“Washing the Dead,” by Michelle Brafman, Prospect Park Books, 334 pages, $16
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Like Barbara Pupnick Blumfield, the main character of Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, I was nervous about giving birth to a girl. As one of three sisters, I knew firsthand that online or off, the most fitting relationship status for girls and their mothers is often “It’s complicated.”
I ended up having not just one girl but, eventually, four, and Barbara had a girl too: Lili, whom we meet as a teenager in 2009 wrestling with secrets and friendship and belonging, just as her mother Barbara and her grandmother, June Pupnick, did, back in 1973.
We learn about these three women through a flashback structure that starts with a pregnant Barbara confessing her fears and then effectively shifts focus back and forth between the onset of the teenage Barbara’s rift with her mother, and with Judaism, and the period more than three decades later when June is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the teenage Lili breaks her ankle at a track meet, gets in with the wrong crowd and loses her focus in ways both literal and figurative.
Brafman’s tale of three generations of women shows that woundedness — damage to mind and soul — can travel down the generations, and that so can kindness, courage and, ultimately, self-healing.
In “Washing the Dead,” Judaism — or at least the Chabad version of it, as indicated by the trademark international missionizing of the Hasidic sect (though it is never actually mentioned by name) — is a source of solace for Barbara when she considers the local synagogue a second home, and of pain when she believes she has been exiled from it. Her move away from religion is intimately tied to the discovery and the aftereffects of her mother’s extramarital affair with the “Shabbos goy,” the non-Jewish caretaker at the family’s Chabad synagogue in Milwaukee (the author’s hometown).
Barbara’s journey — from the girl whose best friend is the rabbi’s daughter, Tzippy, to the confused emerging woman who isn’t sure whether it was the “salty pork” of a nonkosher hot dog or the guilt over eating it that made her queasy, to the married mother of a teenage girl with issues of her own — begins with her intense, conflicted feelings toward her sometimes-distant mother. But while the novel clearly expresses themes such as the tenuousness and durability of mother-daughter relationships, the pull of conflicting loyalties and the power of purification — most literally, through the ritual of washing the dead alluded to in the book’s title — sometimes these ideas come at the expense of a believable plot and characters.
The friction between Barbara and June seems genuine enough but, perhaps because Brafman didn’t want the difficulties plaguing the next generation to compete with the earlier story line, Lili’s problems seem so mundane that Barbara ends up saddled with manufactured overreaction. Take a key moment toward the end of the book, when Barbara feels as if she is “being sawed in two,” unsure whether to stay at her daughter’s bedside or head to her mother’s. “I couldn’t leave Lili when she needed me most, but if I didn’t, I might miss the chance to say goodbye to my mother,” Barbara thinks. “There was no good choice.”
This sounds dramatic, and the idea fits nicely into the major themes of the book, but the actual facts of the plot fail to support this overwrought tension. Barbara’s brother has just called from the hospital to tell her that their mother’s organs are starting to shut down — in other words, that she’s dying. And Lili? She has been vomiting after drinking too much alcohol at an unauthorized house party she threw — and there are two responsible adults in the house with her, not counting Barbara. This doesn’t sound like a dilemma; it sounds like a situation with only one reasonable outcome.
An even more crucial instance in which the story’s arc isn’t sufficiently bolstered by the world it describes relates to Barbara’s religious identity as a child.
At the beginning of the book Barbara seems to be modern Orthodox, as when she contrasts her life to Tzippy’s. While Tzippy gets shipped off to an all-girls Hasidic high school in New York and will soon be marrying a man selected by a matchmaker, Barbara attends what appears to be a local public school and tells us that, unlike Tzippy’s Hasidic family, “My family was Orthodox, which meant that I got to pick out my own husband and my father wore regular clothes.” These signals, combined with the fact that this section of the book is set in 1973 Milwaukee, a time and place that had yet to be touched by the rightward tilt of Orthodox Judaism in the United States, prompts knowledgeable readers to envision a modern Orthodox girl who — like me and most of my modern Orthodox peers in high school two decades later — saw no contradiction between keeping kosher and wearing jeans.
So I was confused when a major symbol of Barbara’s internal transformation turned out to be the long skirts we are told she “always wore,” and that she leaves behind when she ditches Tzippy’s wedding in favor of taking a job as a live-in nanny for a non-Jewish family in San Diego. It’s not just the skirts, either. In other parts of the book, Barbara switches affiliations altogether, telling us at one point that she was “born into an ultra-Orthodox home” and informing a non-Jewish character that she grew up in a community like the Hasidic one of the Chaim Potok character Asher Lev. Though these discrepancies may seem like quibbles, for readers familiar with the Orthodox world they are not only distracting but can make the whole premise of the book ring false, particularly since Barbara’s relationship with her religion is a cornerstone of the narrative.
“Washing the Dead” would have benefited from a closer adherence to the logic of character and plot, not just theme, but Brafman nonetheless succeeds in showing how family history has a way of sneaking up on us from the depths of the past, shaping the present in ways both familiar and unexpected.