‘The Red Tent’ inspired a generation of Jewish feminists

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In October, as several hundred Bay Area Jews gathered on a farm in Pescadero to celebrate the annual harvest festival of Sukkot, a 13-year-old girl who had started her menses was guided into a red tent. Inside, women seated on colorful pillows anointed her with scented oil and recited blessings to celebrate her new phase of life as a fertile woman.

That this rite of passage took place in 2014 and not 1500 BCE is due in no small part to Anita Diamant’s novel “The Red Tent,” which reimagines the lives of biblical women through the eyes of Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob.

Since 2010, Wilderness Torah, the not-for-profit organization that hosts the campout known as Sukkot on the Farm, has erected a red tent — a sanctuary for all women to relax and recharge, not just those on their moon cycle — at two of four earth-based festivals it puts on each year, including Pesach in the Desert.

Alicia Jo Rabins

“A lot of the women’s practices from ancient times weren’t necessarily written down in the way the male-based rabbinic practices were,” said Sarai Shapiro, the youth programs director for Wilderness Torah who conceived of the traveling tent. “So we look to books like ‘The Red Tent’ to paint a picture of what women’s culture in the Hebrew lineage might have looked like in prerabbinic times.”

Indeed, since its original publication nearly two decades ago, millions of women have drawn inspiration from “The Red Tent’s” depiction of a sacred space where women gathered to share secrets, bear children and, yes, menstruate. The best-selling novel has struck such a chord with readers that it has spawned not only a red tent at Wilderness Torah festivals, but also an indie rock band and an upcoming Lifetime miniseries.

Since “The Red Tent” was published in 1997, Jewish feminist scholars have noted that it bears the qualities of a midrash, or Torah commentary. Deena Aranoff, who teaches medieval Jewish history and rabbinic literature at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, said Diamant’s historical novel is not unlike the rabbinic commentaries she studies.

“In parts of ‘The Red Tent,’ Diamant is doing what the classical rabbinic midrash does, which is to take a sparse biblical story and add detail, color and dimensions,” Aranoff said. “This was particularly true in the early scenes of the novel. The reader really gets a sense of household life, where people slept, what they ate and, of course, the ritual surrounding the red tent. In that sense, the book has a lot of the characteristics of classical rabbinic midrash.”

Julie Seltzer, a Torah scribe and educator in San Francisco who spent a year on public view while writing a Torah scroll at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, commented on “The Red Tent’s” appeal to a contemporary audience. The story “is accessible and palatable to modern readers,” she wrote in an email. “Diamant opens a door into the biblical underbelly, and no traditional tools of learning are necessary. This inclusivity of audience strikes me as inherently feminist.”

Rabbi SaraLeya Schley

Alicia Jo Rabins, a 37-year-old musician, poet and Torah scholar based in Portland, Oregon, said “The Red Tent” was “an unconscious inspiration” for Girls in Trouble, her art-rock song cycle that takes its cues from the complicated lives of biblical women.

“Before reading ‘The Red Tent,’ I didn’t think of midrash as an art form that could be so personal and so contemporary, and yet so linked to the text in a profound way,” said Rabins, who first read the book around 2001. “It wasn’t just riffing on the text. It was bringing it to life through art.”

Girls in Trouble’s self-titled first album, released in 2009 by the now-defunct JDub Records, nearly included an as-of-yet unreleased song called “Dina,” which was a response to Diamant’s reimagining of the tragedy-stricken character’s story. “It gave me permission to take this dark moment in the Torah that no one exactly knows how to read, and make it my own,” Rabins said. “It was like a midrash on a midrash.”

If “The Red Tent’s” accessibility contributed to its commercial success, so too did its thematic focus, according to Diamant.

“Love, family, coming of age, trying to control one’s fertility, constraints on women’s freedom — these are timeless subjects,” Diamant said in an email. “At its core, ‘The Red Tent’ affirms the value of women’s work and wisdom, as well as women’s physical strength and fortitude. And because it gives a voice to some of the women in the Bible, the book creates a personal point of access to scripture for Jewish and Christian women — and men, for that matter.”

Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, the former spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev, a Renewal congregation in Berkeley, noted that “The Red Tent” was part of a larger wave of Jewish feminist books published in the 1990s, such as Judith Plaskow’s “Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective” and Rachel Adler’s “Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics.”

“It was a time of blossoming of feminist interpretations of all sorts of Jewish texts,” Schley said. “For myself, it’s this wonderful fantasy of how things might have been for all of Jacob’s wives. There’s midrashim that fill in all of the blanks, but not many on the women’s stories.”

Oakland’s Taya Shere, a co-founder of Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute, said Diamant’s vision as realized in “The Red Tent” is aligned with the vision of her organization, which trains women in earth-based Jewish ritual. Shere, 38, first read the book in 2002, three years before Kohenet was founded.

“I remember reading it in the bathtub and crying for hours, feeling healing in my lineage through the invitation to dive more deeply into the women’s stories,” Shere said. “The book felt like a ‘yes’ to what I already knew, and another affirmation that the time had come for women’s voices, long silenced, to re-emerge.”

Rabbi Leah Novick of Carmel, an 82-year-old Renewal rabbi and author of “On the Wings of Shekhinah: Discovering Judaism’s Divine Feminine,” added that Diamant was one of the few Jewish feminist authors to reach a wider audience.

“By doing a novel, she’s really reached a lot of people,” Novick said. “Taking the material into the popular culture is important. A lot of us have tried to do it, but she did it.”

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel. www.rebeccaspence.com