Book by MICHELLE BRAFMAN
The title of Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead, is taken from the sacred washing of a traditional Jewish burial ceremony. Volunteering for a washing, or tahara, is considered one of the most selfless deeds in Orthodox Judaism because the beneficiary cannot thank the participants. The book’s three sections are named for and center around different occasions of ritual washing in the life of the narrator, Barbara Blumfield, as she tries to fathom the family secrets that bind her to her Orthodox community and repel her. The first and last are taharas and the middle is a mikveh, a purifying immersion in water.
As a novel, the book explores redemption and forgiveness in three generations of splintered mother-daughter relationships, but what’s most compelling is what it reveals about Chasidic and Orthodox world of rituals and their rules for dealing with and avoiding the secular world.
The book alternates between the Barbara of the 1970s, an Orthodox teenager (née Pupnick) and the secular 50-something Barbara of 2009, who is married to a stockbroker and the mother of a teenage girl herself. The younger Barbara’s words come from letters she wrote but never sent, which her daughter discovers years later.