The Friendships of Women— A review of two novels by Anita Diamant
The Red Tent
New York: Picador/St. Martin’s, 1997
New York: Scribner’s, 2001.
Reviewed by Linda Bieze
In an author reading I attended last January in Concord, Massachusetts, Anita Diamant told listeners about her work as a novelist. When the syndicated columnist and author of several successful non-fiction books about being Jewish, including Choosing a Jewish Life (New York: Schoken, 1998) turned 40, she was ready for a career change. She decided to become a novelist.
Her first two novels, The Red Tent and Good Harbor, show that she is quite successfully managing her career change. Though vastly different in setting, story, and style, both novels deal with the theme of women’s friendships — a delectable topic, for, as Diamant said at the reading in Concord, “Women’s friendship is the chocolate of life.” She told the audience that her non-fiction books have all been about “making choices as a Jew in a non-Jewish world,” and readers of her fiction can see that she continues to write about this topic in her new career as a novelist.
The Red Tent is historical fiction, an extended midrash on the biblical story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and his wife Leah. The sparse biblical account of Dinah, found in Genesis 34, gives the male perspective on events: Dinah becomes friendly with the Canaanite women and then their prince rapes her, so his father and Jacob negotiate a marriage, with all the Canaanite men agreeing to be circumcised in order to “live among” Jacob’s clan. But Dinah’s vengeful brothers attack the city while the men are still recovering from their surgeries, kill them all, and plunder the city. Their justification: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” And that is all we learn of Dinah from the Bible.
Diamant tells the story in Dinah’s own voice, who says she wants to reforge “the chain connecting mother to daughter” and set straight the record that was distorted by men.
The story is in three parts. In Part One, Dinah, who in effect has grown up with four loving mothers who all treasure her as the only daughter, tells the story of how Jacob came to work for their father Laban and eventually married all four of them — Leah and Rachel, and bondwomen Zilpah and Bilhah. Every month for three days during the new moon, the women of the clan gather in the red tent to be apart during their communal menstrual cycle. During this restorative time, the women sing songs, eat triangular cakes baked in honor of their goddesses, Innana and Asherah, and share their stories with each other. When one of them gives birth, the whole community of women joins her in the red tent to help in the birthing process. When a girl has her first blood, the women welcome her into their community with wine and songs and a ceremony to open her womb using a frog-shaped goddess image.
Laban worships other gods than those of the women, and Jacob brings his father’s worship of El, along with its bloody ceremony of circumcision, to the clan. But the men do not know — or care to know — what gods are worshipped in the red tent, as long as the women show respect for the cruel rituals of El and allow their sons to be circumcised.
After telling her mothers’ stories, Dinah shares her own story in Part Two, including her childhood companionship with Joseph, the youngest and only son of Rachel, Jacob’s decision to move his clan back to his father’s country, and their meeting with his brother Esau’s clan on the way. Here, Dinah meets Tabea, one of Esau’s daughters, who becomes her first female friend. But the women of Esau’s clan do not have the community of the red tent, which lets ill will grow among them and also angers The Grandmother, Rebecca, who is revered as a prophetess. When Tabea has her first blood and is isolated like an animal, rather than honoring the goddess in ritual, Rebecca curses Tabea’s mother and disowns the girl.
Dinah becomes especially close to her aunt-mother Rachel, who serves the surrounding community as a midwife. While assisting Rachel in delivering a child at the palace in the Canaanite city of Shechem, Dinah exchanges glances with the prince Shalem. For both, it is love at first sight. Dinah willingly gives herself to Shalem. The prince’s father offers Jacob the “bride-price” to make Dinah his son’s wife. Jacob and his sons oppose the marriage, fearing that their little clan will be swallowed up by the Canaanites. So they propose that all the men of the city submit to circumcision in order for Shalem to marry Dinah. To their surprise, the king agrees, because his son so clearly loves Dinah. Then, when Shalem and the other men are recovering, Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi murder them in their beds and kidnap their sister when she awakens, covered in her husband’s blood. Back in Jacob’s tents, Dinah curses her father and brothers and walks back to Shechem to bury her husband and bear his unborn child. The men of Jacob’s clan have succeeded in destroying the women’s community of the red tent. In Part Three, Dinah returns with her mother-in-law to Egypt where she builds a new life, but never again finds the same community of women that she grew up with.
In Good Harbor, Diamant tells a completely different story of two modern women living in Massachusetts who meet and become friends later in life. Joyce is a successful novelist who buys a cottage on Cape Ann to use as her writing retreat while her husband devotes himself to a career with a high-tech startup. Kathleen, somewhat older than Joyce, lives with her husband on Cape Ann and is battling breast cancer. Joyce was raised a Jew; Kathleen, raised Catholic, converted to Judaism when she married. The two meet at Temple and start a tentative friendship that quickly bonds. The rituals of their friendship include long walks at Good Harbor and other beaches on the Cape. In one of these walks, Kathleen shares a feeling with which I identified strongly, “It’s been a long time since I made a new friend. But I think that’s mostly my own fault. . . . I’m so private. I don’t . . . what’s the word? . . . disclose. Especially if something’s wrong. It was drilled into me that you don’t put your business out where anyone else can see it. It makes for a lonely life. My grandmother used to say the Irish are a lonely people. She said it with a kind of pride” (p. 145).
In alternating chapters, Diamant tells the story of each woman’s life. Despite their growing friendship, Joyce is not fully there for Kathleen during her cancer treatment, which pains Kathleen. And Joyce is growing apart from her husband but cannot share this with Kathleen until a crisis occurs in her life that tests and proves the friendship of the two women. Throughout the novel, Diamant examines how modern women, who lack rituals such as the red tent, work to create their own rituals. Nevertheless, it takes a personal crisis for one of them to push them to the next level of friendship, to greater openness and sharing.
In addition to the theme of women’s friendships, both novels deal with the theme of choosing a religion — the women of Jacob’s clan choose to worship their goddesses, rather than El, to maintain their community; Kathleen chooses to become a member of her husband’s Jewish community. Clearly, the God that women worship and the communities in which women worship their God are unique and bind women, ancient and modern, together in Diamant’s world. In her talk, Diamant noted that “It’s not an accident that friendship develops in faith communities in both novels.”
When I consider my own friendships with other women, I see how true this is. In the many communities of which I am a part, including work, faith, and social circles, my closest women friends and I talk about our beliefs about God and share our own rituals of friendship and faith. I look forward to walking on Good Harbor beach myself with Lee Ann, my friend from church. I share prayers by e-mail with Susan, my friend from my first job twenty years ago. I share family ties in our singleness with Ellen, my friend from the community choir. I share the very special water blessing ritual of EEWC with all of you at our biennial conferences.
In her talk in Concord, Diamant said, “We chose friends voluntarily, and we give them the gift of our time.” Similarly, I believe, we choose God as our Friend, just as much as God chooses us, and we give God — whether we know God by the name Mother, Father, Jesus, or Spirit — the gift of our time and our selves. Diamant’s novels can give us new insights into friendship with women and with God.
© 2002 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 26 number 1 Spring (April-June) 2002