Ruminating on the your maternal relationships this Mother’s Day? Michelle Brafman can help. The Maryland writer’s first novel, Washing the Dead, recently published by Prospect Park Books, tells the story of three generations of mothers and daughters grappling with regret and desire for connection.
After protagonist Barbara’s mother betrays her, she loses not just her parent, but also the community of her precious synagogue. She builds a life outside of it and becomes a mother herself, but the hole left by her mother and synagogue continues to torment her: Will she abandon her daughter the way her mother abandoned her? When her mother falls ill, she decides to stop fleeing her past, determined not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. She wades back into her old life and her mother’s history and, in the process, washes away the hurt she has been carrying for decades. Purified by the waters of the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, Barbara is finally able to forgive her mother and be fully present for her own daughter.
This Saturday, May 9, at 3:30 p.m., Brafman will read from her new book at Politics & Prose. Hopefully, Brafman’s book will spur mothers and daughters to confess and forgive secrets on Saturday so they can actually enjoy each other’s company on Sunday.
From her home in Glen Echo, Brafman, a mother herself, spoke with Arts Desk about her own Jewish upbringing, the role of women in the faith, and how in the process of writing about forgiveness, she learned to forgive. Brafman is currently working on a second novel that is also about family secrets and water.
Arts Desk: As a Gentile, what I found most fascinating about this book was learning about the traditions and rituals of Judaism. I know you’re a member of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, a conservative synagogue in Bethesda. How much of Barbara’s experience was informed by your own upbringing in the Jewish faith and how much was researched?
Brafman: Writing this book connected me to my Judaism more deeply because I got to learn about little-known rituals and I got to kind of go deeper. It enhanced my connection to my faith because I have such an appreciation for these burial rituals.
I grew up in a synagogue that was pretty similar to Barbara’s. When I was very young, we belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, but my family actually was not Orthodox. I went to a Jewish faith school, and this was just kind of part of our experience. Then, when I started nearing bat mitzvah age, I needed to find a synagogue where I could have a bat mitzvah because girls couldn’t have them in that particular Orthodox synagogue—you know, you can’t read from the Torah or anything like that. So then we went to a synagogue very similar to Beth El, a conservative congregation. I was really split between the two from a pretty early age. The congregation I created for Washing the Dead is kind of a conflation of a lot of different Orthodox synagogues that I’ve been to.
Was a desire to learn more about Judaism the impetus for writing this book?
I had many false starts with this book. But, you know, I guess in writing a book you catch a scent of something and you just keep following the scent. So what evolved over numerous false starts was an interest in this mother-daughter story, and once I learned about the burial rituals, I thought, “Gosh, metaphorically, this is a pretty amazing way to talk about forgiveness and compassion and this whole notion of cleansing and washing and rebirth and renewal.” The two did go hand in hand. I would say once I discovered the burial rituals, I got really excited. I wanted to explore this because even people who know a lot about Judaism—I had a pretty solid Jewish education, and I didn’t really know about these rituals. I thought, “This is really interesting, and you want to write about a little known piece of a larger story.”
How did you learn about the burial rituals? Did you take part in one?
Yeah, a friend just mentioned them. She told me about the tahara, and I just became completely and utterly fascinated and I started reading, I read this really great book, Dignity Beyond Death by Rochel Berman. Then I realized that my own synagogue has a chevra kadisha, a burial society, and I contacted the head of the burial society and she was wonderful and really led me through the ritual. We talked for hours, she let me interview her and I did actually go and perform a tahara. It was just stunningly beautiful. But it’s really not a book about death; it’s really a book about forgive[ness] and renewal and love, and I learned about what blossoms in the process of dying, the life that blossoms.
On the other side of the tahara, the death ritual, is the mikveh, the ritual of rebirth. Last year, the Rabbi of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown was caught secretly videotaping women who were bathing in the mikveh. The scandal triggered a larger conversation about sexism in Judaism. How did you walk the line between faithfully portraying an Orthodox schul and addressing sexism in some Jewish communities?
