It was just days after my cancer diagnosis when Rachel showed up at my door. She’d been my neighbor but had since moved away. Her story of cancer diagnosis and recovery was one I had followed just a year before. Her smile was warm and her arms were full. She carried a basket with sweet treats, books for my children, and one small box. I gratefully put the basket in the kitchen, and then, curious, I opened the box to find a thin silver necklace with a round pendant.
“It’s from Israel,” she explained. “I had it made for me when I was sick. You’ll see lots of healing words in Hebrew on it.” And sure enough, I did. The writing was small but I could see the words Moses cried out to God when his sister Miriam was stricken with disease: El na r’fa na la–God, heal her please!
“I wore it throughout my illness, never taking it off, and it healed me,” she continued. “And then when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I gave it to her, and she’s doing OK. And I just went to my mom and told her that you need the necklace. So we are both honored to share it with you.”
“I’ll give it back to you,” I promised, weakly, unsure. “As soon as I’m healed.”
“Yes, you will,” she assured me with a squeeze of my hand and a sincere look into my eyes. “You will.”
I wore that necklace all the time. Never before had I slept with jewelry on, showered with jewelry on, or not changed my necklace to match an outfit. But it was a summer of chemotherapy and weeklong hospital stays away from my husband and children, and I was not worried about matching my jewelry to my pajamas. Besides, I felt that there was something magical in that amulet, and even if there wasn’t, I was not going to risk it.
I’m a believing Jewish woman—and by that I mean believing in God. So how was wearing a necklace going to help anything? Did I really believe this amulet was going to protect me? I suppose part of me was just so desperate to be cured that I was willing to try anything. Wearing the amulet did not suspend my belief in God or my daily prayers for healing and protection.
But wearing it did connect me with my sisterhood, with Rachel and her mother. I liked the idea that it was my friend Rachel who gave me the necklace: Rachel, the matriarch who cared about and cried for her children, the woman whose tomb women flock to near Bethlehem to pray for healing and fertility, for life! I, too, was praying for life—my life, my healing—and I held that amulet every day as I did so.
I can count on one hand the number of times I took that amulet off during my illness. It was always for as brief a time as possible, for surgical procedures or X-rays. So when I returned to work, and God willing, the rest of my life, I needed to take off the amulet. Surprisingly, this was not as challenging as I had suspected. I was ready to remove it and to move on.
“Please share it with someone else in need,” I begged Rachel when I placed it in her hand.
“Really? You can keep it. It’s a gift for you,” she urged, somewhat confused. But then she understood. And so did I. It wasn’t the amulet that had protected and healed us. It was our sisterhood. It was the bond, linking one woman to another: from Rachel to her mother to me, and now to someone else, another woman in need of healing. Most importantly for me was that initial conversation I’d had with Rachel when she gave me the necklace: I had to heal so I could return it to her.
Just last week I saw my friend Bonnie (not her real name), recently diagnosed with cancer, and not yet ready to tell the community. When she saw me, she showed me the amulet around her neck. I melted. Just seeing the amulet again brought back so many memories: physical pain, sickness, fear, anxiety, scans, hospital smells, and the many, many unknowns. But Bonnie’s smile, weak and timid, shining through a few tears, reminded me that the amulet can only do its job if we do ours. So I squeezed Bonnie’s hand and looked deep into her eyes.
“You’ll wear it. God willing, you will heal quickly. And then, you’ll pass the necklace to someone else.” A sisterhood. An unfortunate—but unique—bond. And faith affirmed: in God, and in each other.