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The Red Tent

Anita Diamant

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Plot Overview

Anita Diamant, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, was born on June 27, 1951, in New York City. She spent much of her early childhood in Newark, New Jersey, before moving to Denver, Colorado, at age twelve. She attended the University of Colorado for two years, then transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she received a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature in 1973. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1975. She settled just outside Boston, where she lives with her husband and teenaged daughter, Emilia.

Diamant began her career as a freelance journalist in the Boston area in 1975. Over the years, she has written for local, regional and national magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Globe, and Boston Magazine, as well as New England Monthly, Yankee, Self, Parenting, Parents, McCalls, and Ms. In 1985, she began writing about contemporary Jewish practice and the Jewish community, publishing articles in Reform Judaism magazine, in Hadassah magazine, and on the webzine www.jewishfamily.com. She has also written seven handbooks on contemporary Jewish life and lifecycle events.

In The Red Tent, her first novel, Diamant transforms the brief but violent story found in Genesis 34 about Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, into a full-length work. In an article from Reform Judaism Magazine, Diamant says “I did not set out to explain or rewrite the biblical text, but to use Dinah’s silence to try to imagine what life was like for women in this historical period.” One does not need to be familiar with the book of Genesis to appreciate The Red Tent; Diamant carefully carries readers who are not familiar with the backbone of the story. In fact, those who are familiar with the story are often surprised by Diamant’s version: the author changes substantial portions of the Bible’s narrative, which focuses primarily on men and their relationships with God, in order to make her novel a story of women and their relationships with one another.

The Red Tent has been quite controversial, because its narrative adapts the biblical story of Jacob’s family. Some critics, mainly devout Jewish and Christian scholars, believe Diamant essentially blasphemes against the Bible in her version of Dinah’s life, changing basic elements of the stories of Jacob and his wives and presenting Leah and Rachel as polytheistic—a representation that directly contradicts the Judeo-Christian belief that Leah and Rachel were the matriarchal founders of the Jewish people and pioneers of monotheism.

Less devoutly religious readers have sometimes categorized The Red Tent as a midrash, or a story that attempts to fill in gaps in the Bible. The term midrash is based on the Jewish word for “interpretation” or “exegesis.” Classical midrashim (plural) are interpretive teachings, often used by ancient rabbis to more clearly illustrate the meanings behind the Bible’s text. Modern midrashim attempt to make stories from the Bible more applicable to readers today. Biblical stories about women tend to be abbreviated and seemingly less important, and many contemporary female writers have turned to the art of midrash-making to cast new light on such figures as Lilith (Adam’s first wife, who was created as his equal), Serah bat Asher (a descendant of Jacob who leads Moses to Joseph’s coffin prior to the Exodus), and Miriam (a prophetess). According to Professor Howard Schwartz of the University of Missouri—quoted in the Bonny Fetterman article—this act of midrash-making is “a continuing process of the reintegration of the past into the present. Each time this takes place, the tradition is transformed and must be re-imagined. And it is this very process that keeps the tradition vital and perpetuates it.”

The Red Tent goes beyond the traditional function of midrashim, because Diamant’s novel fills in the gaps of the Genesis story and removes the story from its religious context entirely. In Genesis, the stories of Jacob and his offspring are part of an evolving relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham, and Diamant’s narrative simply does not fit into this sequence of events. Diamant herself has stated emphatically that her novel is not a midrash, but simply a novel based on a biblical character. In a biography provided by Simon & Schuster, Diamant says: “The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus—by and about the female characters—distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text.” Thus she acknowledges how her fictional text differs from the biblical text, and, as a fiction author, she does not expect her readers to accept her version of Dinah’s life as the “true” version. Her intent in writing The Red Tent was to provide Dinah with an opportunity to speak, , an opportunity not found in the Bible. Diamant seems interested in Dinah solely as a human character—not as a part of the Bible in need of exegesis or explanation.

Regardless of its label, the novel’s success is impressive. The Red Tent was first printed in 1997 with no advertising budget. It received few reviews in major newspapers or magazines and instead found its success through word of mouth, the loyalty of its readers, the support of independent bookstores, and help from clergy, some of whom even preached about The Red Tent from the pulpit. The novel went on to become a New York Times best-seller and Booksense Book of the Year 2001. Since its publication, Diamant has written another novel, Good Harbor.

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