Jacobs daughter hits the bigtime in 2001

More than three years have gone by since Dinah of Genesis 34 first became a protagonist in a contemporary work of fiction.

The main character in "The Red Tent" is based on the daughter of the patriarch Jacob in a story that goes all the way back to the 16th century BCE.

So why is she's stirring up interest now? When author Anita Diamant spoke earlier this month at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, more than 200 people attended the event, which was sponsored by Yeshiva Chadasha, its adult studies program.

In addition, San Francisco Congregation Sherith Israel's Rosh Chodesh group, read the book last year and Alameda Temple Israel's Sisterhood plans to discuss it next month.

Touted in the Feb. 5 Newsweek, "The Red Tent" has become a nationwide phenomenon among rabbis and synagogue women's groups.

"With almost nothing propelling it except the excited breath of female readers and some clever marketing to rabbis and ministers, "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant (Picador, $14) has been collecting admirers around the country," writes Deirdre Donahue in the March 16, 2000 USA Today.

Picador says the paperback edition is in its 18th printing with more than 250,000 copies in circulation. (St. Martins Press published the hardback a year earlier.)

"The Amazon.com bulletin board reveals that the book has been embraced wildly as a stirring page turner," adds Donahue.

On her Web site, Diamant herself labels her first novel "a word-of-mouth hit!"

"Thanks to reader recommendations, book groups, support from independent bookstores, and a boost from Reform Judaism Magazine, which named it a 'Significant Jewish Book' in 1999, the book has gone into multiple paperback printings," she writes.

"There are also foreign editions in 15 countries worldwide, including Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Korea, Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden." The book's title refers to the tent where women of Canaan were sent while they were menstruating or giving birth.

Inside it, the virginal Dinah is given her introduction to the facts of life as they were back then.

In Diamant's adaptation of the Genesis story, Dinah falls in love with a prince from another kingdom and subsequently has sex with him.

His parents approve their union and offer Jacob a good price for her hand. But Dinah's brothers seek revenge for what they call a rape, killing the prince and other men of his kingdom.

Eventually, Dinah, after fleeing to Egypt and bearing a son, returns to her former work as a midwife.

During her lecture in San Mateo, Diamant said she sees the structure of the Genesis 34 passage as shifting rapidly in succession from the deflowering of Dinah by Prince Shalem to his love and desire to marry her. Contrary to popular interpretation, she does not view this sequence as a rape, and she asks her readers to take a second look at the Torah passage. In it, Dinah never speaks.

"Dinah's silence was to me the open door providing substance for the book," Diamant said. "What really happened is the nature of the mystery for me. I let the story take me where my imagination would go."

When "The Red Tent" was first released, Diamant was asked by the Catholic chaplain at Mount Holyoke College, "How did you have the audacity to do this to the Bible?"

Diamant told the Peninsula Temple Beth El crowd her answer: "It is my birthright. My audacity is the Jewish approach to Scripture. I approach the Bible as the heir to this tradition of Midrash.

"Every word of Torah has 700 faces and 600 meanings. There is no one correct interpretation as Jews have made up stories contradictory for centuries."

Furthermore, she said she never thought of the book or the characters as Jewish. They lived before God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai.

During her talk in San Mateo, the author also revealed a few of the details she uncovered while researching her novel at Harvard and Brandeis universities.

For example, menstrual tents were common features in pre-modern cultures around the world, although there is no evidence as to when or where such customs began.

Her research also exposed the tools ancient midwives used to help bring new lives into the world: knives, reeds and flat bricks.

What happened inside the tent was the author's creation. Diamant — who received a master's degree in English from State University of New York — said she values the experience of women as females, and made birthing day a major part of the book.

While reading some ancient Mesopotamian poetry in translation, Diamant said, "I came across the words 'fear not.' These words inspired her creation of a birth song, sung by midwives in the Red Tent to soothe the mother.

Diamant said a woman from North Carolina recently approached her about setting the poem from the book to music and making it available to working midwives around the world today.

She also said Palomar Pictures, an independent film company in California, has expressed interest in obtaining movie rights to "The Red Tent."

"Who would play Dinah?" asked audience members. "Julia Roberts?"

Diamant laughed, but offered no answer.

The author, who lives in Boston with her husband and daughter, said, "I wanted [Dinah] and the other women [in the book] to be active agents in their own lives, not victims.

"'The Red Tent' acknowledges women's relationships in many ways," she said. "It is important to verify women coming together to work for a common cause."

The freelance journalist and author of six books on Jewish life and lifecycle events, has seen, through the popularity of "The Red Tent," that both Christians and Jews long for connection to tradition.

"My purpose," she said, has been to knit us closer together."