Washing The Dead by Michelle Brafman

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Post  Mon, Sep 07 2015, 8:12 pm
Has anyone else read this? It was favorably reviewed on the Jewish Book Council website and I just finished it. I liked it quite a lot - it was a very literate "woman's book" - and I mean that in the best sense of the word in terms of dealing with family and interpersonal relationships written by a woman who is perceptive and an excellent writer.

I don't want to spoil it by giving too much of the plot away - I've pasted the review of the book and deleted some spoilers. I hate reading many reviews because they give away too much. Very Happy

If anyone reads it, I would love to get other's opinions. I do have a copy in digital format which I would be happy to "lend" if you PM me.

Here are the reviews and brief synopsis not written by me:

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 as Tzippy left New York for the summers and for high school to receive a proper education.

So many books suddenly throw their heroes — and, by proxy, their readers — alone and undefended into a startling new world. Alice falls down a rabbit hole; Gregor wakes to find himself transformed into an enormous insect; Nick goes East to be dazzled by Gatsby. Brafman takes a different approach in her deeply moving debut novel, Washing the Dead. We are eased into an Orthodox Jewish community and a family burdened by secrets as gently as if an old friend were guiding us every step of the way. We eat homemade cookies in the kitchen, worry about a high school daughter missing a season on the track team, love our husbands, but don’t quite tell them everything. One comforting and deeply familiar moment builds upon the next, but we are delivered all the same into what for most of us is a strange land where American parents choose their daughters’ husbands and the loss of the rebbetzin’s favor is a life-long tragedy.

A great deal happens in this book. Brafman moves deftly through different times, communities, and generations. Old wounds are opened, and secrets are revealed. Brafman accomplishes a vivid dramatic arc, but does so with very little fanfare, preferring to tell her story with a quiet accumulation of carefully observed detail. Unsurprisingly, it was Brafman who explained her work best. When I asked her why she chose to write a religious book with no miracles in it, she answered as follows: “I suppose this depends on how you define the term miracle. This story is grounded in ritual, in my character’s participation in three washings, two burials and one mikvah (ritual bath) immersion. Andre Dubus articulates this connection between ritual and these larger spiritual moments beautifully in A Father’s Story, ‘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.’ These washing rituals allow my character to loosen a brick in the wall she’s built around her heart and in turn return home, to her mother and her lost spiritual community. I see any such act of renewal as a miracle.”
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Post  Mon, Sep 07 2015, 9:35 pm
I am curious if you found the portrayal of the "ultra-orthodox" world authentic? So many books are written by those who think they know but get so many things wrong.
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Post  Mon, Sep 07 2015, 11:00 pm
That's an interesting question. It's a novel and not a National Geographic documentary. Very Happy

I have read some books in which the Orthodox community is treated like an interesting milieu
such as the detective novels written by Julia Dahl. But they tend to be written by people with no first hand knowledge and the milieu is picked just because it is offbeat - probably.

I think this book is coming from a different place as she was brought up in an Orthodox family in Milwaukee and is still observant - albeit at a Conservative synagogue. So although the book is not autobiographical, she is writing about the world that she grew up in and the characters which are fictional are interacting within that world.

I think the Tahara was described accurately both ritualistically and more importantly - emotionally in terms of its place in the religion and with respect to those who participate. But I have no first hand knowledge of this, since I have never participated or seen the ritual.

I thought the treatment of the Rebbetzin in Milwaukee was moving although it took awhile for her to emerge as something more than a cipher - of course that would be because we are viewing her through the lens of Barbara, the protagonist, who still has no real understanding of what went on until the denouement.

Not sure if this answers your question Question
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Post  Tue, Sep 08 2015, 12:25 am
That sounds like a book I would enjoy Thanks!
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Post  Tue, Sep 08 2015, 8:00 am
what are the author's feelings on orthodoxy? her upbringing?
just wondering because she's at a conservative synagogue and while the book sounds interesting I am so tired of underlying or overt negativity towards orthodoxy which I think comes through in most if not all of these books unless the author is orthodox -- otherwise reading such a book leaves such a bad taste in my mouth

thanks for the review! always looking for good reading material
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