November 16, 2015
Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books, 2015) is, above all things, about the healing power of love and forgiveness, about letting go of the toxic wounds of betrayal and hurt. In fact, Brafman experienced a similar transformative purge; she admits that she felt “fluish” at times when writing it. The novel, told in first person by Barbara Blumfield when she is 17 and also when she is 53 (the two narratives woven together in what Brafman calls a double helix), centers on her family’s expulsion from their Orthodox Jewish community after her mother has an affair with a gentile. After Barbara is called back to the community thirty-five years later to perform the ritual burial washing of her beloved teacher, she is forced to confront her mother’s sins and secrets, as well as her own.
JEN MICHALSKI: Washing the Dead explores themes of exile, forgiveness, and redemption in an Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee, and you start it off with a bang: an affair. So where did that come from?
MICHELLE BRAFMAN: Yes, the inciting event in the book occurs when the main character, Barbara, discovers that her mother is having an affair, and so begins the family’s exile from their spiritual community. I’ve been told that the story reads a bit like a mystery, and as you read on, you learn that nothing that happens in these opening pages, including the affair, is as it seems. Affairs are complicated, I think. Perhaps they are often less about succumbing to some hot sticky lust and more about escaping an unbearable emotional intensity or healing old wounds or filling unmet needs for love or myriad other motivations. I wasn’t thinking so clinically, though, when I decided to use the affair as a means to launch this family into the diaspora. The idea evolved from digging into my characters’ family history and imagining how the carnage from their secrets might be expressed via misdirected and destructive efforts to secure love.
JM: Your short story “Washing the Dead” was first published five years ago (something I’ve just gone through as well, transforming a short story into a novel). So how did you know that “Washing the Dead” could become a novel? It’s such a big commitment, the novel, and often an unsuccessful one. I often am happy to leave characters in short stories at their own crossroads, but sometimes it seems they call back to us for help! Did you experience a similar call, or were there other factors at play?
MB: I’ve absolutely experienced the SOS call of which you speak, and I’ve typically responded by writing a companion story or two (or three). I wrote the short story “Washing the Dead,” however, in a desperate attempt to find a road into my novel. I knew how and why I was going to exile my main character, but I had no idea how I would bring her back home. Then a friend told me about the Jewish burial rituals, and I was deeply moved by the beautiful tenderness and meaning of this rite. Jews consider the tahara (burial washing) the noblest act of kindness because the recipient can neither acknowledge nor repay the deed. Around that time, I ruptured my ear drum and experienced a manic reaction to Prednisone during our family trip to The Great Wolf Lodge. In the course of a day, amidst the heat and noise of the water park, I scribbled a story about the tahara onto napkins and place mats. Little did I know, I was blueprinting the first draft of the novel, and while the central conflict, plot points, and characters changed significantly, the big ideas of the book—mother/daughter tensions, family secrets, shame, and the intersection between ritual and redemption—are all accounted for in this weird Prednisone-induced tale.
JM: I know you’ve stated that this book originally started about the relationship between Barbara and her childhood best friend, Tzippy, which the affair was a part of, but then you found the conflict shifted from Barbara and Tzippy to Barbara and her mother. It seems to have paid off because it’s such a quiet yet devastating rift between them, one that you handle so powerfully and beautifully. How were you able to channel that–from what deep space in you did that come?
MB: Oh, goodness, I think few of us escape this life without experiencing a rift or holding a grudge or two. I’m no exception. While I was drafting this book, I suppose I channeled some raw feelings to the point that I felt fluish writing certain passages. I’m now more convinced than ever that holding on to bad blood can make you sick. My efforts to render Barbara’s cut-off from her loved ones forced me to explore the cost of carrying around these steamer trunks of baggage and what it might take to put them down and forgive, ask for forgiveness, or merely accept the loss with grace.
JM: I totally agree about holding onto bad blood! Writing is a great expulsion, for sure. I was struck that, although the book on one level is about the relationships between mothers and daughters (and also mother figures, for there are several women who sort of “stand in” for Barbara’s mother at different stages of her life), the setting is an Orthodox Jewish community, which, like most religions, has a male-dictated hierarchy. All of the rituals (the washing of the dead, or “tahara,” and the ritual bath, “the mikveh”) are dominated by women. I know you said in an interview in the Washington City Paper that you sort of had to check your feminism at the door when writing a lot of this book (and not comment on the segregation of the sexes in observance of faith), but it seems you kind of are making a feminist statement by keeping all the men (Barbara’s husband, her brother, her mother’s lover) in the periphery. As a result, how has your relationship with Orthodox Judaism changed since writing the book?
MB: It’s funny because I never planned on making a feminist statement in this book but I can certainly understand how keeping the men, particularly the rabbi, in the periphery could be interpreted that way. And it’s kind of ironic that checking my feminism at the door actually facilitated this perception. It took me numerous drafts to figure out that I needed to continually ask myself: What does this spiritual community mean to Barbara? What specifically does she long for and why? She isn’t pining for her relationship with the rabbi or entrance into the men’s section of the synagogue. She longs for the intimacy of the women’s section, for the time when she sat nestled between her mother and her best friend, when the rabbi’s wife successfully kept track of the women, including Barbara and her mother. Writing about Barbara’s yearnings absolutely deepened my appreciation for many aspects of Orthodox Judaism. That said, my husband and I have chosen a more egalitarian faith community for our family, and that still feels right too.
JM: You have spoken to many, many Jewish book clubs and congregations on your book tour this year. What is their experience with the book? What have you learned from their stories?
MB: I’ve had the opportunity to speak widely about Washing the Dead, to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, and I could write another book about the profoundly beautiful stories people have shared about their experiences washing or sitting with their loved ones after they’ve passed. After a book talk at a synagogue, a woman pulled me aside and teared up when she described how important it was to her to perform a tahara on a dear friend who had died of breast cancer. I’ve learned about how other cultures and religions care for the dead. A Hindu woman pointed out that although the particulars of our customs are different, we are all infusing meaning into the task of preparing a body for burial. Ritual is indeed the fusion of the mundane and the holy.
Lately I’ve been visiting lots of book clubs. Members want to talk about the big ideas of the book, and they’re digging deep into the psyches of Barbara and company. They’re using these flawed characters as mirrors to examine their own marriages and important and imperfect relationships. Some are harsh on Barbara; others defend her choices. Either way, they’re taking sides and debating, and I couldn’t be more grateful to them for investing in Washing the Dead.