Revision and religion

'The Red Tent' author Anita Diamant talks to 'In Jerusalem' ahead of the International Writers Festival next week

red tent 88 (photo credit: )
red tent 88
(photo credit: )
When Anita Diamant, an award-winning journalist and the author of six non-fiction guides to Jewish living, wrote her first novel in 1997, The Red Tent, she thought of it as an experiment. She had just turned 40 and 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 told In Jerusalem in an interview from her home in Boston. On May 13, as part of the first International Writers Festival in Jerusalem on the written word sponsored by Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Conservative Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon will be discussing The Red Tent with Diamant, who is making her third trip to Israel in order to attend the festival. In the novel, Diamant retells the biblical story of Dina, Jacob's only daughter (from the book of Genesis, Chapter 34). By transforming a silent and obscure Dina into the narrator of her own life, she gives a female perspective on the episode commonly known as the "rape of Dina." Diamant 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 Dina and her four mothers, Leah, Rachel, Zilpa and Bilha, 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," says Diamant. Diamant says she knew that the re-telling of a biblical tale would interest some women of her generation, and the story of Dina had all the important elements: sex, violence, plot, drama, suspense and an unexpected, bloody denouement. "I am happily and proudly a feminist, which simply means I conform to the radical idea that women are human beings too," says Diamant. "I wanted to know where the women 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." For some scholars and rabbis, the revision of biblical text - even in contemporary fiction - oversteps boundaries. "In a Newsweek article about the retelling of biblical stories, one Orthodox rabbi repudiates the novel," says Diamant. "That response is nothing new and happens any time 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." Diamant's personal story regarding The Red Tent is no less inspiring than her feminist revision of the biblical story. Although today it has been translated into over 20 languages and sold over two million copies, it was far from an overnight success. "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," Diamant explains. 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 it sold about 20,000 copies, the publishing house decided to destroy the remaining copies rather than store them. Diamant asked if they would send those editions to female reform rabbis, independent book group leaders and members of the Christian clergy instead. 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. For Diamant, the support and loyalty from the readers depicts the true success of the novel. "I hear from women all over the world who have been touched in different ways by the story," she says. "Ultimately, this is the best gift." Ramon, the first Israel-born woman rabbi who holds a doctoral degree from Stanford, is the dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She teaches modern Jewish thought and literature and Jewish feminism at the institute and has published numerous articles about women's roles in Judaism. Ramon says she is predominantly interested in how Diamant interprets the story of Jacob and Leah in The Red Tent. "I want to know if she sees her interpretation as continuous or discontinuous with what other Jews have offered," says Ramon. "I also want to ask her about the uniqueness of this family, if she sees them as unique in their area and if this in some way signifies their 'Jewishness' or if they are no different from the other idol-worshipping pagans in the area." The discussion will also touch upon Diamant's transition from non-fiction to fiction and whether Dina's rape, which is ambiguous in The Red Tent, serves as a metaphor for the Jewish people. "I want to know if this is a pivotal event that can lead to a deeper understanding of the Jewish people then and now," continues Ramon. According to Diamant, her intentions were to write an entertaining novel that would appeal to a broad audience, not to create a controversy by revising a biblical text and giving it a feminist slant. "I think of The Red Tent not as 'commentary,' which many others do, but as an improvisation, the way a jazz musician takes off from a melody to create something new." The dialogue between Diamant and Ramon will take place on May 13 at 5:30 p.m. in the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Auditorium. For more information, visit, or call 623-7000 for tickets.