As a literary device, the chevra kadisha, or burial society, has little precedent.
The words mean, literally, holy society. The chevra kadisha is the group of people that performs, among other duties, the mitzvah of tahara. Members of the group wash and purify the body of the deceased according to prescribed ritual, and then dress the body in burial shrouds — garments that have neither zippers nor pockets, as nothing of material value can be taken from this world.
This summer, not one but two new debut novels, one set in Israel and the other in the U.S., involve the chevra kadisha and its ancient rituals, performed with respect and tenderness. For many readers, this will be the first time they hear of these details.
The title of Michelle Brafman’s compelling first novel, “Washing the Dead” (Prospect Park Books), refers to the actual ritual, and also to the idea of washing and cleansing the dead parts of the self, as part of a process of forgiveness.
“I’ve always written about exile,” Brafman tells The Jewish Week. “I knew that I wanted to exile my character from her community, but I couldn’t figure out how to bring her home. Once I heard about tahara, I knew that was how I was going to bring her back, through this ritual that’s the highest form of mitzvah. This act of compassion could be the brick to loosen the wall between her present life and her past.”
In a series of events that’s the reverse of what goes on in many current memoirs about leaving religious life, her central character, a young woman named Barbara, must leave the Orthodox community she loves because of the deeds of her mother. Barbara is called back to the community by the rebbetzin, in order to take part in a tahara. Weaving complex strands together, Brafman’s novel shifts back and forward in time, over three generations of women, to tell a story of emotional struggle and repair.
While writing the novel, Brafman, who teaches writing at Johns Hopkins, was invited by the head of the chevra kadisha in her Conservative synagogue in Maryland to participate in a tahara, which she found “profoundly moving and spiritual.”
Diana Bletter’s “A Remarkable Kindness” (William Morrow) opens at a cemetery on the edge of a coastal village in northern Israel. This is a story of friendship, about four American women who have moved to Israel, all for different reasons, and come to know each other’s back stories and current struggles through serving together on the burial circle, as they call it. Bletter’s heartfelt novel is one of only a handful of fictional accounts of contemporary Israeli life from the point of view of American olim, and provides thoughtful perspective.
Having made aliyah from Great Neck in 1991, Bletter belongs to the chevra kadisha in the beach village where she now lives, in northern Israel. She explains that since 1938 residents of the town “have performed this remarkable act of kindness for their neighbors and friends. That’s why I call the novel “A Remarkable Kindness,” because there’s really nothing like it. It’s a one-way act of kindness: the dead can never thank us.”
Both authors have long been interested in exploring women’s roles in Judaism, and express the deeper meaning of ritual in their writing.
“As I’ve learned (and it’s something the four women learn in the novel),” Bletter says, “participating in this holy and ancient ritual for the dead has — surprisingly — made me aware of what it means to truly be alive.”