Published on April 19th, 2018 | by WMJledger0
Conversation with Anita Diamant
Red Tent author will be scholar-in-residence at TES
By Laura Porter
From May 4 – 6, writer Anita Diamant will be the Wolpert Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Emanuel Sinai in Worcester, where she will discuss her writing career, her involvement in the Jewish community and the connections between them.
The author of five novels and six non-fiction guides to contemporary Jewish life, Diamant was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Jersey and Colorado. In 1975, after graduating from Washington University and receiving a Master’s degree in American Literature from Binghamton University, she began a career in journalism in Boston.
In 1985, after ten years of writing feature stories, columns and essays for a number of publications, including the Boston Globe and Reform Judaism Magazine, she wrote her first book, The New Jewish Wedding. Other guidebooks to Jewish practice followed: The New Jewish Baby Book; Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families; Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends; Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew; and How to Raise a Jewish Child.
Her first novel, The Red Tent, based on the few lines about Dinah in Genesis, appeared in 1997; it was a “word-of-mouth bestseller,” notes her website. Published across the globe, it is a beloved classic in contemporary Jewish literature. Her four other novels, Good Harbor (2002), The Last Days of Dogtown (2006), Day After Night (2010), and The Boston Girl (2014), examine the challenges in women’s lives across time and culture.
At present, she is revising several of her non-fiction guides to reflect changing dynamics in both Jewish life and the world at large. The new version of Choosing a Jewish Life appeared in 2016, and The Jewish Wedding Now was published in 2017. She has just completed the revised Saying Kaddish, which will be published later this year.
Diamant is also the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim, the Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton. Opened in 2004, the beautiful facility, which recognized its 10,000th immersion in 2012, reflects her initial vision, quoted on the Mayyim Hayyim website: “I want a mikveh that encourages the prayers of the heart in Jews of every denomination and description … welcoming and inviting from the minute you walk through the door.”
The Jewish Ledger recently spoke with Anita Diamant about her writing and her thoughts on the current social and political climate.
Jewish Ledger: What do you believe to be the unifying principle in all of your work connected to Judaism and/or Jewish life, from The New Jewish Wedding to Mayyim Hayyim to your novels?
Anita Diamant: I had no intentional unifying principle, but two themes do seem to emerge in my writing: 1) Judaism is an ever-changing tradition, and diversity is our strength; 2) In the novels, Jewishness is a presence, sometimes a critical fact in the characters’ stories – as in Day After Night, less so in Good Harbor. Of my five novels, only Last Days of Dogtown has zero Jewish in it….
JL: Why fiction? Why primarily historical rather than contemporary fiction?
AD: I started writing fiction because I needed a challenge as a writer. I had been writing nonfiction and columns and journalism for a long time and I felt the need for a challenge, to do something outside my comfort zone.
I started writing historical novels because that’s where I found stories – where I thought I might be able to “fill in the blanks.” When I first decided to write a novel, I went to the Bible. I had learned about the tradition of Midrash, which is an interpretive form of biblical commentary that often provides connective tissue where there are gaps and silences in the text – and is also often wildly imaginative. I didn’t think I was writing Midrash, but I took inspiration from the freedom in that part of our tradition. In The Red Tent, I thought I’d be writing about Rachel and Leah but then I kept reading until I found Dinah, whose story is a kind of a mystery. We don’t know what happened to her from her perspective, because she doesn’t say anything in the text. By making her the narrator, I provided a new perspective.
Also at the time, there was a series on PBS called “Genesis,” hosted by Bill Moyer, in which clergy of various religious traditions discussed the stories in the first book of the Bible. The popularity of the series and the book suggested there might be an audience for my story. That was encouraging.
JL: What was the shift from journalism and non-fiction to writing fiction like for you?
AD: Nonfiction is easier for me – not easy, but easier. There is so much freedom in writing fiction – too much. And when I started, I didn’t know if anyone would read it, if it would be published. But then, because nobody was waiting for The Red Tent, I had very little anxiety about failing.
JL: What were your first thoughts as you began The Red Tent? Did you know then that it would create and open up the world of that period as it does?
AD: I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but pretty early on I decided to tell the story in the first person and that the book would end when Dinah died. I invented a world for her that conformed with the research I did about the period – about what people might have worn and how they lived – the social structure of the family, for example. I thought of them as real people in a complicated family. I believe that men and women lived in separate spheres at the time. They loved and respected one another, but they didn’t have the same expectations about marriage as we do today.
