little bit left over where they, like, got very brittle and thin.”

    Goldberg arrived in a stylish, modest black outfit with matching sneakers. Now, she’s wrapped in a white robe as she walks to the mikvah pool. It’s warm, tiled, and deep.

    Goldberg stands next to the pool, holding her robe tightly. She takes a few steps forward and then back.

    “It’s been a while,” she says, “and the last time I was here was before my chemo. So I feel a little nervous. I don’t know why. But I’m happy I came. I’ve just been through a lot since the last time I’ve been here.”

    Goldberg hangs up her robe.

    “I don’t have nipples,” she says. “Just so you know. I don’t want you to get freaked out.”

    The surgeons weren’t able to preserve her nipples when they removed the tumor, she explains. In their place are two scars.

    She steps into the water and swims to the deep end.

    Crossing her arms and legs, Goldberg says a Hebrew blessing: “Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, vitzvanu altfilah.”

    Weeping, she dunks herself under water three times.

    Goldberg says this won’t be her last visit to Mikvah Chaim.

    While she won’t go to the mikvah because of her period, she’s decided to come for other reasons, and to make her own schedule. Maybe she’ll come on her birthday, her children’s birthdays, and perhaps her wedding anniversary.

    After years of obligation, mikvah suddenly feels holy.

    This story first appeared in the online magazine Narratively.


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal