"Now I was left to mourn both Mrs. Kessler and the hole she had filled for me. My mother was that hole, scary and deep and still tugging at me."
Such is the situation that Barbara finds herself in after years of struggling with the loss of so much more than her beloved mentor.
Barbara's story, as told in "Washing the Dead" by former Whitefish Bay resident Michelle Brafman, is set among the North Shore and follows the life of a woman whose family is torn apart after her mother's affair rips them from their Orthodox community. As a grown woman still living in the North Shore with a family of her own, Barbara must face her family's past after she is called to participate in the taharah — the Jewish tradition of washing a body for burial — of Mrs. Kessler.
"Nothing is as it appears in the opening pages," explained Brafman, who now resides in Glen Echo, Maryland.
The book has found its way into countless book clubs nationwide. Amid the peppering of Hebrew words and traditions, "the particulars of [the book's] themes are very universal," explained Brafman. "The readership stands beyond the Jewish community."
The novel is entirely fiction, but the mastery of Jewish tradition Brafman describes weaves a story that feels entirely real. It thoroughly examines themes that most of us can resonate with, from the mother-daughter relationship, healing, and the rule of ritual and renewal.
"This is a book about, ultimately, forgiveness. It was something I just wanted to understand better," explained Brafman.
"Washing the Dead" is a hopeful story about what can blossom when we can let go of grudges.
The Writing Process
Growing up along the lake, Brafman remembers passing the mansions on Lake Drive, contemplating the stories of those that lived inside their walls. The mansions "have always intrigued me growing up," and that mystery is reflected in the secrets that the mansions hold in "Washing the Dead."
"These mansions must have taken my imagination a long time ago," Brafman said.
The book is chalk full of Milwaukee references, from Kopps and Summerfest, to Heinemann's and Sendik's. Brafman enlisted the help of a friend still in the area to help verify facts, and to ensure that addresses used in the book don't belong to an actual home.
"What's interesting about this experience is that as a good writer, I was trying to create a compelling story," Brafman said.
During the seven years that it took her to write Barbara's journey toward forgiveness, Brafman learned a lot about forgiveness and grace.
"That's really what kept me going," he said.
Readers can't help but follow that same journey as they turn the pages, thus being left to examine areas of forgiveness in their own life.
"What's been really gratifying about this book is that it's given some people hope in terms of their ability to mend some of the most difficult parts of their lives," Brafman said.
The Life of a Writer
Brafman was a voracious reader and journaler growing up. When she got older, she became a filmmaker as a means of documenting life stories, which she always found so fascinating.
However, in time, she found "the best stories come before and after the camera begins rolling," which led her to start writing short stories.
"I've always been interested in people and their stories," and over time that passion morphed into these various iterations.
As a young girl in the area, Brafman's family was part of an Orthodox church before they moved to a conservative synagogue. Bradman remained a member of both churches until she went off to college in California.
After school, "I really wanted to go back to Milwaukee," but fate would have other plans for her. "In writing this book, I was really there," at least in her imagination. She was able to return to the place she grew up in through the writing process. "That's the beauty of fiction writing; you can go back to lots of places, if only in your imagination."
What inspires her most is the "potential for people to connect via storytelling." She currently teaches workshops for older people to write their own stories into memoirs. For her to be part of that narrative exchange is extremely gratifying.
Brafman, her husband and two children are now Conservative Jews.
Brafman will speak about her book at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. The event is free and open to the public, and will be hosted by Jody Hirsh, JCC Judaic Education Director. For more information about the event, contact the JCC at (414) 964-4444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copies of her book can be purchased at the event, or at Boswell Books, Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and is also available as an ebook.
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