Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book Review: The Red Tent

A Fair Trade Book...Maybe

Book Review: The Red Tent
        
Author: Anita Diamant
        
Author's blog: http://anitadiamant.blogspot.com/

Author's charity: http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/

Date: 1997
        
Publisher: Picador
        
ISBN: B002E8R356
        
Length:352 pages
        
Quote: "Rachel came running into camp, knees flying, bellowing like a calf separated from its mother...she launched into a breathless yarn about a stranger at the well..."
        
If the Bible had been written by women, would it, as one reviewer said, read like The Red Tent? Parts of it might. Maybe.
        
There’s a theory that parts of the Bible may have been written by women—and, in fact, the Bible explicitly says that the Torah as we know it was the version approved by a woman, the prophet Huldah, who was the foremost scholar of her time.
        
I am, I think, about as well entitled to define a really radical feminist as anybody, and I say Gloria Steinem was a well-funded, oh, let’s say “blonde” instead of “wimp,” and if you’re really radically a feminist you can handle the Bible. The rule against women becoming scholars and rabbis is found only in the Talmud, was flouted by Jesus and many other rabbis, and obviously did not exist in what modern Israelis call the classical era of ancient Israel. In the Bible women do just about everything men do and are commended for it. I find more feminist statements than antifeminist statements in the Bible.
        
But that’s another rant; Diamant’s purpose in The Red Tent is to try to imagine the home life of Jacob surnamed Israel, the ancestor by birth or adoption of all Jews, and his four wives. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and the prophet of the One God, but his father-in-law wasn’t fully converted to any faith and may still have taken idols seriously, and Diamant imagines the four wives fondly remembering the Semitic Pagan goddesses of which they’d heard.
        
How accurate is this? How plausible is any attempt to reconstruct the private life of anyone long dead? The Bible mentions that Laban owned at least two idols. Jacob’s offer of labor instead of a dowry, which was normally paid in money and kept by the bride’s parents as security in case of divorce, was lamented by his wives as having allowed their father to cheat them out of their share of his estate. When Jacob, Leah, and Rachel abandoned Laban they took the idols. The idols may, like the idols found in many Christian homes today, have been valued only as pieces of precious stone or metal, or as works of art; the women may have justified taking them as reclaiming the money their father owed them. Rachel took them into the Red Tent and sat on them, which suggests that she didn’t think they really embodied deities...unless, of course, we postulate that the Semitic goddesses were worshipped in more intimate ways than the male gods. 
        
Diamant works with several pieces of Jewish tradition that appeared in history long after Jacob’s time, perhaps introduced as fables. Why can people of any color be Jewish? Despite the well-known history of conversions and adoptions, or perhaps to legitimize it, one tradition teaches that each of Jacob’s four wives was a different color. Then again, perhaps they were all half-sisters. In The Red Tent they are both half-sisters and of different colors.
        
What happened to poor little Dinah? The name means “judged.” If Dinah was the original name given to the only one of Jacob’s daughters named in the Bible, it must have expressed the hope of being correctly judged and vindicated. Even Jacob didn’t think that what her brothers did was a correct judgment or vindication. So, according to some traditions, God must have vindicated or compensated Dinah in some other way. As it might have been, according to one venerable Hebrew folktale, by allowing her to become rich and famous—probably as a midwife, although other contemporary women succeeded in other careers. In Egypt, where she might have been married, employed, or adopted by the family of Potipherah the priest of On. So, when Joseph was promoted to a level of status from which he could be married to Potipherah’s daughter, she would really be Dinah’s daughter...a nice Jewish girl.
        
The Bible does mention that Jacob gave special blessings to Joseph’s two sons. Why is this? There were twelve tribes, and twelve tribal territories, in ancient Israel, but the lists don’t quite match. The tribe of Levi were dispersed through the other territories as priests. There was no tribal territory named for Joseph. There were tribal territories named for each of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Did these boys need to be adopted as sons by their grandfather because their father had been a favorite son, because their mother was an alien...or because giving them the status of sons rather than grandsons was a way of vindicating Dinah?
         
For her literary purposes, Diamant uses the story that Dinah became a rich and famous midwife in Egypt. Her Dinah lives to be old enough to take a detached, elderly perspective when describing the little girls her mother and aunts must once have been. When poor little Joseph finds himself enslaved in Egypt, Diamant gives him a still righteously indignant, but goodhearted, older sister to smooth the way for him.
        
There are two possible ways a novelist could handle the story of Dinah’s postbiblical adventures. Either she was a little girl who innocently went home with a playmate and was molested by her friend’s brother; or she was a star-crossed lover whose visit to a female friend’s home was understood by everyone as a date with her friend’s brother, whom she wanted to marry. The Red Tent takes the second of these positions.
        
Diamant does not use Dinah’s voice to  write as a scholar, priest, historian, or even a poet, but as a woman who could offer professional insights into the questions the story of Jacob’s family raises in modern minds. What was it like for each member of the family, except infants, to live in a separate tent, and for menstruating and postpartum women to occupy a special Red Tent? How exactly did people produce and nurture babies in such a culture? How did they start the babies? (Diamant’s answer to this question is neither plain enough to satisfy those who don't know how babies are made, nor passionate enough to satisfy those who would prefer a live video.) How did people become slaves, and how were slaves treated? How did they become kings, and how did they defend their thrones?  Did they brew wine and beer strong enough to get drunk on? How did they behave when they were drunk? What did they do with all those animals’ body wastes, and their own? What kind of diseases did they suffer from, and what was it like when a family member was ill?
        
It’s a very steamy novel. That’s what some readers will love, and some readers will hate, about The Red Tent. No lofty philosophical reflections, no songs and poetry, no weaving patterns and hardly any recipes, are found here. On almost every page somebody’s giving birth, having sex, beating somebody up. The Bible portrays Laban as pushy and greedy; Diamant goes further and makes him a mean drunk, a lecher, and a buffoon. You may find yourself sniffing at the pages—nothing but clean paper there, only the words as you read seem to give off that smell of sweat and blood. You may find yourself wondering whether, if you were living in that climate and culture, you wouldn’t constantly crave fresh air.
        
The Bible certainly doesn’t shudder away from the fetor of blood and sweat. The Bible does not, however, wallow in it. The Bible writers did crave fresh air, and they gave breaths of it to the reader. The Bible story of Jacob’s family contains most of the gross-outs found in The Red Tent, and the other gross-outs in The Red Tent are analogous to stories told in other parts of the Bible, but in between the brawls and pregnancies the Bible also includes religious visions, poems, prayers, and inspiring moments of generosity and reconciliation. The Red Tent is not rich in generosity and reconciliation. Dinah’s character isn’t completely consumed by bitterness, but neither does she forgive those who did her wrong.
        
So I say: if the Bible had been written by a woman, or by women, I still don’t think it would read like The Red Tent. Diamant's Dinah is, like most of us, not quite as wise as Huldah.
        
Bible mavens will probably enjoy reading The Red Tent—critically, but with pleasure. I don’t know that The Red Tent is an ideal first commentary on the book of Genesis; I suspect that for most people it’s not. If you’ve read other commentaries, however, you’ll appreciate the way this book manages to be both a valid commentary and a credible novel.

A new edition of The Red Tent is available, so does Anita Diamant want this one offered as a Fair Trade Book? I await her decision. As a Fair Trade Book it would cost $5 + $5 shipping (shipping costs can be consolidated), out of which Diamant or her favorite charity would get $1. If you buy the new edition I'm guessing that she gets more.