JL: How much research do you do and where in the writing process do you do it? Where it is permissible to blur the lines between fact and story?
AD: I do research before I start writing to get a sense of the period. When I have a basic grasp, I start writing and fill in the blanks as they emerge. I think it’s crucial to get the details right. If a character is eating chicken in ancient Egypt, for example, someone is going to point out the anachronism and that makes the whole work seem sloppy and not trustworthy.
My historical fiction is not about famous people: queens, generals and the like. My characters, including the Biblical ones, are not well known. There’s just an outline of their stories. For The Last Days of Dogtown, I found the names of the characters in a pamphlet, but since very little was known about them, I was free to invent their lives. I made up characters in Day After Night, but their stories and reactions had to be consistent with the historical period – some of the varied experiences of survival during the Holocaust.
JL: In your novels, you have written extensively about Jewish women in several different contexts: Boston in the 1900s, post-war Israel, and Biblical times. Do you see a commonality in the characters you have explored? And in all of your novels, you invariably give your protagonists the support of other women. What is the power of the collective?
AD: My “calling” is to write into silences, and one of the things the world has long been silent about is women’s friendships, which tend to be mocked or demonized when they are mentioned at all. The power of women to rescue one another and to have a community, a sisterhood, is crucial. All of my books celebrate women’s agency, intelligence, and the importance of women helping each other. One of the most common comments I hear about The Red Tent is “I wish I had a red tent.” I think book clubs serve that purpose in a way: you meet monthly, you feed each other, and sometimes you get to talking about the book. Some book groups have shared their lives for years and years, and gone through all kinds of changes. It’s important that we recognize these as communities – as support systems.
JL: Your revisions of Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding and Saying Kaddish reflect significant changes in the American Jewish community since their original publication. What do you believe are the most substantial changes of the past 20 to 30 years?
AD: We are a much more diverse community, which I think is a good thing. When we recognize and celebrate that diversity, we are stronger. The community now includes Jews of color, Jews by choice, and LGBTQ Jews, and non-Jews who are living Jewish lives and bringing up Jewish children. They all add to the vitality of American Jewish life.
There have been so many important, positive changes. Most striking is women’s leadership in all spheres of Jewish life and learning. We are the most learned Jewish women in history! The Internet, which is often condemned for distancing people from each other, also connects us in a virtual Jewish community; so much of Jewish literature and learning is available online, some of it interactive and in realtime.
Another change: I recently finished a revision of Saying Kaddish. When it was first published, in 1999, the Jewish community was skeptical about hospice and palliative care, but that’s just part of Jewish life today.
The revision of the book about weddings, now called The Jewish Wedding Now, is full of new ideas and information. For example, the use of mikveh – the ritual bath – is becoming a familiar pre-wedding ritual for Jews outside the Orthodox community. Interestingly, the book is somewhat shorter than earlier editions (called The New Jewish Wedding) because so much information is available online, things like hiring a caterer and printing invitations. Websites not only provide information, they are updated constantly.
JL: In our current political and social climate, what do you believe are the most serious threats to 1) women and 2) the Jewish community?
AD: These are scary times. Some days, like everyone else, I just want to stay in bed. We find ourselves in a time when permission has been given for hatred, misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism; these things existed beneath the surface, but they now appear to have free reign. The rules about what is permissible and what is not seem to be gone, which fosters more hate and danger. This means we have to band together – with other Jews and with others who are endangered, and with allies from all walks of life.
The threats to women have created a healthy backlash. Women are insisting on being heard – on the streets, in court, in the media, in government. This give me great hope and I’m especially happy about the passion and leadership of young women and the healthy and respectful debates among different generations of feminists. I think our youth are spectacular as allies and leaders in the fight against bigotry, xenophobia, and the push for sensible gun laws.
I know it’s a cliché, but in what often seems like the worst of times, I see clear evidence of the best of times, too.
The Wolpert Scholar in Residence weekend will begin with Shabbat evening services at Temple Emanuel Sinai on Friday, May 4, when Anita Diamant will speak about “The Red Tent: Writing into the Silences.” A special Shabbat oneg will follow. On Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. at the Worcester Jewish Community Center, Diamant will give a talk entitled “Rituals and Jewish Spirituality: Taking the Plunge.” Diamant will present “The Boston Girl: My Unplanned Career as a Writer of Historical Fiction” at a Sunday morning breakfast buffet at TES. Each event is free of charge and open to the public; a selection of Diamant’s books will be available for purchase.