A Personal Reflection on a Difficult Journey to Liberation

נופת צופיםAccording to a tradition recounted in the 15th century Italian text, Nofet Tsufim-Honeycomb Flow, the rains that fall between Pesach and Atzeret—the festival of Weeks are potent for healing. This I learned from my twig-thin chemotherapy companion Avigail in the day oncology unit at the Sharei Tzedek Medical Center as we sat in the air-conditioned plasticy room, isolated from every element of the natural world. Outside, delectable rain has been falling, even hail, during the first weeks of counting the Omer. A midrash says that the Divine blesses and appoints each raindrop with a specific destination. These days, the divine flow pours compassionately to ease late spring yearnings of the drying plants and earth, defying our prayers for dew. Defying prayers is a theme to which I am attentive these days. Each Sunday I pass through earthly Gates of Righteousness to the wide staircase to heaven where patients and our healer angels go up and down, exchange knowing glances; the infusion tap beneath my wing on my way to deliver blood samples to the lab to get fitness certification for my chemo doses is an obvious identifier. I began a new drug, Taxotere. From the myriad Taxol treatments last round and this, I was developing neuropathy in my right foot and all fingers that made it quite painful to walk – on my feet, and on my hands. To be fair, there were other reasons for the difficulty with walking on my hands. Neuropathy is nerve damage that is sometimes irreversible. Previously, the doctors did not need to worry about these side effects because most did not survive long enough. OS is the euphemistic term, “overall survival”, usually measured in months from diagnosis. Here I am. My mobility is precious to me, and I believe, to survival. Taxotere is a close relation to Taxol. By staying in the family, we aim to achieve its maximum effect before I develop resistance while reserving other drugs for future rounds. Mercifully, I did not suffer any of the immediate side effects of the Taxotere that would dismiss this option. That night, I experienced tumultuous aggression by chemo forces. I visualized Yew tree power assaulting busy mutant cells. Over some supine hours, my abdominal swelling receded significantly and with it some of the pressure and pain that had developed over the Pesach week that both I and my cancer took a vacation from chemotherapy. Actually, the cancer did not take a vacation. My CA 125 marker was well up since my previous treatment two weeks ago. The sobering reality seems to be that I have not achieved any remission since my diagnosis on Pesach a little over a year ago. The chemo beats it down as long as I can take it. It also beats down my immune and other systems. How long can I bear it? Meanwhile I ask hard questions—why do I have such active, healthy cancer in me? What more can I do to slow it down, to live on with, and dare I even imagine, without it? What is the tipping point? In addition to what I estimate to be the finest allopathic treatment, with Shmuel’s support, I am eating meticulously according what I compile from the best possible evidence for my specific illness. Though I have not eaten fish for 30 years, I now follow ample expert advice to consume deep sea salmon twice weekly. Though I have never craved foods before, even during pregnancies, my body welcomes the flesh protein deeply into my cells and I feel strengthened by it.

I called Rachamim the fish monger on Wednesday of chol haMoed Pesach to see whether he was open. His shop occupies a ground floor apartment nestled deep within ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in north Jerusalem. His black-coat and hat-clad clients flock to him for the freshest, highest quality fish to serve between their soup and meat on Shabbat and festivals. He has salmon flown in from Norway every single week-day. Four or five workers bustle in the small pungent space to fill reams of orders on cards fanned out by the cash register. The fellow who picked up the phone asked my name and what I wanted. After speaking with Rachamim, he answered that I should come tomorrow morning at 8:30 am for our weekly dose of salmon fillet. As we approached his area, there was not a single shop open in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The streets were barren except for the odd tallit-draped fur-hatted scurrying hasid. We passed Rachamim’s shuttered shop. The usual cases of fish were absent from the patio wall. I approached cautiously and peered inside. Rachamin was alone. There was not a fin in the shop, not on the shelf, not in the fridge, none. In his large strong hands, he held one side of salmon from which he would cut our fillets. He scraped the scales, cleaned, sliced, and packaged it for me while he told me of his journey into fish mongery thirty years ago. Kissing me gingerly on each cheek, he extolled my life-force, and gave me blessings for full healing. As I went toward the door, he instructed me to invite him to my feast celebrating recovery. I stepped into the empty street as the door shut and locked tight behind me, my medicine in hand and heart.

