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Jewish Journal

Selma’s Sermon

by David Suissa

September 13, 2007 | 8:00 pm

This is a big time of the year for sermons. Last year at this time, I wrote a column called "Words of Awe," comparing the different styles of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sermons. I even previewed some of the sermons we could expect to hear here in the hood -- and I discussed the Orthodox tradition called Shabbat Tshuvah, which is the biggest and most anticipated sermon of the year, on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur.

The thing is, though, all these big, important sermons are usually given by rabbis.

They're not supposed to be given by young, pretty, career-driven single Jewish women with a weakness for Italian shoes and vintage Jaguars.

But that is exactly what happened four years ago, on Yom Kippur of 2003, when a rabbi's daughter named Selma Schimmel got up to speak. She didn't speak in a shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, but this is a story that can play in any hood.

Selma spoke right after the Torah reading, and just before Yizkor, in a Studio City shul called Beit Meier. Her sermon, as she recalled it the other day in my dining room with kids playing in the background, didn't focus on High Holy Days themes like spiritual renewal, forgiveness and personal atonement.

Instead, she spoke about ovaries, genetic testing and the BRCA gene mutations.

You see, Selma had an announcement to make that day. A week earlier, she had undergone a seven-hour operation to treat advanced ovarian cancer, which no one knew except her now-late father, the founder and spiritual leader of the Beit Meier shul.

So she and her father had huddled together and decided she had to say something. This was a small community, and the Schimmel name was revered. People worried easily. Twenty years earlier, Selma had been diagnosed at an unusually young age with breast cancer, and three years before that, her mother, the rebbitzen, had died of ovarian cancer.

This was not a time for family secrets. So there she was, in her tailored suit and Italian shoes, recovering from surgery and groggy from pain medications, in front of a standing-room-only crowd that was waiting for its annual Yom Kippur sermon -- and she was telling them about her second cancer.

She explained that about 10 percent of ovarian cancer cases have been linked to genetics, typically through susceptibility genes. As part of the genome project, the two BRCA genes, located on chromosome 17, were the first to be identified as carriers of a predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers. When a woman has a mutation in either BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, like Selma has, she is at higher risk of developing one of these cancers.

Then she got personal.

She explained how about one in 40 American Jews of Ashkenazi descent -- who make up about 90 percent of American Jews -- is believed to carry the mutant genes, compared with one in 400 for the general population.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, researchers speculate that the genetic mutations arose by chance among the Ashkenazim over several centuries, starting as far back as the 1100s. Under assault by ethnic attacks, millions of Eastern European Jews contracted to a group numbering in the thousands, then expanded again into a population of millions -- a "genetic bottleneck" in which random mutations in the small, largely intermarried group are passed down to many descendants.

Selma was one of those descendants, and as she went on with her "sermon" that Yom Kippur day, she seemed to forget that she was in a shul and not a school of medicine. But she was going somewhere with her lecture on mutant genes.

She wanted the people of the community to open their eyes and start asking more questions. She wanted them to look more carefully into their families' medical histories, and if they suspected anything, to immediately make the necessary appointments.

She also offered to help. As the founder and executive director of Vital Options, an internationally renowned nonprofit cancer support group she started during her first bout with cancer in 1983, she could help answer a lot of questions.

But still, what did any of this have to do with the Days of Awe, the Book of Life or the Day of Atonement?

Selma admits today that when she got up to speak on that day, she came with an agenda. She knew she was about to go in for long-term treatment. She didn't like the idea of rumors flying around about the rabbi's daughter. She wanted to put everything on the table, while also enlisting the community in her efforts to help others with cancer prevention and early detection.

In other words, she didn't really have your basic High Holy Days sermon in mind.

If you ask me, though, I think Selma's not giving herself enough credit.

Is there a better day than the one when we abstain from all physical sustenance to reflect on the sanctity of the human body and honor the Torah's injunction that "You shall guard your being"?

During these Days of Awe, when we are instructed to reflect deeply on ourselves and seek personal rectification, is there a better time to be reminded that the miracles that God has given us -- which include the human body -- also include the gifts of human knowledge, and the obligation to use that knowledge to help care for God's physical miracles?

We will all hear many sermons during these Holy Days, and I'm sure many will touch on our need to become better Jews and make the world a better place. In the middle of all these noble sermons, however, I hope we'll remember a simple Holy Days message from a fearless Jewish woman with an antique Jaguar who's just been diagnosed with her third cancer.

Take good care of what God gave you.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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