Low-magnification micrograph of ovarian cancer cells. Ovarian cancer is particularly common among Ashkenazi Jews. (Photo/Wikimedia-Nephron CC BY-SA 3.0)
Low-magnification micrograph of ovarian cancer cells. Ovarian cancer is particularly common among Ashkenazi Jews. (Photo/Wikimedia-Nephron CC BY-SA 3.0)

When cancer struck, my relationship to Judaism evolved

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

I grew up in Canarsie, a neighborhood on the south shore of Brooklyn, New York. In the summer you could feel the cool breeze from the bay at night. The fall was also lovely, especially on the days when the synagogues (at least one on every corner) would swing open their doors.

Walking around my neighborhood, I could hear the chanting from inside, never more so than on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when all the New York City schools were closed for the holidays.

My neighborhood was half Jewish, half Italian, but apart from the distressing graffiti that appeared on our temples around the holidays, there were few outward signs of anti-Semitism. In fact, as a kid during the High Holy Days, I believed the whole world was celebrating with us.

Not my parents, though. They were adamant atheists who hated all religions, who said that religion had created the World War II slaughter and that religion always would incite atrocities.

It was my Grandma Lil, with her rituals and conversations with God, who pulled at my heart. Her commitment to lighting the Sabbath candles, to her four sets of dishes, to seriously keeping kosher engaged my imagination and my heart.

I also was compelled by those squiggly lines and dots in my friend Felice’s Hebrew school book. I always wanted to understand what the page was saying and what the people in shul were chanting. Sometimes I went with her to the Orthodox shul around the corner, and during the school year, I’d try to take after-school Hebrew classes with her.

But I could never stick with it, never catch up nor keep up. I must have started and stopped Hebrew classes five times during those years.

In college, I took French, Russian and German, and in grad school, some Spanish and more French and German. While there was no doubt I was a language nerd, Hebrew eluded me. I did my best, without realizing it, to become someone without an ethnic identity.

And then, in 1998, something happened that spurred my very slow, extremely erratic, sometimes invisible march back to those early days of being drawn to the chanting in the synagogues. I found myself in the hospital in Berkeley, diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer (which turns out to be a particularly Jewish Ashkenazi disease).

I had an 11-year-old daughter, an 8-year-old son and two stepsons in their early 20s. I had a loving and beloved husband, a career as a college teacher I adored, a circle of wonderful friends and my dream house. Life was, in short, great.

Then crash, bam, lurch, blast!

Who was this disaster of a woman who could barely turn herself in the hospital bed, and who was preoccupied with the fact that she probably would not see her children grow up, nor live to enjoy the fulfilling marriage she’d worked so hard to build.

It is hard to talk about death and fear of death in American culture.

But here was Rabbi Ferenc Raj, of Reform Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, whom I hardly knew, sitting at my hospital bedside, holding my hand and asking me to have hope. (My daughter would start her bat mitzvah year with him soon.)

I still can’t explain the comfort I felt by his presence in my hospital room, only that I felt his kindness, his wish to reach out and a genuine sense of connection. We were not rabbi and English professor, but just two people struggling to let in the pain and suffering — to let in death — but without forgetting joy and human connection.

It is hard to talk about death and fear of death, at least in American culture. We quickly look away as if looking too long, talking too long, will hasten its coming.

But there was, and is, for me great comfort in looking into it. Questions of meaning and purpose, and why we all suffer in one way or another, had trailed me all my life. Now here was a person (and a place) to talk over these things. For me, this is a part of the divine spark in all of us — this deeper self who is not afraid to look and to know, and who lives one’s life accordingly.

My daughter had her bat mitzvah, and three years later, my son had his bar mitzvah. And despite recurrences of the cancer and on-and-off treatments, I was there.

It all had new meaning for me. I felt the continuity to prior generations, the connection to one another, and the shared love and good intentions that make a community. I felt held by the rituals, the chanting, the communal singing, my children’s entrance into some mysteries they would someday come to understand in their own way.

And then I got bat mitzvahed, too, at Beth El.

And through it all, I kept trying to learn Hebrew. I was a miserable failure at both. I must hold the Lehrhaus Judaica record for the greatest number of classes signed up for and then dropped out of. But I kept signing up.

These last six years have been hard. In the previous 13 years, yes, I lived with cancer, but I’d always had some periods of remission during which I could live a relatively normal life. But beginning in 2011, no chemotherapy or experimental drug would hold the tumors at bay for very long. The last two years have been particularly challenging. I know I am in my last chapter. I just don’t know how long that chapter will be.

A few years ago, I realized I needed some spiritual help again. This time I didn’t wait for a rabbi to show up in my room; this time I went calling. Perhaps it had something to do with those squiggly little letters, with no capitals and no obvious vowels, for I was still longing for the quiet and space of chanting prayers. I kept telling myself I intended to begin some regular practice at the temple, even if that meant attending one Shabbat service every two months. Surely I could manage that.

In a way, Judaism is a bit of a crutch for me

But somehow I could never commit to even this most mild of time demands.

Always I came up against the big problem of God. I hadn’t believed in a god since about the age of 12. But now, with the cancer progressing and the drugs’ side effects becoming more debilitating, I went to talk to Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who was now Beth El’s senior rabbi.

“I’m very ill, and I want more spiritual connection, but I don’t believe in God,” I think I began.

“Well, some people see God as a metaphor,” he graciously responded.

“I get that. Yes. That makes sense. I like metaphors. I write poems.”

“My husband does, too,” he said.

From there, we went on to talk about the need for quiet space, both outside and in. I felt right at home. I sensed that he understood that for me, as for so many poets, many poems are prayers, our utterances into the great beguiling, mysterious universe. They express our yearning for compassion, deep understanding, the knowing of what one can’t consciously and externally know. That divine spark existing in the passing of feelings from one heart to another.

Over the past few years, Rabbi Yoel and I have met a number of times to talk about the importance of making space for one’s inner knowledge, and, of course, we’ve talked about my favorite topic, death. He has invited me to bring in my family as my illness intensifies; he has made clear that he would provide a safe spiritual room in which we could all sit together in the face of the inevitable loss.

“Is it a crutch?” My daughter occasionally asks me about going back to temple. Is it? I often wonder myself. Judaism and my spiritual connection to it don’t signify for me a god or any kind of an afterlife. For me, they represent the commitment to living fully in the present, a great honoring of the past, a belief in the importance and power of memory, and an appreciation and a holding close of those who came before me.

When I die, I am no more, as far as I’m concerned, except as I exist in memory and in spirit. Perhaps by “spirit” I mean the passing of whatever divine spark I’ve carried with me, the passing of this on to others. In this way I believe we live on.

And where I locate God finally is in some inner, deep haunt within myself and in others, deeper even than my cherished unconscious. It’s some deep, inner place of mystery where I really don’t know much of anything, to be honest. But there’s some solace there for me, some sense of soul-to-soul reaching out even in facing death, the great aloneness.

I suppose, in a way, Judaism is a bit of a crutch for me. In its best moments it can hold me the way great poetry, beautiful music, and the intense love of family and friends can hold me. Not always, but sometimes.

I have signed up for a beginning Hebrew class. Again. It’s a recursive process, much like my relationship to Judaism. I leave and come back, repeating this again and again, each time a little bit changed, a little bit more comforted by the journey’s familiarity, and a little bit more mystified by my steadfastness.

This essay was adapted from a Rosh Hashanah talk by the author at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.

Marcia Renée Goodman
Marcia Renée Goodman

Marcia Renée Goodman is primarily a poet, essayist and playwright. A Berkeley resident, she recently retired from her career as an English professor.