Mourning at the Mikveh

by RachelRWainer

I ate a slice of pizza on Yom Kippur this year. I have not told anyone that. Well, of course my husband knows because he came into the kitchen and saw me sitting on our red linoleum floor eating the cold slice of pizza I found in the fridge. He did not judge me, and I hope you won’t either.

I will tell you why I ate pizza this year on Yom Kippur; my 31-year-old brother is dying. What does that have to do with pizza on Yom Kippur? Weeks of sleeping on the floor of the ICU waiting room can change your perspective on a lot of things–including the High Holy Days. Or at least it did for me. The idea of reciting the Unetanah Tokef prayer was paralyzing. Imagine me standing there with the congregation reciting these words while my brother was hooked up to a ventilator a few miles away:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

The thought of losing my brother in the upcoming year made Yom Kippur the most meaningful and meaningless day all at the same time. Some people find comfort in the rituals and prayers and poems during times of trial and tribulation. I always felt that was true for me too. Not this time. This was too big and too real and I did not want to go through the motions and pretend I was praying for salvation. Stand up, sit down, stand up, bow, sit down. Instead, I walked home and ate a slice of pizza. I just did not care about Yom Kippur.

Back up a few days. I was not looking forward to the holidays at all. Having always found solace in my visits to the mikveh, I decided to immerse during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I prayed and prayed that I would find meaning in this immersion. The afternoon before my visit I felt empty inside. There was no excitement or anticipation like in years prior. I felt like Judaism was failing me when I needed it most.

Despite these fears I went to the mikveh that night. Filled with dread I clipped, scrubbed, shaved, shampooed, and combed. Still nothing came to me. I stepped out of the tub and looked at myself in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. The year had changed me. My belly was still round from the baby it had carried and my eyes were tired from sleepless nights nursing him. The intense sadness I felt for my brother showed on every inch of my face. I sighed heavily and felt sorry for myself.

I buzzed for the mikveh attendant.

It came to me standing at the top of the stairs–my prayer, if you want to call it that. It was deeper than sadness. I suddenly felt a sense of mourning. Not for my brother, but for my life before all of this. Before cancer and chemo, IVs, pet scans, operating tables, and doctors. I cried as I realized my blissful childhood was officially coming to an end. I felt as though I would immerse in the mikveh and with three quick dunks leave behind a life I would no longer know. I sobbed. I let the warm water come over my head once, twice, three times. I quickly stepped out of the ritual pool, put on my clothes, and left the building. It felt good. I felt like I had said goodbye.

A few days later I was on the floor eating pizza. That was seven months ago. My brother is still with us, though we do not know for how long. He is dying. We all are. It took months for my period to return after my pregnancy, but my cycles are regular again. I still cry as I prepare each month to wash away the sadness. But now, when I emerge, I feel alive.

Since writing this piece, Rachel’s brother succumbed to his battle with cancer and passed away peacefully on April 19, 2014.

Rachel lives in northern NJ with her husband Seth and 1-year-old son Theodore. She was first introduced to mikveh through her conversion at Adas Israel in Washington, DC, where she also became an adult bat mitvah. Rachel is active in her Conservative congregation and a member of a community mikveh in West Orange, NJ. 

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8 Responses to Mourning at the Mikveh

  1. Breathtakingly honest. Thank you, Rachel.

  2. Diane Black says:

    A heartfelt story from a beautiful heart.

  3. Teri says:

    I am holding back tears as aI read this…12 years ago, at 10 months old, my daughter had an accident between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She was stable but still in the ICU and connected to a ventilator on Kol Nidre. I had always loved hearing Kol Nidre chanted and I felt that going that night would somehow make me feel better – just like you with the mikveh. I went and did feel the warmth and healing power of being in the sanctuary with so many people. Still, I was too anxious about my daughter and distressed by the language of Unetanah Tokef prayer – it was a little to real for me – so we did not stay for the whole service. The next year, I was able to return with my daughter who slept on my husband’s shoulder wrapped in his Tallis, grateful that we were had been inscribed and sealed the previous year. That is the Yom Kippur memory I hold on to now.

  4. Leemor Ellman says:

    What a beautifully written piece, Rachel. Tears and chills. And inspirational – now I MUST visit the mikvah. I love being in warm bodies of water and I’m always searching for ways to bring more Jewish meaning into my life.

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  6. mjfk says:

    So painful, so raw and so poignant. I, too, had two Yom Kippurs like that. Once my father was diagnosed with bone cancer on Yom Kippur. I did not fast. Once my daughter had mono while at college. We spent that Yom Kippur at a hotel in New York, camped by her bedside. I spent the night writing a poem about the YK that wasn’t while watching her breathe all night.

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