Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
July 16, 2015 by Michelle Brafman
I’m knee-deep into what promises to be a fifty-plus gig book tour. After spending seven years writing, revising, and trying to publish my debut novel, Washing the Dead, I’m out of my house. Out of my office. Out of my pajamas. And, often, out of my comfort zone.
I’ve fretted about each reading. Will anyone show up? What if they do? What if I get a heckler? What if we don’t sell any books? What if we run out? The list goes on. Gratitude is the only thing that grounds me. Some bookseller, librarian or book-club host has believed in my novel enough to want to share it with his/her community. He or she has gone to the trouble of spreading the word via social media or flyers or Paperless Post evites. And if that’s not enough, they’ve researched my work in order to write introductory remarks, and in many cases put out a delicious spread. Dayenu!
Hiccups do occur during my readings. Sirens blare, children cry, audience members use their outdoor voices while guessing my height, and readers give away the ending to the mystery my character is trying to solve. I now carry a hankie because reading aloud makes me schvitz, Albert Brooks/Broadcast News style. Who knew?
A friend recently asked me if I was growing tired of the podium, and I answered “not yet,” because something amazing and exhilarating occurs at every event, big and small. I’m also still stunned that people would devote their time and brain space to my novel, a story about Barbara Pupnick Blumfield’s quest to find her way back home. After years of exile from her Milwaukee Orthodox Jewish community, Barbara’s former rebbetzin invites her to perform a tahara (the ritual of preparing the body for burial) on the mentor who nurtured her after Barbara’s mother abandoned the family. And so begins her long journey back to her religious community, her mother’s love, and the piece of herself she’s unwittingly withheld from her teenage daughter. In order to return home, Barbara must solve the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance from the family, and it’s for this reason the book has been called a spiritual page-turner.
The first question I typically field is whether the story is autobiographical. Did I grow up in an Orthodox community? Yes, when I was very young, but the community featured in this book is entirely made up. Do Barbara’s relationships with her mother and daughter mirror mine? Definitively no. Extricating myself from the story enables the conversation to flower, and the details of Barbara’s life serve as rich soil to discuss the broader themes and ideas attached to the book.
On the theme of forgiveness, thorny and timely forgiveness issues come up at readings. One reader admitted that she’d hesitated before reading the book because she wasn’t ready to forgive her mother for a fairly severe abandonment. A book clubber brought up the tragedy in Charleston, specifically how the parents of the victims forgave Dylann Roof so quickly. This launched into a meaty discussion about the Jewish versus Christian thinking about forgiveness and an ensuing emailing of articles, including a stunning New York Times piece “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof” by Roxanne Gay.
Jews, Christians, and members of interfaith couples have compared Barbara’s spiritual journey to their own experiences. The bitter crust encasing stories about feeling judged by clergy or zealous family members hurts my heart. Yet for every one of these tales I’ve heard another about the creativity and rigor in which readers have found their way to a warm and welcoming church or synagogue, be it Chabad or Reform.
I’m moved when members of burial societies offer thanks for my having portrayed this act of chesed (loving-kindness) with reverence. In keeping with the anonymity of the mitzvah, however, they desire no personal recognition for their deeds. A surprising number of daughters and sons, Jews and non-Jews, have told me about witnessing their parents’ last breaths and helping wash and shroud them. One elderly woman wished that she’d had the chance to do so, because, she says, she still carries around the pain and shock of her mother’s sudden and early passing.
Ultimately, though, Washing the Dead is not a book about death. It’s book about the healing that comes from unraveling painful family secrets and in turn discovering a larger context for the bad behavior of the people we love. It’s about taking a wrecking ball to the walls we build around our hearts. Friends who have fallen away — through distance or discord — have turned up at readings and signing lines. I am only halfway through this whirlwind of book activity, but when it is over, I will unpack their reappearances in my life and the exchanges I’ve shared and will share with strangers, friends, family members, mentors, and students. And then I will return to my office on a more regular basis, slip on my pajamas, brew a pot of tea, and try my hardest to do it again.