Red Tent author advocates Judaism with pleasure

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Anita Diamant plans her Shabbat meals in reverse.

“I’m a big dessert-maker, so I build the meal around dessert,” the author said during a telephone interview from her Boston home. “If I’m having friends who are kosher, I’ll make a dairy meal, because I refuse to bake without butter. To me, the most important thing about a Shabbat meal is that it’s delicious, not necessarily that it’s traditional.”

In each book Diamant has written about Jewish rituals — six in all, including “The New Jewish Wedding,” “The New Jewish Baby Book” and “How to Be a Jewish Parent” — she emphasizes that, like her dessert druthers, Jewish ritual feels most natural and meaningful when practitioners find ways to tweak and adapt it to fit their family and life.

Although Diamant rejects the idea that she’s an expert with some sort of authority (“I would never presume to tell people what to do in their practice,” she says), over the years she has become skilled at and proud of introducing people to an array of options for living a Jewish life.

Ritual will top the list of subjects Diamant will speak about during several upcoming Bay Area engagements. Her Nov. 12 and 13 appearances were precipitated by the 10th anniversary of her best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” and by the publication of a revised, updated version of “Living a Jewish Life.”

Her research and personal practice has taught her that incorporating Jewish ritual, while meaningful, is not simple. She thinks the most challenging element for people is feeling inauthentic or embarrassed about their personal practice.

“Once you get comfortable with the idea that ‘what I’m doing is authentic,’ you try things without fear of failure and experiment with Jewish ritual with pleasure.”

Diamant grew up in a not-so-religious home in Newark, N.J., and Denver. It wasn’t until she was an adult and married a non-Jew who then converted to Judaism that she began to delve into Jewish life and ritual.

Even now, her practice continues to evolve, she said.

“My daughter is out of the house now, and I think the challenge for all empty-nesters is, How do I make this work? Jewish practice changes along with the lifecycles. But Judaism provides a framework for those changes, and so your choices can be grounded in Judaism.”

Diamant is currently working on two books, one a nonfiction examination of the American Jewish community, and the other a novel set in 1945 Palestine — “a post-Holocaust, pre-state moment,” she said.

Also recently, she helped start Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikvah and education center in Newton, Mass. She was working on a book about conversion to Judaism when she became interested in creating a welcoming, inclusive and spiritual mikvah.

Since its inception in 2004, more than 3,200 people have immersed in the baths at Mayyim Hayyim, which means “living waters.” And last summer, Mayyim Hayyim co-sponsored a conference called “Reclaiming Mikvah,” which attracted more than 200 people from all over the United States, including a few from the Bay Area.

Mayyim Hayyim and Diamant are just beginning to consult with communities that want to build a mikvah. Their first client? A group working to create a community mikvah at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos.

“The Bay Area will be our wonderful test experiment,” Diamant said. “We’ll learn with you.”

Anita Diamant will speak about Jewish renewal and ritual Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $8 members, $10 public. Information: www.jccsf.org. The following day, she will share personal reflections about marriage, motherhood and her experience as a writer at Congregation Shomrei Torah, 2600 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. General tickets are $15, or $45 for a pre-talk dessert reception with the author. Information: www.shomreitorah.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.