Welcome to the Last Installment of our October Blog Series, From Rachel Hillman, Guest Editor
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month where the media highlights breast cancer, research for treatment and, one day, a cure. During October, many women and men share their stories about how breast cancer impacted them or their family. Last year, after being diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, I marked the end of my treatment by immersing in the mikveh, an experience that I shared on Mayyim Hayyim’s blog. I have spent much time thinking about how my Jewish identity and my identity as a cancer survivor intertwine. The opportunity to guest edit the Mayyim Hayyim blog at this time feels like the perfect opportunity to explore this combined identity.
A Community of Belonging
by Paula Rayman
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2004, six weeks after celebrating my marriage, I was full of fear and anxiety. How could this be happening and would I survive? Desperately seeking healing, I knew this could not be done alone. Looking around to stop the sense of vertigo and gain resiliency, I wanted spiritual grounding for my body and mind. Not very religious, but very attached to my Jewish culture, I looked for a Jewish guide book (as a teacher, books have been sacred in my life) but found none. But I did find a community of belonging at Mayyim Hayyim, and there, I also found the ancient words of Rabbe Nachman of Bratslav to set me forth onto the sea of healing waters.
According to Rebbe Nachman, human beings reach out in three directions: inward to self; upward to the Spirit of Universe and outward to others. By reaching in any one direction, you embrace all three. And in uniting body, mind and soul you can discover unknown resources and reach the shores of healing.
Mayyim Hayyim and Inward Journey
One of my favorite sayings from the Torah is Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1). Told by the Spirit of the Universe to Abraham, it translates to “go to yourself.” For me, full of fear in those months of mastectomy, two rounds of chemo and then radiation, striving to regain my sense of balance meant restoring my sense of healthy self and remembering that resiliency is based on the French word for metal, which can regain its shape after melting. So I committed myself to the waters of Mayyim Hayyim, connecting my search for myself to the rivers of living waters which unite with the ocean of all living beings. From the beginning of this journey, I found a wonderful community of women at Mayyim Hayyim. It was at this early stage that I promised myself and them that when I regained health I would help create a Jewish healing guide for women with cancer. In facing my deep inner fears and illness I was not alone. Deborah Friedman’s inspiring words of song, “and you shall be a blessing lech lacha” kept floating in my body.
Mayyim Hayyim and Upward Journey
My beloved Rabbi Everett Gendler has taught me over the years to say the word “awesome!” To reach upward (and often downwards to Mother Earth) to feel connected to the awesomeness, the miracle of being alive. During my own life, I have felt this sense of awe most acutely when giving birth to each of my daughters – the amazing grace that two human beings can create a new being. So I reached for that spiritual bond to beyond what we can fully know.
There are two images I can remember distinctly eleven years since diagnosis. First the feeling of safety in Mayyim Hayyim’s living waters and being carried to the surface after immersion. I felt safe while on a scary journey, and felt an enormous moment of appreciation. Second, while being given chemo, an image given to me by a sister cancer patient: instead of feeling only the poisonous aspect of the chemicals, I thought of a fire clearing the woods so new growth can occur. So I began each chemo treatment with a prayer of thankfulness to Shechinah for helping me to create clearness within for healthy new growth.
Mayyim Hayyim and Outward Journey
During the course of the last decade there have been so many family members, friends and strangers that have comforted me. Through all the years Mayyim Hayyim has been a home away from home: a place offering sanctuary, welcoming arms, place to voice my fears and hopes, and a space of art and beauty. John Paul Lederach, a noted nonviolent teacher and activist, has written a profound book on community and resiliency. In it he says that human beings can only have dignity when they feel a sense of home- a community of belonging that offers each person a place to have a voice, to know safety and to have sacred space. All have existed for me at Mayyim Hayyim and circles beyond: my dear mother’s (may she rest in peace) apartment in Newton with smells of her soups; the healing circle my daughter organized after diagnosis, full of gathered supportive family and friends; my husband’s banjo folk songs during chemo treatments; my trusted, terrific oncologist Dr. Lowell Schnipper and all his staff; the Christian, Muslim and Jewish counselors and campers of the Israel Friendship Camp at Yemin Orde in Israel, the summer right after radiation stopped; and of course a year later, when my hair was just returning, the Sixth Day group at Mayyim Hayyim, the group that would write “Blessings for the Journey: A Healing Guide for Women with Cancer.” The community of belonging was never more embraced, uniting body, mind and soul.
Paula M. Rayman, PhD is Director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Development and Culture at University of Massachusetts Lowell; founding Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program; Gender Consultant at the United States Institute of Peace on Gender Equity and Peace-Building; mother of two daughters and grandmother of four, wife of Richard Herman and grateful member of Mayyim Hayyim for over 12 years.