Local life, sweep of history are Wisconsin Jewish novelists’ settings

   Do we suffer for the sins of our fathers (and mothers) — even, as Exodus 34:7 tells us, unto the third and fourth generations? Can we be redeemed by reexamination, repentance, religion or something else?

   Two refreshing new novels by Wisconsin Jewish authors explore this age-old problem: “A Reunion of Ghosts” by Madison-based Judith Claire Mitchell (HarperCollins, 385 pages, $26.99 hardcover), and “Washing the Dead” by Milwaukee-raised Michelle Brafman (Prospect Park Books, 344 pages, $16 trade paperback).

   Brafman’s novel, her first, deals with dark family secrets, marital infidelity, and mothers and daughters estranged from each other — and it is set in the Milwaukee Jewish community.

   The narrator, baby-boomer Barbara Bloomfield (nee Pupnick), grew up in a warm, close-knit Orthodox community on the East Side. She abruptly left as a teenager, not from rebellion, but from shame over a family scandal.

   Years later, however, the death of Mrs. Kessler, her childhood teacher and mentor, brings her back. Barbara had been best friends with Tzippy, the daughter of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Schine, the leaders of that Orthodox community. Barbara has not spoken to Tzippy for decades, but Tzippy’s mother requests for some reason that Barbara assist with Kessler’s tahara, the traditional preparation of the corpse for burial.

   In the meantime, Barbara’s mother has developed Alzheimer’s disease, and her teenage daughter Lili has developed problems of her own.  

   Many Milwaukeeans will enjoy the way Brafman frequently drops local references into her story, along with historical references.

   In an interview, Branfman said she grew up in Whitefish Bay, attended the Hillel Academy, Cumberland School and Whitefish Bay High School. She also said her family belonged to Congregations Beth Jehudah and Beth Israel, but “The shuls featured in the book are conflations of several congregations, both real and entirely fictitious.”

   She now teaches fiction writing at John Hopkins University. She said she chose to set her first novel in Milwaukee because she read the work of Faye Moskowitz, who writes about growing up in Michigan during the Great Depression.

   “Her book excited me about capturing a slice of the Midwestern Jewish experience,” Brafman said. “It was also fun spending time visiting my hometown, if only in my thoughts, and reconnecting with some dear childhood friends who helped me with research and fact checking.”

   And when asked what she hopes readers will take away from the book, she said that while it “explores the Jewish burial rituals, yet it is ultimately a book about life and renewal. I hope that readers will experience this story as one of the challenges and rewards of forgiveness and our ability to transcend our most crippling psychic wounds.”

 
Based on history

   The issues of the family in the second novel are much more complex.

   Fritz Haber was a German Jew who was born in 1868 and later converted to Lutheran Christianity. He won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for synthesizing the first nitrogen fertilizer, vastly increasing food production around the world. He was also decorated in 1918 for service in World War I.

   But he also helped develop poison gas as a war weapon. His wife Clara was distraught about that and she committed suicide in 1915.

   Haber continued to work on the development of more chemical weapons, including Zyklon A, which, reformulated as Zyklon B killed Jews at Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

   This does not seem like a fun subject. But in “A Reunion of Ghosts,” Mitchell has written a hilarious novel, her second, based loosely on the Haber family.

   Substituting the name Alter (other in Latin, old in Yiddish, to change in English) for Haber, Mitchell gives her fictitious Lenz Alter some eccentric progeny.

   They include the book’s protagonists, three baby-boomer great-granddaughters with biting wits — the divorced and suicidal Lily (“Lady”) the widowed and terminally ill Veronica (“Vee”) and the shy, fatalistic Delphine (“Delph”). All three of them are personal failures, at least in their own eyes.

   Mitchell has the daughters collaborate in their telling of their family’s history in the first person plural. They have unanimously agreed that given the grim hopelessness of their lives, they should follow what has become a family tradition of committing suicide.

   Mitchell directors the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

   In an interview, she said she came from a Jewish upbringing and unlike her characters would not have needed to buy a primer on Judaism to learn mourning customs. “But I did do a lot of research on the more philosophical aspects of Judaism” for the book, she said.

   She said she originally wanted to write about the Habers’ marriage, but as she did research, “I came to see the novel “as a biography of the 20th century as seen through the lens of a single beleaguered (and by now fictionalized) family.”

   When asked what she would like readers to take away from the book, Mitchell said, “I wouldn’t mind if readers found themselves thinking about the same issues my sisters grapple with.”

   These include, “To what extent are we products of the past? To what extent can we shake off our pasts, whether familial or historic? What are we put here to accomplish and what does accomplishment or ‘success’ look like? How do we reconcile faith and science?”

   “And, most important,” she added, “is it ever right to give up a rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s upper west side?”

   Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.