August 20, 2019

A Response to Ritual: Washing The Dead

            I believe that as writers, if we are writing from a good place and we get extremely lucky, the stories we toss out into the world will come back to us in the form of more stories, a call and response of sorts.  

            My novel, Washing the Dead, brings forth the tale of Barbara Pupnick's quest to find her way back home. After years of exile from her community, Barbara's former rebbetzin invites her to perform a taharah on the mentor who nurtured her after her mother abandoned the family. The praying, pouring, and swaddling allows Barbara to loosen the first brick in the wall she's built around her heart. And so begins her long journey back to her religious community, her mother's love, and the piece of herself she's withheld from her teenage daughter.

            Readers have indeed responded to Barbara's story.  They've described fissures in their relationships with their spiritual communities and clergy and told beautiful stories of mentors who have stepped in to mother them when no other adult was available.            

            I've also heard story after story about burial rituals, Jewish and other. Before my novel was published, I described the plot to a friend, and she grew quiet for a few minutes. “I think my parents are members of the chevrah kadisha,” she said. A few days later, she told me that she'd called them and asked them about performing the taharah and was struck by their humility about this mitzvah. Other readers have responded similarly about their loved ones' participation in this mitzvah, as though they were seeing them through the fresh lens of this ritual.

            During my appearance on an NPR talk show, a woman called in to share her practice of shmirah and her primal fear of touching a meit. After a reading I gave to my own synagogue, I turned the discussion over to my rabbi and two members of our chevrah kadisha. The audience was mesmerized as my rabbi and the chevrah members demystified the ritual. After a recent event at an assisted living facility, a woman told me that she kept in her car a certificate of a taharah performed on her mother. Other chevrah members have thanked me for raising awareness of the Jewish burial rituals, while maintaining their desire to protect their anonymity.

            I've learned about how other cultures and religions care for the dead. One Muslim reader wrote me to tell me about the similarity in the burial rituals in her culture; a mother of a young woman doing health care work in Africa told me that some African children wash the dead, and a Hindu woman informed me that though the particulars of our customs are different, we are all infusing meaning into the task of preparing a body for burial. Isn't ritual the fusion of the mundane and the holy?  

            I've heard personal stories as well. During a book talk at a synagogue, a woman pulled me aside and whispered that she was a part of the chevrah kadisha. She teared up when she described how important it was to her to perform a taharah on a dear friend who had died of breast cancer. One reader stunned me by telling me that she'd thought of my novel in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death. She told me a beautiful story about helping sponge-bathe her mother before she was taken from her apartment. Like the main character in my novel, this ritual helped the woman forgive her mother's emotional absences.   

            Every story confirms my belief that my novel Washing the Dead, and perhaps taharah, are not about death, but about the human quest to connect with the living, the dead, the hovering souls – and God. The taharah is a ritual that brings these notes together in one sweet chord.

Michelle Brafman is the author of the new (published July 2015) novel Washing the Dead, and an award-winning short story writer. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Tablet, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Lilith Magazine, the Minnesota Review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the John Hopkins MA in Writing Program.






Starting in October:

Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Tuesdays, 12 online sessions (Online orientation session Monday October 12th. Classes weekly Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST.

An examination of the modern Chevrah Kadisha from 1626 in Prague, through history and geography, as imported to Europe and the rest of the world, and brought to the US; with a specific contemporary focus on North America, looking at how the Chevrah has developed and changed over time, up to the present. Studies include text study, and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.

Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering two courses. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S), and Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Practices, & Liturgy [Other than Taharah] (RPL). These courses will begin in January, and will each run for 12 sessions. More information to come, or visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.


We are considering the options of either offering courses mid-day (East Coast time) or morning (West Coast time) as a convenience to those who have scheduling issues with the evening times now in use (including those overseas in Israel and other places), or providing links to the recorded sessions of the evening classes (to be viewed at the student’s convenience) with a weekly online discussion section at another time of day. . This is anticipated to be the same online format and material as the courses that have been offered in past, but at a time that works better for some than the evening (Eastern Standard).

If you are interested in either of these options, please be in touch by November 1st to let us know: we need to assess the level of interest as we determine whether to incorporate these options. Contact us for more information about scholarships, or any other questions. or call 410-733-3700.

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