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Washing The Dead

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It’s been a long time since a novel made me weep. Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman is that kind of novel.
 
Washing the Dead is a Jewish mother-daughter story. And a Jewish grandmother-mother-daughter trilogy. The heart of the story is Barbara Pupnick Blumfeld, a suburban mother who grew up an integral part of a small Orthodox synagogue in the Midwest. The novel shifts back and forth between the present and the past, reaching back into Barbara’s idyllic childhood. Her best friend is the rabbi’s daughter, her mother is one of the congregation’s most involved members and the young Barbara Pupnick is confident about her place in the world.
 
Barbara’s life implodes when her mother’s affair with a non-Jewish employee of the synagogue becomes common knowledge in their tight-knit community. Reeling, Barbara leaves Orthodoxy, leaves her Milwaukee home and begins to piece together a future without her community. Barbara’s relationship with her elusive mother June, whose presence in Barbara’s life waxes and wanes, is the knotty quandary that gradually disentangles in this beautifully crafted novel.
 
Although Barbara is not religiously observant in her adult life, elements of Orthodox life are woven through the novel. Decades after the breach with her Orthodox past, the Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) of her childhood beckons Barbara back to the community to participate in the tahara, the ritual washing of the body before burial, of Mrs. Kessler, the popular and well-loved nursery school teacher who inspired her career. This is the first of three washings in Washing the Dead. Each washing brings Barbara closer to uncovering her mother’s secrets and healing the wound that threatens her relationship with her own daughter.
 
Washing the Dead introduces readers to the Jewish ritual known as tahara, performed prior to burial. A tahara includes respectful cleaning, ritual washing and dressing of the body of the deceased in specially prepared shrouds, called tachrichim. Brafman describes the solemn, prayerful tahara ritual in rich detail in the book’s final chapter.
 
If you savor stories of family secrets and forgiveness that touch your heart, Washing the Dead by Michelle Brafman is a novel to cherish.
 
 

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