The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Years and years ago, I don’t remember when, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent generated a lot of buzz in the lit-fic circles, particularly around book clubs. I picked it up about 8 years ago in a garage sale and then—story of my life—never read it. In my zeal to clean out my shelves, I’ve been forcing myself to stop.going.to.the.library.already and just focus on what is on my shelf. It’s been a rather telling experience, and this book has made me glad for the discipline.
It’s no secret that I’m a (pro-LGBT Democrat) Christian (I always include this disclaimer, because I am ashamed of the culture wars the outspoken Christian Evangelicals have mired themselves in), and so I am familiar with the story of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, in Genesis 34. A Canaanite man named Shechem falls madly in love with her, deflowers her (the New International Version says that he raped her, while the New King James Version declares that he “violated” her), and then promptly requests to pay the bride price. Jacob’s ruthless sons request that he and his kin be circumcised, and then they murder them. Their defense to a mortified Jacob is, “Shall he make our sister a harlot?” Never mind the *delightful* story of Judah being tricked by his daughter-in-law who poses as a harlot in order to receive her rightful male heir, as demanded by Hebrew law (but that’s another story). My point is this: Dinah is a woman in the Bible, so she would typically go without mention, but the fact that she is mentioned in the Bible, makes her a figure of interest. So Diamant delves into her story and fleshes it out to give the women a voice in the biblical narrative.
It works and it doesn’t. The first third of the story focuses exclusively on Jacob and the women who call him husband—sisters and wives Leah and Rachel, and concubines Zilpah and Bilhah. It’s a rather uninteresting reinvention of the biblical narrative that is fairly well-known. While I was interested in hearing the women’s side, it felt a bit like Diamant was trying too hard to undo the popular Bible narrative. The second third, which is Dinah’s coming of age and common-law marriage to Shalem, the Shechemite, is interesting for it focuses on the Red Tent, which celebrates menstruation and childbirth as part of the womanly experience. But the final third is a bit unrealistic, as it finds Dinah in Egypt and reunited in a very odd way with some of her family. I’ll leave it at that.
This book was interesting to read, but I did find myself laughing out loud at the part where Dinah gets her first period. I mean, it’s an important event in a woman’s life, but the earth ceremony and the sort of orgasmic pleasure she experiences? Um…maybe I’m just not super into period celebration? I’ll accept the label of “bad feminist” on that.