If you’ve only read the Red Tent by Anita Diamant, you might be surprised by the breadth of her writing. She appeared at the Oak Park Temple on January 29, 2012 for an audience discussion. She has written four novels but she also has written seven books on Jewish life and customs and not surprisingly, these books were of primary interest to her audience.
Diamant started her writing career as a journalist working for the Boston Globe and other periodicals and wrote on a wide variety of topics. She was asked whether she planned to be a “Jewish” writer and she said she did not grow up in a particularly observant home, although one of her parents was a Holocaust survivor. It wasn’t until she fell in love with a gentile man that she realized how much her heritage meant to her.
It was in talking to a rabbi about marriage that she came to appreciate the many facets of Jewish identity as well as the challenges of being religiously observant in a secular society. It was from this experience that her first book, The New Jewish Wedding, published in 1986, sprang. It was meant to be both a “how-to” and “why” book for Jewish couples planning to marry.
Despite writing on several topics of Jewish life, Diamant does not claim to be an authority. In fact, at one point an audience member asked her about the biblical authenticity of an aspect of the Red Tent and she said, “Take a look at the cover. It says ‘A Novel’. I made it up.”
She did research for the Red Tent, but as she pointed out, there is not much specific information about day-to-day life three thousand years ago and even less information about women’s life experiences from that time. She said she found bits and pieces of information from Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Egypt. She realized she would have to imagine how women lived but her goal was to avoid anachronisms that would jump out at the reader.
Diamant said that she is a feminist, which to her means that women are equal to men. She rejected the idea that it was necessarily a political position and decried the negative spin that some conservative pundits have put on feminism with words such as feminazi. One of her goals is to give a voice to women who traditionally have not even been mentioned in ancient texts. She said she wanted to provide a different perspective on human experience.
She characterized women’s friendships as glue among women and their laughter as a “source of strength.” She rejected the notion that all women are bitchy to each other and said that this media stereotype is damaging to both women and men by portraying women as shallow and deeply competitive with one another. In fact, she sees women as able to support and assist one another which is part of what has made their lives bearable.
Some writers in the audience pressed her for more information about how she writes. She said that because of her journalism background, she works best with deadlines and sets them for herself to accomplish her writing goals. She said that a writer cannot “wait for the muse” but must be disciplined and consistent about writing. However, she also admitted that her approach to writing a novel, which she said takes her about three years to produce, is different from some of her friends and that each writer must discover what works best for him or her. She is part of a writing group and it has been very helpful for her to have other writers she trusts read drafts of her work, commiserate with her when the writing process gets difficult and help her brainstorm.
I read her most recent novel, “Day After Night” after seeing her. It concerns a group of young Jewish women interred at the Atlit camp in pre-statehood Israel immediately after WWII. They have all had different experiences during the War — one was a partisan, one forced into prostitution, another a concentration camp survivor and a fourth hidden by friends for most of the conflict--but now they are all imprisoned as illegal immigrants by the British military.
It is an interesting read, especially since it is a chapter in history with which I am not familiar. There are several characters and while I did find it confusing to keep them and their stories separate at certain points in the story, the intense yearning for a home and stability comes through clearly. For those us born after the chaos of WWII, it is hard to imagine the despair and alternately, the hope, of people who endured the incredible hardships of the war only to be put into camps with barbed wire and guards when they reach the Promised Land. It is the thread that ties all these stories together into a memorable narrative and brings to life a time that has been largely forgotten.
In choosing to focus on women’s lives, Diamant gives voice to those who have been overlooked for all of recorded history and reminds modern women that our struggle to be seen and heard is just beginning.