By Robin Jaconbson.
Every family has its story. We are shaped by our family’s story – or what we think is our family’s story. This theme runs through two compelling new books about a woman’s journey (one imagined and one real) to understand her family’s past. Don’t miss congregant Michelle Brafman’s Washing the Dead or Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.
Washing the Dead
Fascinated by Jewish burial rituals, Michelle Brafman approached the head of Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha (burial society) to learn more about tahara, the Jewish ritual for purifying the dead. Following some long, serious conversations, Brafman participated in a tahara, a rite suffused with overwhelming tenderness and compassion. So profound was Brafman’s experience that tahara became a focus of her warm and wise debut novel, Washing the Dead. The mikvah, a sacred place for purification and healing much in the news lately, is also important to the novel.
When the novel opens, the protagonist, Barbara, is waiting for a sonogram that will tell her whether the child she is carrying is a boy or a girl. She confesses to the sonographer her desperate hope that the child is not a girl; her relationship with her own mother is so fraught. The novel moves deftly back and forth between the past and present in Barbara’s life. The teenage Barbara is shocked to discover her mother, June, smoking in their Orthodox shul’s mikvah room one Shabbat morning. After that, Barbara watched with rising panic as June drifts away both from her family and the mores of the Orthodox community. Enmeshed in an inexplicable love affair, June no longer seemed to care about Barbara or other family members. When the affair became public, the family was exiled from the Orthodox community. Years later, as a mother herself of a teenage daughter, Barbara is consumed with her mother’s past and their tangled relationship. At a critical crossroads, her former Orthodox community unexpectedly invites her to participate in the tahara of a beloved childhood teacher. This is the start of Barbara’s journey toward a fuller understanding of her mother and their shared family history.
Sarah Wildman grew up confident that she understood her family’s story. The hero of the story was her grandfather, Karl Wildman, who fled Vienna with his immediate family in 1938, soon after Nazi Germany annexed Austria. A single man of 26 when he arrived in America, Karl built a successful medical practice, married, and raised a family. Wildman remembers her grandfather as a cosmopolitan bon vivant, a man who relished culture, travel, and friends and who reminded others to “live with delight.” Apparently, Karl had escaped the Holocaust unscathed. But after her grandfather’s death, Wildman picked up threads of a different story.
In her parents’ basement, she discovered a box of Karl’s letters. Although the box was labeled, “Correspondence: Patients A-G,” it contained no medical correspondence. Instead the box held wartime letters from Karl’s lost Viennese companions, including love letters from a young Jewish woman, Valy. As Wildman learned, Karl and Valy met as medical students in Vienna and fell in love. When Karl left Europe with his family, Valy remained behind. She wrote loving letters to Karl over the next three years, pleading for help to exit Europe. Captivated by Valy’s intelligence, personality, and peril, Wildman became obsessed with tracing her life and learning her fate. A journalist, she began a six-year global quest for Valy, described in the riveting Paper Love.