A Conversation with Best-Selling Jewish Author Anita Diamant
Reform Jewish author Anita Diamant’s latest best-selling novel The Boston Girl is now out in paperback. She’s best known for her 1997 blockbuster novel The Red Tent, which has been published in 25 languages and adapted into a Lifetime network miniseries. Diamant and her husband, Jim, live in Boston and are members of Temple Beth El, a Reform Jewish congregation in nearby Sudbury, MA.
ReformJudaism.org: You’ve written five novels and six guides to contemporary practice. Have you always aspired to be a writer?
Anita Diamant: My childhood goal was to become an actress. Later, I dreamed of being a poet but couldn’t make a living as a poet, so I started writing grant proposals. That was my first job. I fell into journalism in the late 1970s; my first stories were about women’s sports, even though I knew nothing about sports. Title IX was enacted and suddenly a lot of money, attention, and energy were being paid to women’s goals and sports.
Had you ever taken a journalism course?
I learned on the job. I had some wonderful editors and worked with people who believed in me. The great thing about being a journalist is that you get to learn.
How did your first book come about?
I was getting married and asked Rabbi Larry Kushner what I should read in preparation. He looked at me and said, “You should write a book on Jewish weddings because the existing books are awful.”
At the time, the only books available were either written by Orthodox rabbis or fell into the etiquette genre. They did not speak to me – a Reform Jew and a feminist – or to my fiancé, who was converting to Judaism. What Rabbi Kushner was teaching us about the Jewish wedding was so much more meaningful and accessible, and I thought that if I didn’t know this stuff, lots of others did not know it either. My first book, The New Jewish Wedding, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1985, a year after Jim and I married.
You followed that with The New Jewish Baby Book. Were you going for a Jewish lifecycle series?
I didn’t plan to write a second Jewish book because I didn’t want to be typecast, but I had a baby daughter and again, I found there was really nothing on the subject for me. My friends who were having sons also found nothing helpful that addressed their questions.
How did marrying a Jew-by-choice affect your life and work?
I am doing what I do and I am who I am because I fell in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish. Even before we were engaged, I realized that if we were to get married and have children, I would have to pass something of my tradition along. I felt really unprepared to do that because I had very little Jewish education. Jim’s Introduction to Judaism class became my Introduction to Judaism class – and, in a way, his conversion was mine as well.
You turned to writing fiction at age 40. How did you come to write The Red Tent?
I felt stale as a writer and wanted the challenge of writing a novel. While looking for an idea, I recalled Rabbi Kushner’s teaching about Midrash (rabbinical interpretations of the biblical text) – the idea that the biblical text was wide open and that it was my right as a Jew to turn it on its head in order to make more sense of it. As an American who read a lot of fiction, turning it on its head meant that whatever fell out would be mine to do with whatever I wanted.
At first I thought I would write about Rachel and Leah’s relationship, but I needed a plot. I found that in Dinah’s story. We did not know what her perspective was because she didn’t say anything, so that’s what I landed on – to tell Dinah’s story in her voice.
Is there a common thread that runs through your novels?
They all share attention to women’s friendships and women’s agency, which matter to me. I don’t have a biological sister. I have friends who function as sisters to me; I don’t know how I would have gotten through things without them. I think such relationships are still undervalued in our society, so my goal is to tell the untold or under-told stories, mostly of women but not exclusively. My novel The Last Days of Dogtown (2005) includes the stories of freed Africans and boy orphans. I write about nobodies.
You give nobodies a voice.
Yes, which I think is a Jewish thing. Everyone is worthy, created b’tselem Elohim (in the image of God). Also Jewish is the idea that everything is knit together – the Jewish, the feminist, the American – and all of it comes out in my work.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large.
Anita Diamant will be one of the featured speakers at the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial 2015, taking place November 4-8 in Orlando, FL. Register now for the largest Jewish gathering in North America.