Wash­ing the Dead

Michelle Braf­man

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By – April 17, 2015

Prepar­ing the dead for tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish bur­ial is con­sid­ered the holi­est and most sacred mitz­vah that a Jew can per­form because there is no way for the dead to repay the act of good­ness. In her debut nov­el, Michelle Braf­man has woven her sto­ry around two episodes of wash­ing the dead. In per­form­ing this mitz­vah, the pro­tag­o­nist cleans­es her­self of hatreds and mis­un­der­stand­ings that she has been car­ry­ing around since her youth.

Grow­ing up in a wealthy sub­urb of Mil­wau­kee, Bar­bara and her fam­i­ly wor­ship at Rab­bi Schine’s man­sion-like syn­a­gogue. Bar­bara and her fam­i­ly are baalei teshu­va, Jews who have returned to Ortho­doxy under the influ­ence of a men­tor — in this case, Rab­bi Schine and his wife, the Reb­bet­zin. Bar­bara was proud of her mother’s friend­ship with the Reb­bet­zin: her moth­er always sat next to the Reb­bet­zin in the syn­a­gogue. Bar­bara her­self is best friends with Tzip­py, the Schines’ daugh­ter, but lit­tle by lit­tle the friend­ship dimin­ish­es asTzip­py left New York for the sum­mers and for high school to receive a prop­er education.

One hor­ri­fy­ing Sab­bath morn­ing, Bar­bara finds her moth­er smok­ing a cig­a­rette on the Sab­bath, her hair mussed. It becomes appar­ent that she had been spend­ing time with the Shab­bos Goy,” the gen­tile hired to do work for­bid­den to the Sab­bath – obser­vant. Sub­se­quent­ly, Mrs. Pup­nik sep­a­rates her­self from the shul and the Reb­bet­zin. Bar­bara is sent to Cal­i­for­nia for the sum­mer after her senior year to help Mrs. Schine’s sis­ter, who is hav­ing a dif­fi­cult preg­nan­cy. Unwit­ting­ly, this sum­mer serves as Barbara’s break from Ortho­doxy. She dis­tances her­self from her moth­er, who is still see­ing the Shab­bos Goy. She grows and mar­ries and lives a hap­py unaf­fil­i­at­ed life.

Years lat­er, she receives a sur­prise phone call from the Reb­bet­zin. The Reb­bet­zin asks Bar­bara to par­tic­i­pate in the wash­ing of her for­mer beloved teacher, Mrs. Berman. The cleans­ing expe­ri­ence allows Bar­bara to open up the well of ques­tions that have been drown­ing her. When the Reb­bet­zin tells Bar­bara the secrets of her mother’s life, Bar­bara final­ly under­stands her mother’s actions and can for­give her.

Relat­ed Content:


Read Michelle Braf­man’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Wash­ing the Dead: The Won­der of Ritual

Sacred Pools

Writ­ing the Mechitzah

Suri Boiangiu recent­ly semi-retired from the posi­tion of assis­tant prin­ci­pal at an all-girls high school. She has either been an admin­is­tra­tor or taught Eng­lish at Yeshiv­ah of Flat­bush and Magen David High School. She loves read­ing mod­ern fic­tion, or any fic­tion, and Ama­zon knows her by her first name.

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