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​.michelle​braf​man​.com.

Relat­ed Content:

Michelle Brafman’s fic­tion and essays have appeared in The Wash­ing­ton Post, Slate, Tablet, and oth­ers. A reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Lilith Mag­a­zine blog, she has led its salon dis­cus­sions at the­aters and arts cen­ters through­out the Wash­ing­ton, DC area. She teach­es fic­tion writ­ing at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in Glen Echo, Mary­land with her hus­band and two children.