Storyteller behind tales biblical and Bostonian to speak in Pittsburgh
Early 20th century Boston is a far cry from biblical Haran, Canaan and Israel, but fans of Anita Diamant’s 1997 bestseller “The Red Tent” will notice a definite link between the fictional account of the life of Dinah and the author’s newest novel, “The Boston Girl.”
“A common theme in both books is women’s connections,” Diamant said in a phone interview. “The books have different settings, but they are both about the importance of women’s friendships.”
Diamant will be in Pittsburgh on Oct. 12 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, the first speaker in the 25th anniversary season of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Monday night series.
Where “The Red Tent” focused on the relationships that women form with family, extended family and friends, “The Boston Girl” additionally examines the often life-changing role of the mentor.
“Mentorship is when someone recognizes something in you that helps you go on to fulfill your potential,” Diamant
explained. “It’s when someone like a teacher or a co-worker holds up a mirror to you and shows you something you didn’t know was there.”
That’s what happens to Addie Baum, the central character in “The Boston Girl.” Addie, born in Boston in 1900 to Russian Jewish immigrants, recounts her life story 85 years later to her 22-year-old granddaughter. Raised by parents who were suspicious of America and its effect on their children, Addie describes how she transcended the confines of her family to go out in a world rich in opportunities for women. And it is one of the women Addie meets at the neighborhood settlement house who “draws her out and gives her an opportunity,” Diamant said.
Addie’s story is a candid response to her granddaughter’s question: How did you get to be the woman you are today?
The experience of being drawn out by a mentor is something that changed the course of Diamant’s own life, she said. She credits much of her writing success to Harry Marten, a faculty member in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis, where Diamant was an undergraduate in comparative literature.
“Harry Marten gave me to a writing tutor, and it changed my life,” she said.
Diamant showed a talent for writing as a young adult, but had no interest in fiction writing for a long time.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1951, Diamant grew up in Newark, N.J., and then moved with her family when she was 12 to Denver. After graduating college, she earned a master’s in American literature from Binghamton University, and in 1975, moved to Boston and began a career in journalism.
Diamant wrote for local magazines and newspapers, as well as regional and national publications, including Reform Judaism Magazine, Hadassah Magazine, and jewishfamily.com. She published her first book in 1985, “The New Jewish Wedding,” followed by five other guidebooks to Jewish life.
After 20 years of writing nonfiction, Diamant was ready for a new challenge, but needed a good story.
“I had been an adult education student of Judaism,” she said, “so I decided to plunder the Bible.”
She began by looking at the story of Jacob, and his wives Leah and Rachael.
“Then I got to the Dinah story,” she said. “The rape was such a mystery. I was wondering what really happened. It just didn’t really read like a rape.”
Dinah is a minor character in the Book of Genesis, and the brief passage in which she appears is often referred to as the “rape of Dinah.” Dinah does not say a single word in the Torah. Instead, what happened to her is characterized as a rape by her brothers, who then go on to commit mass murder as retribution for the purported crime.
“I decided to tell the story from Dinah’s perspective,” Diamant said. “I wanted to give her agency, and not have her be a victim.”
“The Red Tent,” though Diamant’s first attempt at fiction, became a bestseller, and a favorite of book clubs across the country. It has been published in more than 25 countries, and was adapted as a two-part, four-hour mini-series by Lifetime TV.
Diamant said she was “totally surprised” by the success of the book, and attributes that success to the promotion by independent booksellers and the word-of-mouth of book groups.
“The Red Tent” launched a career in fiction writing that includes “Good Harbor,” “The Last Days of Dogtown,” and “Day After Night,” in which Diamant tells the story of women who lived through the Holocaust and await the future in a British internment camp in Palestine before the founding of the State of Israel.
Jewish characters and spirituality are common themes in her work, and that sense of connectedness to her Jewish heritage plays out in her nonwriting life as well.
In 2004, she founded Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Boston, opening the ritual of immersion to a wider audience by creating a more welcoming and inclusive space.
Diamant was motivated to enhance the experience of the mikveh when researching the practice in Boston for her nonfiction guidebook on conversion, “Choosing a Jewish Life.”
“I visited the mikveh in Boston, and saw that it was not built to be welcoming to one choosing Judaism,” she said.
While she said she is “not an activist, or a committee person,” the cause of improving the conditions of mikveh was one she decided to take on.
“The community rallied around this idea,” she said.
Mayyim Hayyim continues to serve Jews from throughout New England. It is used by many denominational segments of the Jewish community, and by men as well as women. Weddings, b’nai mitzvah and conversions to Judaism are marked there, as well as monthly ritual immersions and other life events.
“There are some creative ways that non-Orthodox brides are using it,” Diamant said. “There is nothing more powerful than water to mark transformation.”
Community members have used the mikveh following breast cancer treatment, after a divorce and to mark rabbinic ordination.
“And people liked the idea of opening the doors of the mikveh wider for people choosing Judaism,” she said.
More than 2,500 converts have marked their entrance into Judaism at Mayyim Hayyim, according to Diamant.
By creating a more inviting and accessible mikveh, Diamant said the community has “put up a welcome mat.”
And perhaps a wider tent.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.