As a fiction writer, my posture is not really to judge. Basically, I was trying to portray the community as it was. In the first 79 drafts of my novel, one of the biggest problems was that my little feminist voice was talking over my character. I had a lot of comments and commentary about some of the practices, and one of my readers said, ‘How can you describe this synagogue that is so precious to this character that she’s losing when she’s making all these comments about the separation of the sexes and everything?’ So I really had to kind of remove my feminist voice and just think about this community as it was in this book and what it meant to my character and really just not make that judgment.
Of course I think women should read from the Torah, and of course all [restrictions on women’s participation] is bothersome to me as a feminist, but there is also a beauty in the women’s section of this synagogue and her being part of this female community. I think in my book you get a sense of how important this community is. I wanted to show that this rebbetzin [wife of the Rabbi] had incredible power, she was able to counsel a lot of the different congregants. So I guess I flipped it on its head. I had to pull that part of myself from the story and really just talk about this cocoon and what it meant to my character because then I had to rip it away from her and kind of see how she spiraled. I looked at this women’s section as this amazing community of strong women who had a lot of power even though they weren’t able to do some of the things that men were able to do. My own personal opinion, I had to kind of weed that out of the narrative because it was messing me up. A lot of the pulse of a synagogue really beats in the women’s section.
How does your mikveh show a different side of the mikveh that people may have taken away from the Georgetown scandal? In the mikveh that grew out of my imagination, the person who controls the immersion is really the rebbetzin. I didn’t really see men so much as part of this experience. In my mind I didn’t see it connected to this male authority and that wasn’t my experience of it. I think a lot of the conversation about the Georgetown situation had to do with Rabbi Freundel supervising these conversions and that element wasn’t really involved in my book either. So there wasn’t that need for that rabbinical influence. In writing about the mikveh and learning about it, I just had such an appreciation for the beauty of this ritual, too. I mean, you’re naked—physically, spiritually—and it did give me a deeper sense of the resonance of what he did, and the harm, and I don’t know that I necessarily would have been in that situation had I not been immersed in this particular ritual.
I think my book is making a statement by leaving out a lot of the male experience. It’s saying there’s this religion, there’s this whole world of women who have their own hierarchy and their own support systems and politics and there’s so much happening in this silent, silenced part of the community. So regardless of whether I’m featuring the women’s section or the mikveh, I’m not even talking about the men. I wanted to show these strong, women leaders.
We’ve talked a lot about how the book is exploring Judaism, but in parallel, it’s exploring the relationship between mothers and daughters. What was interesting about that relationship to you and what did you discover? Is there anything unique about the relationship between Jewish mothers and daughters?
I didn’t set out to write a mother and daughter book. I started out writing friend book between Tzippy and Barbara, and it just did not have any traction. As a writer, you want to give your characters as much trouble as possible so I thought, ‘What would be the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate wound?’ And it was a mother’s abandonment, and so that’s where I ended up going. And then, not only the mother’s abandonment, but the ripping of this whole community. I wanted to send her in a spiral. The friend thing was not going anywhere for a really long time.
They say the more particular, the more universal, and as I got to the particulars of this relationship, it really started opening up the more universal ideas about any kind of relationship when there’s some kind of abandonment, some need of forgiveness. How do you do that? How do you show up for someone who hasn’t shown up for you? Which is ultimately what Barbara has to do when her mother gets sick. So that’s where I found all the heat. Like, how is she going to forgive this mother? But it could have been anybody, it could have been a father, it could have been a friend. But to me, that was the closest to the bone, that was going to give my character the biggest trouble. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Jewish about this part of the book. It really has to do with understanding the context behind a person’s actions, which is ultimately what Barbara had to do to forgive her mother and show up for her, which she does in such a profound way.
