Preparing the dead for traditional Jewish burial is considered the holiest and most sacred mitzvah that a Jew can perform because there is no way for the dead to repay the act of goodness. In her debut novel, Michelle Brafman has woven her story around two episodes of washing the dead. In performing this mitzvah, the protagonist cleanses herself of hatreds and misunderstandings that she has been carrying around since her youth.
Growing up in a wealthy suburb of Milwaukee, Barbara and her family worship at Rabbi Schine’s mansion-like synagogue. Barbara and her family are baalei teshuva, Jews who have returned to Orthodoxy under the influence of a mentor — in this case, Rabbi Schine and his wife, the Rebbetzin. Barbara was proud of her mother’s friendship with the Rebbetzin: her mother always sat next to the Rebbetzin in the synagogue. Barbara herself is best friends with Tzippy, the Schines’ daughter, but little by little the friendship diminishes asTzippy left New York for the summers and for high school to receive a proper education.
One horrifying Sabbath morning, Barbara finds her mother smoking a cigarette on the Sabbath, her hair mussed. It becomes apparent that she had been spending time with the “Shabbos Goy,” the gentile hired to do work forbidden to the Sabbath – observant. Subsequently, Mrs. Pupnik separates herself from the shul and the Rebbetzin. Barbara is sent to California for the summer after her senior year to help Mrs. Schine’s sister, who is having a difficult pregnancy. Unwittingly, this summer serves as Barbara’s break from Orthodoxy. She distances herself from her mother, who is still seeing the Shabbos Goy. She grows and marries and lives a happy unaffiliated life.
Years later, she receives a surprise phone call from the Rebbetzin. The Rebbetzin asks Barbara to participate in the washing of her former beloved teacher, Mrs. Berman. The cleansing experience allows Barbara to open up the well of questions that have been drowning her. When the Rebbetzin tells Barbara the secrets of her mother’s life, Barbara finally understands her mother’s actions and can forgive her.