Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Should Religious Symbols Be Part of the BRCA Discussion?

July 28, 2014

By Ranana Dine

When I began teaching Hebrew school this past year, I never imagined the experience would inspire a major research project. Each week, I would arrive at the small synagogue and try to get 11-year-olds to think that the Hebrew language was cool by playing them music by Idan Raichel (alas, they seemed to prefer American rap music). While this experience was interesting and challenging on its own, it didn't quite inspire my academic imagination like my school readings on feminist Biblical scholarship or American landscape painting. But as I returned each week to teach about the letter yud or play hide-and-seek with Hebrew vowels, I could not help but occasionally find myself in the women’s restroom. And there inspiration struck.

Like many synagogues, this one hung posters of Jewish interest in the hallways and occasionally in the bathroom. In the women’s restroom someone had put up a poster advertising screening for BRCA, a genetic mutation that raises a woman's risk of getting breast and/or ovarian cancer. This mutation is more common among Ashkenazi Jews than among other populations. The poster in bold letters declared "Breast and Ovarian Cancer. Jewish Families Can Be At Increased Risk. Knowing Saves Lives." But what caught my eye was the image paired with this message — the ubiquitous breast cancer ribbon filled with pink Jewish stars. It's a strong image that sends a lot of interesting messages at once: the fear of cancer, the breast cancer support movement, Jewish identity. As someone who is interested in the intersection of religion, art and medicine, this poster seemed like the two-dimensional embodiment of everything that made my academic heart go pitter patter.

And so embarked my interest in the visualization of the BRCA mutation in Jewish culture. Luckily for me, The New York Times this past November published a long front-page article about breast cancer in Israel where BRCA took central stage. Along with the written text of the article, the Times included many well-crafted photographs and a video. One of the photographs, an image of an Israeli woman’s chest that included incision scars from breast cancer treatment, a Jewish star tattoo and a bit of the woman’s aureole made waves in the Times comments section and on the Internet. But along with the Times article came a slew of images and discussions in the Jewish press and among cancer organizations. Although the poster that originally caught my eye strongly connected a fairly generic Jewishness with breast cancer, I saw a powerful and problematic pattern emerging in these images: the intertwining of religious Judaism and BRCA.

As I researched, I found multiple images or descriptions of religious rituals like candle lighting, b'nei mitzvah celebrations, prayer, etc., that linked these religious symbols forcibly to BRCA. A woman who tested positive for BRCA and underwent surgery was depicted as she lit candles for a Jewish holiday. I saw a Jewish mother praying for recovery at the tomb of Rachel. Although these images are incredibly powerful, they link together two things that are really not connected. Religious Judaism has nothing to do with BRCA. A woman can test positive for BRCA whether she is Jewish or not. And a Jewish woman can test positive for BRCA even if she has completely rejected Judaism and its religious symbols. The connection between BRCA and Judaism has to do with the fact that for centuries Ashkenazi Jews married within small communities and were isolated from the general population. Last time I checked, having a bat mitzvah did not make a woman particularly predisposed to breast or ovarian cancer.

I also realized that these images depicted the Jewish woman as religious, connected to Judaism. She also often had children and worried about how the mutation might affect them. Sometimes she worried about her marriage prospects. Rarely were women shown worrying about how a positive diagnosis for BRCA might affect her job. I never saw a discussion of what it might be like to live with BRCA without the support of a family.

Jewish genetics is a hot topic. The health of the Jewish people (and honestly, all people) is obviously of the utmost importance. But, I think most people recognize that Jewish health is disconnected from Jewish religious observance. A woman could undergo treatment for cancer or for a host of other "Jewish diseases" whether or not she prays three times a day or her favorite meal is a bacon cheeseburger. The serious medical issues surrounding BRCA could affect all Jewish women (and men). And, I sincerely hope, that my Hebrew school students feel as included in the discussion of BRCA and other Jewish genetic diseases even if they continue to prefer Kanye West to Shlomo Carlebach.

Ranana Dine is a summer intern at HBI and a rising junior at Williams College. Her research at HBI concerns the visual symbols used to convey information about the BRCA gene.