I noticed that all the women have trouble with their pregnancies: morning sickness, ruptured uteri, inability to conceive. Was that intentional? That’s really interesting; no one has asked me that question before. Yeah, it kind of plays into the whole idea of trouble and how these characters evolve. I wasn’t setting out to give everybody some kind of issue with their pregnancies, but it did play into this whole idea of mothering and birthing and some of the tensions and challenges. But it wasn’t something that I did intentionally. But now that I think about it, it does play into the challenges of birthing, of being a mom.
The book begins in 1993 when Barbara is pregnant with her first child, a daughter. Then it goes back in time to 1973, when Barbara is in high school, and from there, back and forth between this period and the present day story, set in 2009. Why begin in 1993?
The book has two narrative threads that wind around each other like a DNA double helix, 1973 and 2009, and each thread has its own inciting event. With the 1973, it’s catching the mother in the mikveh and in 2009, it’s the letter that comes from the rebbetzin. And you know what? I could not figure out which inciting event to start with. I didn’t want to start in the Orthodox community because it’s not about a 17-year-old, and if I started in 2009, then the letter wouldn’t mean enough because you hadn’t seen what had been lost, like why that letter would have had so much impact. I went back and forth so many times and finally, I decided, “I am going to step out of those two narrative threads, and I am going to bring Barbara to the moment of what’s really at stake here: Is this going to impact my ability to be a mom?” That’s really the heart of it. And I thought, “How else could I start this than her finding out that’s she’s about to give birth to a daughter?” It’s all right there: Am I going to do this to my own daughter? That’s ultimately why she’s going on this quest.
Part of Barbara’s healing process comes from telling her story, first to near strangers and then to the rebbetzin. How has storytelling been a healing process for you? Obviously, the main character Barbara shares lot of similarities with you. I think that the telling and sharing of stories can be transformative. Barbara does share biographical facts with me, and part of why it took me so long to write this book—seven years—is that she had to separate from me. She had to become her own person with her own issues and her own grief and sadness. But for me, in the telling of her story, I was telling the story of someone who needed to learn how to forgive, and that made me a more forgiving and compassionate person. It was writing a script for someone who had to do something incredibly difficult. It expanded me in exponential ways to write the script for that because I had no idea how that was going to happen. So even though my experience doesn’t match hers, we do share a lot of similarities: Where we overlap is this need to forgive.
A love of reading is a bond between Barbara and her mother. Did you inherit a love of books from your mother? My mother was a librarian, and she did like to read quite a bit. She would go to library and bring me books. The spring I had mono, she would come back with these armfuls of books, and we always had books on our shelves. My dad is a big reader and my brother is a big reader, so books were very much a part of our life as a family. I read voraciously all the time. So they planted the seeds in our home, but I definitely was the biggest reader in my family.
And when I create a character, I think about what do they read, what kind of music do they listen to? I think you can tell so much about a person by what they read. So June is incredibly passionate about history, and for a woman who is trying so hard to run from her family history, to protect her children from her family history, she’s consumed with it, and she really can’t escape it. So I gave her a preoccupation with history and, in turn, historical novels, so that’s why she reads [James A.] Michener.
Every book was carefully thought out because it reveals something about a character. I also went through and looked at the books that were popular that year, so I really thought about what would they be reading. And My Name is Asher Lev was a book that was popular around that time and it just fit in so perfectly. And then The Great Gatsby; Barbara definitely relates to Nick Caraway because, in terms of the drama that’s going on around her, she’s involved, but she’s also kind of a bystander. So every book they read is really important to me in terms of how it affects who they are, and the same thing with their jobs. June worked in the history department at the university, so she really was stuck in history; she’s trapped. The reason that I made both Barbara’s brother and father orthodontists is because they are trying to fix. An orthodontist fixes what life has given you; they’re fixers, straightening these teeth. That’s what Barbara’s father’s role with the mother was: He was going to straighten out her history.
Photo courtesy of Sam Kittner