When I was first diagnosed with cancer, the only thing I felt was fear. Every night, I woke in terror at 2 a.m., shaking and drenched in sweat. During the day, panic attacks assailed me, compromising my work as a psychotherapist and making it impossible for me to take in the love and support that surrounded me. “I can’t do this,” I repeatedly told my partner, alluding to the mastectomy and chemotherapy I was facing. “I’m going to run away to Paris where I won’t have cancer,” I declared on more than one occasion.
But soon, my connection to Judaism began to calm and bolster me. One night, startling awake again at 2 a.m., too keyed up to stay in bed, I began to roam around the darkened house. Randomly, I scanned bookshelves and pulled out bureau drawers, finding nothing to catch my interest. Then, I opened a closet door and there it was: my largest tallit, neatly folded, alone on a shelf, its soft white wool beckoning through the dark. I pulled it out, wrapped myself in it, and immediately felt safer, held, more connected. I lay down on the couch and fell back asleep.
The next morning, I awoke still wrapped in my tallit. As I stroked the wool and draped the fringes over my fingers, I had the strongest sense that God had sent me a hint, that there was more help available if I’d only seek it. After all, it was this particular tallit and none of my others that I had found during my night wandering. And this tallit was very special. It was body-sized, unlike the shrunken tallitot of my childhood. It also had among the white tzitzit the blue fringes which were biblically commanded but had been left out for centuries because the knowledge of how to make the blue dye, techelet, had been lost.
A year or so before my diagnosis, I learned that researchers in Israel had discovered the source of techelet and figured out how to make the dye. Without knowing why, I had felt compelled to acquire a tallit with the blue fringes. I made the 3-hour drive from my home in upstate New York to Williamsburg, where I found my new tallit with the techelet fringes. In a sense, then, the preparation for the ritual which would help allay my fears had already begun before I was diagnosed with cancer.
Now facing the cancer treatments that terrified me, I created a ritual with my special tallit. As soon as the sun lit up my house, I would sit down on the floor, close to the earth, wrap myself in my special tallit, and begin the morning prayers. When it came time to say the Sh’ma, I adapted the traditional practice of winding the fringes around my finger, adding an innovation to match my needs. I recited the litany of my fears, assigning each fear to a separate white fringe, which I then wound around my finger. Once this was done, I took the blue fringes of techelet and wrapped them around the white fringes. Feeling that God was holding my fears with me, I prayed the Sh’ma.
Of course, I still felt afraid through the months of surgery and chemotherapy that followed. But the ritual with my tallit grounded me each morning and helped to contain my fears. Even now, years later, when I put on this tallit, I feel the comfort and connection that came from the ritual. Its fringes carry the sense memory of the help they afforded when I needed it so desperately. And my recitation of Sh’ma is deeper for holding the intimate traces of the ritual to which it was so central.
Susan Kaplow is a New York City-based artist whose latest work is the new book, Hard Blessings: Jewish Ways Through Illness, which contains over thirty stories from people who relied on Jewish practice to help them through illness. The text is enhanced by nineteen original artworks by Kaplow. Order from her website: susankaplow.com.