Celebrating the power of women and ritual: Author Diamant in conversation at JCCs

The red tent where Jewish women gathered during their periods to celebrate and shmooze may be fiction. But there’s nothing fictional about the smashing success of Anita Diamant’s best-seller “The Red Tent.”

Anita Diamant

Hardback sales were underwhelming when it was first published in 1997, and it was nearly dispatched to remainder shelves for quick clearance at rock-bottom prices. “It almost didn’t make it into paperback,” Diamant said recently, noting that the publisher did not promote her first novel.

She took matters into her own hands. She drew up a list of female rabbis, persuaded the publisher to ship the books gratis and watched sales go viral. Published in 25 countries and translated into 20 languages, “The Red Tent” remains a perennial choice for book clubs.

Like many of Diamant’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, “The Red Tent” celebrates rituals, sisterhood and the power of women. Diamant is certain to address those topics in conversation Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael and on Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos.

Joanne Greene, director of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood at the Marin JCC, will interview Diamant at the Wednesday event. On Thursday, Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga’s Congregation Beth David will facilitate.

In addition to “The Red Tent,” which gives voice to Dinah, the voiceless daughter of Jacob in Genesis, Diamant has written six guides to Jewish living and ritual as well as four novels. Her latest, “Day After Night,” published in 2009, is about female Holocaust survivors in a British displaced persons camp.

“All of the fiction I’ve written celebrates women’s friendships and relationships,” Diamant said during an interview from her home outside Boston. Unfortunately, these friendships are often undervalued, she added, noting that “mean girls get the cover of Time magazine.”

However, “the relationships between women are primary. Life wouldn’t be worth living without them,” said Diamant, who has a 28-year-old daughter.

In contrast to societies where women are banished to menstrual huts, “The Red Tent” posits a culture where women celebrated their menses.

“I invented those scenes,” Diamant said. “There’s no documentary evidence. In a society before the feminine was banished from what is sacred, fertility was celebrated.” As religions became male-dominated, taboos took hold.

Diamant sees positive changes, propelled by feminism. “The female body is a cause for celebration, rather than fear or loathing,” she said.

Diamant has helped to spur some of those changes. She is the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, Mass., which recently marked its 10th anniversary. In addition to immersing in the ritual bath for traditional reasons — after menstruation, before marriage and to mark conversion — Jewish women and men visit this mikvah to mark other rites of passage, or to heal after loss or trauma. Classes are held in the building, which also contains an art gallery.

“There has always been off-the-books use of the mikvah,” Diamant said, adding that Mayyim Hayyim was designed to be user-friendly, without the personal inspections that some women find demeaning. (The community mikvah on the campus of the Addison-Penzak JCC was developed in collaboration with Mayyim Hayyim.)

Diamant, who was raised “ethnically and culturally Jewish” in Newark, N.J., and Denver, used a mikvah for the first time before her wedding. Her husband, Jim Ball, used the same Boston-area mikvah to mark his conversion to Judaism.

Diamant did not find her first experience meaningful.

“I did it only because I was writing a book about Jewish weddings,” she said. “The place wasn’t built to welcome people. It was not gracious. We were not celebrating a lifecycle event the way it deserved to be celebrated.”

When she began to plan her wedding in 1983, Jewish wedding guides were written “either by Orthodox rabbis or etiquette mavens. The rituals and traditions were not front and center in a way that made sense to me.”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, now scholar-in-residence at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, encouraged Diamant to write her own guide. At the time, he was the longtime spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Beth-El in Sudbury, Mass., where Diamant worships.

In “The New Jewish Wedding,” published in 1985, Diamant pursued the topic as a journalist, “encouraging couples to make their own choices.” She has used that approach in subsequent guides, which run the gamut from raising children to the experience of mourning. Meanwhile, the wedding guide has been revised to include same sex and interfaith marriages.

And her next book? It’s a novel set in Boston in 1915, about the coming of age of a teenage daughter of immigrants.

Any plans for novels about other women of the Bible?

Diamant has thought about it, but the answer is no. “There’s no way I could do it without reinventing this particular wheel,” she said. Each novel she writes is totally different from the previous one. “I can’t imagine going back.”

Anita Diamant, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19 at Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael, $12-$15. www.marinjcc.org. Also 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20 at Addison-Penzak JCC of Silicon Valley, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. $5 -$7. www.svjcc.org/events

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].