Let her be heard

Anita Diamant speaks about her bestselling book's adaptation to the Israeli stage and explains why The Red Tent provokes so many questions.

red tent 88 (photo credit: )
red tent 88
(photo credit: )
The Red Tent By Anita Diamant St. Martin's Press 321pp., $14.95 As the sun illuminates a long stretch of sandy beach in the Tel Aviv port, Anita Diamant sips her Nescafe and comments on how nice it is to be in Israel. "It gives you a very different perspective to actually be here for work and not as a tourist, and I have enjoyed taking cabs and trains and going to the theater," she says, tucking a stray lock of light blonde hair behind her ear. The award-winning journalist and best-selling Jewish author began writing about Judaism and contemporary Jewish practice in the '80s. After publishing six successful non-fiction guides to Jewish life and lifecycle events, she turned to the genre of fiction. Her bestselling novel The Red Tent came out in 1997, and since then, she has published two more novels and a collection of non-fiction essays. Diamant was in Israel once before when her only daughter came on a study-abroad stint, but the trip was largely full of planned tours. This time, she has come in honor of the first play to ever be produced from The Red Tent. Between speaking engagements and interviews, she has gotten a chance to wander the streets and talk to the locals. "It's an honor to have my work translated into Hebrew, let alone to have such an interesting and talented playwright put it on stage. I'm really blown away and sorry I couldn't see it with an audience," says Diamant of Claudia Della Seta's production of The Red Tent. Della Seta, an Italian filmmaker who immigrated to Israel 10 years ago, says she chose to transform the novel into a play because of the end. "In Dinah's last monologue she speaks about how to face death in existence and what makes us immortal. On a personal level, that spoke to me because I was losing my father and because I live in Israel, where it all took place," says Della Seta, who has worked as an actress and playwright in cinema, theater and television over the course of her artistic career. Diamant, an avid theater fan, says the play is highly sensual and that she enjoyed seeing the characters on stage. "It's a very visual play that uses intense make-up and musicality to dramatize the events, but it's very different from the novel," Diamant says. From her unassuming and down-to-earth manner, one might never guess that The Red Tent has sold over two million copies. In the novel, Diamant retells the Biblical story of Dinah, Jacob's only daughter (from the Biblical book of Genesis, Chapter 34). By transforming a silent and obscure Dinah into the narrator of her own life, Diamant gives a female perspective on the episode commonly known as the "Rape of Dinah." She examines the life of women in ancient society at a time when they were largely segregated from men and sequestered to a red tent during menstruation, childbirth and illness. The long-ignored viewpoints of Dinah and her four mothers, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah, are recounted, and women's lives and friendships are explored in a pre-monotheistic civilization, before the birth of Judaism. "I was trying to reclaim a portion of women's lost history," Diamant says. Surrounded by controversy because it fictionalizes biblical texts that are considered "untouchable" by some religious leaders, it evokes thought-provoking issues about history and religion. "In a Newsweek article about the retelling of biblical stories, one Orthodox rabbi repudiates the novel. That response is nothing new and happens anytime you appropriate the Bible. You tread on people's idea of the sacred and what should or should not be allowed to be done with it. Ultimately, I wanted to write an entertaining novel. I did not set out to create a controversy," says Diamant. Rather, she wanted to give a voice to Dinah and legitimize the lives of the virtually unknown women who lived in 1500 BCE. As a writer of non-fiction for nearly 20 years, Diamant says the switch to fiction was unplanned, but many of the same skills were necessary for both genres. "At the time when I decided to write a fictional book, I had just turned 40 and I was looking for a new challenge. I asked an editor I had worked with for many years and who had written some mysteries if the writing could translate and he said 'yes, it can. It's all about research, deadlines and writing.' That moment stays with me. It gave me the permission I needed," she says. Around the same period of time, a popular series on the book of Genesis by Bill Moyers convened representatives of the three major religions around a table - Jews, Christians and Muslims - to discuss the stories, characters and narratives in the Bible. It caught Diamant's attention. "I knew there would be at least some audience for the re-telling of a biblical tale, that it would interest some women of my generation, and the story of Dinah has all the important elements: sex, violence, plot, drama, suspense and an unexpected bloody denouement," says Diamant. "I am happily and proudly a feminist, which simply means I conform to the radical idea that women are human beings, too. I wanted to know where the girls were in all of these stories. We've heard from the kings and the generals. We know their version of history. I wanted to explore the holes in our stories and myths. The Bible seemed like a great place to start." Diamant notes that an element of luck exists in the publishing world, but the turn-around her novel experienced, from selling 20,000 copies to over two million, goes far beyond sheer good fortune. "My editor was fired from the publishing house one month before the book came out, making it an orphan book, which is a common phenomenon in the publishing world," says Diamant. As an orphan book, little budget was set aside for marketing, and it took time for the book to reach its audience - largely women who come from different walks of life and religious backgrounds. Diamant refers to it as a "word-of-mouth" bestseller, and it was largely her personal initiative that saved The Red Tent from relative oblivion. "After the publishing house decided to destroy the remaining copies rather than store them, I asked if they would send those editions to female reform rabbis, independent book group leaders and members of the Christian clergy. They agreed, and once the book was read by a wider audience, it began to be recommended to book clubs and supported by many different women's groups," she explains. "Those are readers who ultimately cannot be bought, and their support and loyalty has turned it into every writer's dream. I hear from women all over the world who have been touched in different ways by the story. Ultimately, this is the best gift." Claudia Della Seta's production based on Diamant's best-selling novel, The Red Tent, will be performed in Yaffo at the HaSimta Theater on May 10, 21, 22 and 23. For more information and tickets, call (03) 681-2126.