I discover myself inside a twisting hasidic story, both familiar and new. You might know of Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s precious yiddele desperate for a child and banished to the horse stable of one of the 36 righteous people of his generation, the Shvartze Wolf. As his last hope slips into oblivion, from a place deep within the soul of the yiddele, prostrate in supplication, explodes a true prayer. Suddenly, he sees the humble abode as the Holy Temple; he beholds the magnificence of the sacred. His breakthrough yields a blessing that opens the gates of heaven. I need an opening. I do yoga, walk, trudge, jog, bike. I visualize health, willfully push pain and illness from within the borders of my being. I undergo expert Japanese acupuncture for chemotherapy. I drip immune support naturopathic tinctures under my tongue and ingest vitamin supplements. Yet, I have been susceptible to every germ that wafts near. More recently, I added therapeutic mushrooms grown under the supervision of a microbiologist from Haifa University. His family lost their father to cancer; they offer a 40% discount to cancer patients. From their exquisitely-designed boxes and glass jars, I have found support for white blood cell-production in my bone marrow—immunity required to tolerate ongoing destruction from the toxins. Into my regimen, I newly introduce TRX training – a full body workout focusing on core muscles, swimming on land. AdirChai who home-sews the straps is my caring trainer. Yesterday, AdirChai, our youngest, returned from his base with his final and formal glorious release from compulsory army service. For the first time in years, Shmuel and I stood at our neighborhood Yom HaZikaron ceremony, the day that Israel embraces the families who have lost their dear ones in these decades of conflict, with our children safely on the other side of those anguishing risks. But my heart was not lighter. I find relief knowing that our children profoundly understand cruelty and loss, have faced evil with competence and, though tainted by cynicism, hold fast to passionate caring. Nonetheless, the pain of sacrifice aches on. Last week we marked Yom HaShoah by attending an exquisite art-thought exhibit. Participants in a two year-long symposium on memory and the Shoah, most of them second generation survivors, have passed the threshold of inquiring about, documenting, dissecting, and interpreting evil. They seek out inspiration, subtle hints of resistance, an ethic to live by and with as their parents take leave from a tortured life. In a video recording, survivor-novelist Aharon Appelfeld declares that from the holocaust we learn love; what else would we want to learn from it? In the morning, I went with AdirChai to his alma mater Hartman high school ceremony–focused on free choice. Under unthinkable conditions, people chose to preserve their humanity, performing acts of dignity, kindness, salvation. The educational message—our way to honor and not to forget is to use the tremendous gift of our own freedom to choose lives dedicated to the goodness of the other, of society, the world. Balanced on a rolling desk chair, Bezalel reaches high and deep into our hall closets to retrieve stored Pesach dishes. He pulls out two well-worn white enamel pots and a mixing bowl. I have a hazy childhood flash memory of my bubby in her kitchen. Stirring with a terrifically long wooden spoon, she sports her traditional wild bright print cotton draw-string pants. That evening with my toothbrush in hand, my bubby stares out at me from the bathroom mirror, a piercing-eyed, slim, white-haired, eighty year-old woman. It is I; I am she. I merge with a chain of generations. At our Pesach seder this year, we each shared from what we aim to free ourselves. In those hours of celebrating the great font of human liberation, a universal story that beckons and inspires every people to release bonds, we opened our hearts. At our family seders, I ingested the possibility of changing the conditions of life, releasing oppression, and willfully choosing our life course, personal and collective. Our animated arguments about the responsibilities of Pharaoh and Israelites, leader and subject, about divine and human power, about how to actualize change in our society seeded in me Exodus as a way-of-life. Over years, I internalized liberation as the spiritual-political-ideological-mythic root and goal of my being, birth and re-birth. Ever-conscious, responsible intentional choice in all spheres is a raison d’être of life itself. I see with the eyes of apprehending the “is” with my mind and heart riveted to fulfilling the “ought”. This seder, I spontaneously spoke aloud my aim to release excess responsibility for all that needs fixing. Might this be a lock on my gate? At a relatively early age when my beloved mother and in many respects my greatest teacher left this world, I felt the weight of the past generation settle on my shoulders. Having left his indelible mark of faith and ruthlessly incorruptible morality branded in my consciousness, my father left not so long after. The great teachers with whom I have had the honor to study, and those who have inspired this generation in the traumatic transition from the Shoah to this new age have also passed on. As I experience the fragility of my own life, I am slowly becoming more aware of and grateful for the capable and powerful shoulders of the next generation. In the next room, AdirChai records the High Holiday evening kaddish in response to a community that intends to hire him to lead services and teach. Bezalel is engineering a device to measure the contractile force of various potential heart-tissue patches including ones laced with gold nano particles—to obviate the need for most heart transplants. In the university of life, Amitai conducts his own field research; in towns, on glaciers, up and down mountains he explores what motivates peoples’ lives in Argentina and Chile, and reflects on the deep meanings and constrictions of Judaism. Uriel writes and oversees the development of complex programs to enable his IDF intelligence unit’s better operation. Tiferet trains to practice empowering, holistic healthcare in a system presently less than disposed. Maya Hodaya takes her first steps, revels in the discovery of our garden, each aroma, grass, seed, and petal a wonder. Liberation lives on. Perhaps with the coming weeks and months of relentlessly seeking remission, I will paradoxically find some release from the unrelenting grip of liberation on my being. Please hold my healing in your hearts and prayers. I send blessings for the liberation you seek in this world.

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