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How Tisha B’Av Helped Me Heal

Cancer, and a year of chemotherapy, gave me a new perspective on Jewish holidays—starting with Tisha B’Av

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The author’s August 20, 2009, PET scan. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; PET scan courtesy of the author; calendar photo Shutterstock.)
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After a year of treatment, I could begin planning the next step in my life, but I faced a new hurdle: motion. I had the opportunity to start rebuilding, but no energy to actualize it. To not have to go into a full day of chemotherapy was all I wanted at this point; I couldn’t muster the energy to be productive beyond that. Free from the hospital, I would need another entire year of recuperation before I was strong enough to re-enroll in classes, move out of my parents’ apartment, and re-emerge in an attempt to regain my self. I learned, in that time, that coping, in and of itself, is forward motion, even if just through mindful introspection.


By Tisha B’Av in 2011, two full years after my initial diagnosis, I felt nearly back to full strength, and I went on a trip to Scotland. Spending Tisha B’Av in Edinburgh stood in stark contrast to my Tisha B’Av two summers earlier.

Having forgotten to pack nonleather shoes—as per our custom of mourning—I walked back from shul in my socks after hearing Eicha. It was a little more than an hour walk, but I was more comfortable on Tisha B’Av hiking old cobblestone streets without shoes than I had been on the Tisha B’Av I spent at camp.

Today, at age 24, I have been in remission for two years. I’m entering my last semester of undergraduate studies and preparing for another Tisha B’Av. Marking the destruction of the Temples, we often consider the holiday to commemorate the end of our culture’s peak. According to Jewish tradition, however, Tisha B’Av is also the day when the messiah is born. Within our suffering, and beneath the ruins, there is a flask of pure oil, waiting for us to retrieve it.

Cancer made me feel completely misunderstood and out of place, but it also made me more self-aware. It gave me a new perspective on the world, helping me appreciate simple dialogues with loved ones and strangers. Above all, it was transformative and empowering, giving the knowledge that only an experience like this could impart: to know what it means to be empathetic. This is my story of Tisha B’Av.

The first word for cancer to appear in medical literature, back in the time of Hippocrates around 400 BCE, was karkinos, from the Greek word for crab; it’s a linguistic coincidence, but to me it seems connected to the similar-sounding word kinos, the elegies for Tisha B’Av. Since that hour on my bed at camp three summers ago, I have searched for the notebook where I wrote my own kinos and filled pages with my own pain, but I haven’t found it. Maybe like the old Jewish custom to bury the books of kinos deep in the ground, in the hopes of not needing to use them the following year (with the rebuilding of the Temple), I buried them somewhere deep in my room. What I feared then as my life’s end, like the Temples’ destruction, turned out to require of me the courage to begin again.

One of my kinos did show up, though, one that I’d torn out of that notebook. I found it last year on one of my best friend’s fridges:

As the heart of the Nation beats,
The mind of the People settles to focus.
Time has brought us to the place of Redemption.
The tears have dripped into a pool of blood leaving behind a darkened moon.
So the Nation lifts its legs and rises above,
Perfecting what is theirs
And begins to walk alongside the rising sun –
Day has broken.


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so inspirational

marjorie ingall says:

Wonderful piece. “Kinos” and “karkinos” may not have anything to do with each other linguistically (especially not if you don’t pronounce “kinos” the Ashkenazis way — it took me a moment to realize Raffi’s “kinos” was my “kinot”!) but that’s what good autobiographical writing does. It draws connections that are meaningful to the author and lets us come along. Bravo. I wish Raffi continued good health.

An incredible piece of writing Raffi. Although I’m not Jewish, my wife and I sent both of our children to a Jewish community center for child care and pre-K schooling. It’s the rhythms of these holidays and the lessons embedded within these rituals that have been one of my greatest teachers — through the eyes of my children. I’ve been forever thankful for these lessons, and now your ability to put into words why these times of year and rituals are so important for a fallen man. Cheers to your hands and your health.

Raffi says:

Thank you Trent. I really appreciate that, “why these times of year and rituals are so important for a fallen man.” Cheers to you and your family!

Raffi says:

Marjorie, thank you for coming along.

Outstanding, it’s wonderful how were able to develop such a personally meaningful relationship with our collective history and tradition.

Jacob says:

Such a great piece. You articulated yourself so very well.
Thank you for writing it and sharing your experience with the rest of us. I hope you have a full recovery and much simcha and bracha going forward.

Jacob says:

Such a great piece. You articulated yourself so very well.
Thank you for writing it and sharing your experience with the rest of us. I hope you have a full recovery and much simcha and bracha going forward.

tzur says:

I am truly grateful to have read this piece. Thank you, Raffi, for you, since you come through so clearly in this article. There are endless depths in our profound and beautiful tradition; everyone has his or her own route into it and special things to find. In fact many of them only open to those who take them seriously, are ready to see them and search for them, so each person’s vision is unique. But you have shared what you found with us, and so we are all given some healing by it. May you go from strength to strength: it is evident that you have much to give the world.

Good article!here

Good article! says:

Everyone sympathizes with your plight, and we all applaud your strength in dealing with your condition; we all join in praying for a complete and total recovery and a total freedom from this disease for you and your family for the future.

That said, it is still a bit hard to accept that the personal and the sociological-religious-political can be placed on equivalent status in anyone’s individual perspective. 9 Av is a state of mind that has evolved quite a bit over the centuries, as has the religious-sociological approach towards the destruction of the religious structure of the temple and the accompanying (if not immediate) loss of political sovereignty by the Jews. Attitudes towards far-removed death and destruction vary at times, places, conditions of the existing Jewish communities, and the level of commitment and involvement of the individuals in religious observance and feelings. Dealing with a personal tragedy is, however, quite a different issue, and even though one might find some parallels, they are at best co-incidental and, moreover, only theoretical. The person dealing with his own cancer condition feels the pain day and night and needs no outside cultural stimuli; the middle-class Jew living in relative security really has to “get into” 9 Av; and, at best, his pain is conceptual and remote, at best.

Michael Bleiwas says:

Thanks Raffi – I was preparing something for an important deadline, and happened to catch a glimpse of your PET scan here. I started reading your story, and suddenly my deadline wasn’t so important. It really hit me – and reminded me of another inspirational man I met many years ago in a packed 300-student university auditorium. He was a guest of our ‘Biology of Cancer’ course, and we sat in stunned silence as he explained how he had beaten 4 different types of cancer into remission. One grey, cold, wet Sunday afterwards, his wife remarked ‘it’s a terrible day outside’. He corrected her – ‘No. It’s a *beautiful* day’.
My sincerest wish that you have many beautiful days ahead.


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How Tisha B’Av Helped Me Heal

Cancer, and a year of chemotherapy, gave me a new perspective on Jewish holidays—starting with Tisha B’Av

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