The day before Tisha B’Av three years ago, I ate the egg and ashes prescribed as the meal before the fast begins, taking my last bite of the sliced white bread. On the eve of the darkest date in Jewish history, as I sat on a milk crate and gazed into a field and its tree-lined background, I began to cry.
I wasn’t only crying because of Tisha B’Av, but also for myself: I knew something was wrong. For weeks, while I’d been teaching at an Orthodox Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, I had been waking up in bed sheets dampened by sweat, despite sleeping in air-conditioning. My exhaustion and the lumps in my chest and throat had grown so rapidly that even in my bed, I could find no rest. Before settling upstate for the summer, I had gone to see a dermatologist to deal with an insatiable itch throughout my body; like a fire spreading, it gave no warning, no sign of rash. A prescription for an ointment to soothe my skin was filled but never used. And now, weeks later, I was getting worse.
The next morning, on Tisha B’Av, I read Eicha, Lamentations, at camp—it was the first time I’d read it publicly. Assigned the fifth chapter, I came across verses that left me trembling, just as I did when I tried to sleep, shuddering from a cold that wasn’t there.
The fifth and final chapter of Lamentations is different from the previous four. It is the only one not arranged alphabetically, symbolizing the chaotic order and misalignment I felt going on within me. “Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers; our houses to foreigners,” it reads (5:2), much like my own body. “Upon our necks we are pursued; we toil, and we find no rest,” (5:5), much like the protrusion in my own throat.
After reading my chapter for the other members of camp, I couldn’t tolerate my symptoms any longer. As the campers began reciting kinos, elegies for Tisha B’Av, I had no choice but to retire from synagogue, in an attempt to find comfort in my bunk. After changing into sweatpants and turning on the air-conditioning, I pulled out an empty notebook and began to write.
I began to lament both the Temples’ destruction that Tisha B’Av commemorates, and my own pain. It came from a solemn place within me, a place at once familiar and deeply foreign. Instead of reading the kinos from past millennia, I was writing my own. As I filled each page with a poetry of my symptoms, of their erosion of me, my weariness grew greater, my time for a diagnosis drew nearer. With my head pounding, I closed the notebook and stood up to walk to the camp doctor.
After hearing my symptoms, the camp doctor said it was likely a respiratory ailment, costochondritis, probably nothing to worry about. But he told me to see my general physician first thing after camp.
A month later, I got my diagnosis: cancer. And I found myself, with the rest of my family, on the ninth floor of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, waiting to see the pediatric oncologist who would treat my Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was 21.
My treatment lasted a year, taking me through the entire cycle of Jewish holidays. It consisted of nine aggressive rounds of chemotherapy, plus a month of radiation to my chest and neck, in three-week cycles. Entering my first round of treatment, I weighed 165 pounds; after the second month of chemotherapy—receiving treatment Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., followed by two weeks off to be monitored, hydrated, and transfused with blood or platelets—I was down to 115.
Incapable of keeping meals down due to nausea, I went a month and a half eating only yogurt and frozen grapes, which forced my nutritionist to supply me with liquid food intravenously from a bag hooked up to my port. Mucositis, a side effect of chemotherapy, filled my mouth with sores so painful I couldn’t speak; I wrote anything I needed to relay in a notebook, and my sister would act as my messenger. Even what should have provided comfort, laying my head on a soft pillow, became torture because of the pain.
There is tired and then there is “tired-to-the-bone” as Suleika Jaouad puts it. Chemotherapy saps all of your energy; while I underwent treatment, it depleted my own will.
I spent those first two months as an in-patient. When Sukkot arrived, after celebrating in the Sloan-Kettering sukkah, I was sent home in a wheelchair. I had been in bed for two months and my legs were weak. The highlight of Simchat Torah, the joyous culmination of Sukkot, is hakafot—dancing around the shul, hugging the Torah scroll, and singing songs of fortune. This seemed an insurmountable task. Physically weak and mentally exhausted, and having lost my hair to the chemotherapy, I didn’t even consider going to shul at first. Then one of my best friends asked me if I’d like to go to hakafot.
My family was spending the holiday with friends, and there was only one place I wanted to go to hug the Torah: Aish Kodesh, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s shul. I met with the Rav in his office a few days before Simchat Torah and discussed my situation; I left his office feeling elated and, for a moment, forgot all about my illness. His shul was my only destination on Simchat Torah. My friend rolled me there in my wheelchair, nearly two miles. As they passed me the Torah, I hugged it with all the strength I had and began to dance with the community. My fortune was vast and I was so happy I thought that maybe my bald head shone like the face of Moses when he came down from Sinai.
The worst side effect of all, being a 21-year-old forced to move back into his parents’ place, was the recurring loneliness. The first night of Hanukkah, a Friday night, I had the house to myself. I lit candles before sundown in the windowpane of my room. As I stared into the first candle, I thought about the Jewish custom of lighting a shamash along with the number of candles for each night of Hanukkah; because we cannot take benefit from the Hanukkah lights themselves, we light an extra “service” candle, just in case we utilize any of the light emanating from the menorah. I thought, then, of a different reason for this tradition: We light the shamash so that on the first night, the single Hanukkah candle flickering will not feel all alone. That is where I was emotionally by Hanukkah, 2009. With friends graduating from school, some finding jobs, others getting married, my life was not only completely on hold, but it flickered weakly, it could be extinguished at any moment.
Purim came early in 2010, or that’s how it felt to me. For weeks before the holiday, I kept petitioning my nurse from Sloan-Kettering to allow me to drink wine, the mitzvah of Purim. Of course, I wasn’t serious. My immune system was compromised and my liver was beaten from chemical poisons; drinking even a glass of wine was never an option. I went to a meal with my friends, who were all drinking, and sat with them on my first sober Purim. I thought of the lyric from Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”: “Businessmen, they drink my wine.”
For an entire year, I was basically idle. My life was like Seinfeld, a show about nothing. Living each day in sweatpants like George Costanza, I was completely worn out from treatment. My will depleted, I began having follow-up scans to measure the effects of treatment. First once a month, then every three months, I had a PET scan and CT scan of my chest, neck, abdomen, and pelvis. The tests came back clear of any trace of tumor; I was in remission.
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Rav Raffi Leicht lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife and occasional foster puppies and works at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Hillel House as an educator for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and for Hillel International as a Senior Jewish Educator.