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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
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.