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The Red Tent

Anita Diamant

Part Two, Chapter 5

Part Two, Chapter 4

Part Two, Chapter 6

Summary

Dinah’s family begins preparations for the journey to Mamre. On the road, Zilpah tells Dinah stories about her famous grandmother Rebecca, who is a renowned healer and oracle. They finally arrive at Rebecca’s tent, an enormous red, yellow, and blue canopy where travelers visit from every direction. Dinah sees her grandmother, who is a tall, imposing woman with black eyes decorated with Egyptian-style makeup. Rebecca and Jacob greet one another formally. Ten servant women, each of whom calls herself “Deborah,” attend Rebecca. When Jacob’s blind father Isaac arrives, the two men weep in each other’s arms, and Isaac runs his hands over the faces of Jacob’s sons. Once the guests have all arrived, the feast begins. When Rebecca does not acknowledge the fine meal Jacob’s wives have prepared or compliment the beer, Dinah becomes annoyed. After dinner, Rebecca calls Leah into the tent for an interview, and they talk late into the night. Over the next few days, Jacob’s other wives are called in one by one to meet with Rebecca.

Tabea arrives with her family. Dinah notices that Tabea wears a woman’s belt because she has begun menstruating. Rebecca takes note of Tabea’s new status and approaches Dinah’s aunt, Adath. Rebecca quickly becomes angry when she learns that Tabea was not ushered into womanhood with the proper ceremony in the red tent and was instead shut up alone when she first began to bleed. Rebecca slaps Adath, curses her, and exiles them from the tent. Tabea, on her knees, begs to be allowed to become a Deborah and serve her grandmother, but she is refused. Dinah begins to hate her grandmother. Leah explains that Rebecca is defending the ways of their women, which are in danger of being forgotten. Leah goes on to tell Dinah that there is a secret that women know which men do not. The cleansing of their bodies with blood each month is a gift given to women by the great mother spirit Innana. Men assume this is a painful and bothersome curse, but the women know it is a gift to harmonize with the moon and to rest and restore themselves inside the red tent each month. That night, Adath and Tabea disappear.

For the next few days, Dinah avoids Rebecca. As they are prepare to depart, her grandmother requests that she stay behind in Mamre for three months. Leah insists Dinah obey because it is an honor. Dinah becomes angry but vows not to cry. The weeks pass slowly without her family. Every seventh day, her grandmother bakes offerings for the goddesses, while Dinah helps the women prepare food for the pilgrims who arrive daily. Esau visits often, and it becomes clear that he is a dutiful son and a good man. Rebecca criticizes his wives as well as Dinah’s mothers, since she feels no one is a good enough mate for her sons. Rebecca’s comments anger Dinah, but she keeps silent.

Dinah begins to warm up to her grandmother somewhat as she witnesses Rebecca heal and prophesize for traders and pilgrims. One day, news arrives than Werenro, the messenger with the red hair, has been murdered. Her remains have been found on the edge of the city with her tongue cut out. The Deborahs weep. Rebecca tells Dinah that she knows that she hates her for banishing Tabea but that she must understand she did it to protect the line of women. She goes on to predict unhappiness in Dinah’s future, although she cannot name the circumstances specifically. Despite this bad news, she predicts that Dinah will have a long life. She forgives Dinah for hating her. Dinah leaves at last, without even a nod from her grandmother.

Analysis

Diamant creates a very unsympathetic character in Rebecca. Those familiar with Hebrew scripture are likely to be shocked by this harsh, vain, seemly impervious woman who scoffs at her husband and finds a reason to dislike even the loveliest of her daughters-in-law. She constantly fiddles with her makeup and chews mint to keep her breath sweet, vanities that make her the absolute antithesis of everything Dinah has come to expect of a woman’s character. She rarely cooks, except to make weekly offerings to the goddesses. Instead of family members, she surrounds herself with indistinguishable female servants, and she worries constantly about her appearance. Rebecca’s haughty and thoughtless treatment of Dinah’s mothers and of Tabea further strengthens Dinah’s intial dislike for her grandmother, although, after staying with her for several months, she admits that Rebecca does do some good in the world. Her kindness, though, seems to be only directed at strangers—not not toward her own family members. There are several reasons Diamant may have chosen to create such a figure: Rebecca is a female character of formidable power, who offsets the power of the male characters. Her presence increases the dramatic conflict in the novel as she teaches Dinah a few lessons in human behavior. Most important, her stern demeanor helps to prepare Dinah for the battles that lie ahead of her.

With the exile of Tabea, Dinah experiences injustice for the first time. Other than the death of Ruti, as well as the loss of many sisters and brothers through miscarriages and stillbirths, she has yet to experience true unfairness. Even though Rebecca favored Tabea among Esau’s children, she is banished, because her mother chose not to honor the ways of the women in their family. Tabea’s life immediately loses any value, and she can longer associate with Dinah. The loss of her dear friend and cousin to the apparent whim of her unfeeling grandmother devastates Dinah. She cannot reconcile the actions and outbursts of her irrational grandmother, because she has never in her life met a woman for whom family is not the top priority. With this emotional episode, Diamant slowly brings the story toward its climax. The incident with Tabea strengthens Dinah’s alliance to her mothers, their family’s traditions, and the sanctity of the red tent.

Rebecca foresees that Dinah will face unhappiness in her future but will live a long life; though the prediction comes true, the prophecy does not have much impact on Dinah’s life. Dinah does not dwell on Rebecca’s pronouncement just as she did not dwell on Zilpah’s water prophecy, nor does she makes decisions based on either of them. They are just words that hold considerably less sway over her life than the everyday words spoken to her by her other mothers. Dinah does occasionally ponder her fate and looks to find links to her prophesies, but she rarely gives them much credence. She says to Benia later in the book: “When I was a child I was told that I would only find contentment beside a river, but it was a false prophecy. The water soothes my heart and settles my thoughts, but I found my joy in dry hills.” After Rebecca’s prediction, Dinah makes no comment and appears not to give it much thought. Although Rebecca’s prophecy heightens the sense of tension with foreshadowing, her words do not impact the way that Dinah conducts herself.

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