Why Breast Cancer Survivors Are Reclaiming an Ancient Jewish Ritual
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.
Photos by Lauren Murphy
Before 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.
Goldberg widens her eyes. “I mean, like, imagine!”
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. 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. The room is warm, smells like flowers, and is full of every conceivable cleaning implement: drawers of pink r…