The ProsenPeople

Writing the Mechitzah

Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about water and the mikvah in Judaism as well as the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My tormented relationship with the mechitzah sabotaged numerous drafts of my novel Washing the Dead. This came as a surprise to me because it had been years since I'd given thought to the wooden barrier that separated the men's and women's sections in the Orthodox synagogue of my youth.

As a child the mechitzah never bothered me, perhaps because I was an unusually tall girl, and from a young age I could see over it. I liked sitting with my mother and my friends and never pondered this gender segregation, not even when my family had to join a Conservative synagogue in order for me to become a bat mitzvah.

My first semester in college, however, a fiery philosophy professor introduced me to the likes of Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin, and a feminist was born. I became attuned to the myriad ways women were marginalized. I scoffed at the Orthodox rationale that women did not need to perform rituals in the synagogue because we are more spiritually evolved or that our energies are best directed toward keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, and lighting the Sabbath candles. I steered clear of mechitzahs and held on tightly to my resentment until well into writing my novel.

Washing the Dead is set in a Orthodox Milwaukee synagogue and tells the story of the main character Barbara's fierce yearning to return to this community from which she was exiled. My smart early readers all said that they didn't understand Barbara's desire to return to a world I'd been describing so critically. I couldn't locate the criticism on the page until my daughter and I attended a bar mitzvah at a shul with a mechitzah. She went off to find her friends, and I stood alone staring out into this sea of women, pretty hats covering their hair, their heads leaning into each other during conversation. Memories flooded me. The women's section was the beating heart of my childhood shul, where the regulars shared news of pregnancies, divorces, and illnesses and deaths in their families. And these women had kept track of me.

Lucette Lagnado described my sentiments beautifully in her memoir The Arrogant Years, "What I'd failed to realize was that for the women of my childhood, the world within our closed-off area was every bit as rich and vivid as the universe beyond it; and the barrier in fact fostered and intensified feelings of kinship and intimacy. Inside was a world that was remarkably collegial and embracing and kind."

After the bar mitzvah, I went home and reread my pages, and I understood how my disdain for the traditions of my former shul was insidiously embedded in the simplest descriptions. I, and perhaps the spirit of Andrea Dworkin, were talking over Barbara, inserting political commentary about the mechitzah.

Unlike Barbara, I was never exiled from my community. But in the moment of returning to the mechitzah with my daughter, I felt a pull toward a spiritual home that I'd left, a home that I do not wish to return to, but that tugs at me enough to write, with truest feeling, the longing my character felt for the mechitzah of her youth.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

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Sacred Pools

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often assign my creative writing students the exercise of writing about a freighted or sacred physical space in their lives. I am also in the habit of writing to my own prompts, and this is how the mikvah found its way into my novel.

Although I have friends who have submerged their bodies in these holy waters to convert to Judaism, heal from a surgery, or comply with the family purity rituals, I do not visit the mikvah. I've been fascinated with these waters, though, since I was a young girl and my friends and I would roam around our Orthodox synagogue during services, eating stale cookies set out for us in the kitchen and playing freeze tag in the alley. We were told to avoid a staircase off the side of the sanctuary at all costs. The steps led down to a sacred pool of water that the women immersed themselves in once a month. My mother did not go to the mikvah, so my limited knowledge of this ritual and my active imagination forced me to fill in the blanks.

We stopped attending shul regularly when I became a serious swimmer and replaced services with Saturday swim meets. I trained for them at our high school, which housed two pools: a shiny new one with a diving well and light flooding large glass windows, and an old narrow one with dark water and bad acoustics. We called this pool the dungeon, and we spoke of the boy who had died in these waters years ago. From that day on, I imagined the boy swimming with me when we practiced in the dungeon. Sometimes he scared me, and other times I welcomed his presence and wondered about his life before he passed.

My novel, Washing the Dead, is set in an Orthodox shul in Milwaukee. A mysterious benefactor has donated a large mansion along Lake Michigan to the community, complete with a swimming pool in the basement that the rabbi and his wife have converted to a mikvah. The book opens when the protagonist, Barbara, catches her mother smoking in the mikvah during Shabbat services, resulting in a shocking indiscretion for which the community exiles Barbara's family. Barbara spends the rest of the book trying to forgive her mother, but first, she must solve the mystery of her mother's attachment to these waters.

Water cries out to me. I've never lived more than a mile from a body of water, be it Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean, and now the Potomac River. In researching the mikvah and burial rituals featured in Washing the Dead, I came to understand the healing and purifying powers of water. It can hold both secrets and what is needed to repair their damage.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

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Washing the Dead: The Wonder of Ritual

Monday, April 27, 2015 | Permalink

Michelle Brafman's debut novel Washing the Dead is being published this week by Prospect Park Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am a fairly observant Jew with a decent Jewish education, yet I only learned about the tahara, our burial rituals, eight years ago, when a friend casually mentioned them to me. And now, even after I've written a novel featuring the tahara, the holiness of this deed continues to reveal itself to me in waves.

The tahara is called the "good deed of truth" because tending to the dead is a favor that the recipient can neither acknowledge nor repay. I won't lie, though, my fascination with this righteous act initially stemmed from its mystery. The chevra kadisha often operates as a secret society in order to preserve the anonymity of the mitzvah, and the rites are sensual: sponge-bathing, rinsing, shrouding, placing dirt in a pine casket.

In researching the novel, I approached the head of my synagogue's chevra kadisha, and we talked for hours about the ritual. She invited me to help perform a tahara, informing me that this was the ultimate act of compassion. I understood this intellectually, I really did. When I entered the preparation room, however, my brain switched to writer mode, mentally recording every detail: the scent of the body, the canisters of toothpicks we would use to clean under the nails, the narrow width of the coffin.

In the early days of describing this book, when I told Jews and non-Jews of this ritual, I felt as though I were at a sleepover, sharing a scary, titillating ghost story. It took many drafts for me to discover the core of the book: my character Barbara's attempt to find her way back to the spiritual and emotional home torched by her mother's indiscretion. The inciting incident is when Barbara is invited back to her Orthodox community to perform a tahara on the woman who stepped in to mother her after her own mother's abandonment.

It wasn't until I read the tahara passage aloud for the first time in public that I realized performing this ritual was the only way for Barbara to loosen a brick in the wall she'd built between herself and her mother and her religious home. This tactile deed fired an atrophied muscle of her heart. In his short story "A Father's Story" Andre Dubus describes the "wonder of ritual:" "For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love."

Shortly after the galleys of my book arrived, I had coffee with my chevra kadisha guide. We spoke more about the tahara and other Jewish rituals, and though I listened carefully, I knew I was also filing away some of her words, as I do an idea for a story. Later I will make meaning of these mitzvot, the doing and telling, and the gorgeous mystery of the fusion of the two.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at www.michellebrafman.com.

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