FEATURE — Winter 2003

Expressions of Faith

Best-selling author Anita Diamant shares her faith, the importance of friendships, and a sense of community, in both fact and fiction, with her readers.

by Betsy Rogers

Two defining characteristics have shaped the life and work of author and alumna Anita Diamant: She is a woman, and she is Jewish. The deep wisdom of both women's reality and Jewish tradition dominate her writing and often twine together in her books.

Take her best-selling historical novel The Red Tent (Picador USA, 1997), which she describes as "my imaginary jazz riff" on the biblical story of Dinah in Genesis. Diamant first considered writing a novel about Rachel and Leah—the two wives of Jacob (the "Father of Israel")—whom the Bible portrays as contentious rivals. "It occurred to me that there had to be more there," she says, "that they couldn't just be enemies in their family situation. They had to collaborate, too."

Dinah was Leah's daughter and the central character in a difficult story of alleged rape and murderous revenge. "I kept bumping up against the Dinah story," Diamant says, "and it's got such a great plot—a very sexy, violent, disturbing story. So I went with her."

As the novel unfolded, it became the story of women, their shared communal life within the larger tribal community, and their tireless efforts to knit their families together.

The Red Tent became a publishing phenomenon. Released with no advertising budget and few reviews, its audience mushroomed due to independent bookstores' support and word-of-mouth among its wildly enthusiastic readers. The novel has gone into multiple paperback printings and appears in foreign-language editions in 20 countries around the globe, from Korea to England, Lithuania to Spain. It has received rich accolades, including the "Best Fiction" selection by the independent booksellers' alliance, Booksense.

Fast-forward 3,800 years from Dinah's era to contemporary Gloucester, Massachusetts, the setting of Diamant's second novel. Though very different in time and place, Good Harbor (Simon & Schuster, 2001) also concerns women's relationships, this time the unfolding friendship of two women who meet after services at their synagogue. One is a graceful 59-year-old, newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The other is 42, lively, bright, and baffled by the growing distance between herself, her husband, and her daughter. As the bond between the two women grows, they help each other understand their old hurts and new crises, moving through and beyond them.

The novel illustrates what for Diamant is an important truth about women's friendships. "Culturally women's friendships have been trivialized and demonized," she says, "but we know how important and powerful these relationships are. They hold us together—and they keep our families together, too."

Before she turned to fiction, Diamant had published five books—The New Jewish Wedding (1985), The New Jewish Baby Book (1988), Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today's Families (1993), Bible Baby Names (1996), and Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Families and Friends (1997). In 1998 she wrote Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead & Mourn as a Jew, following her father's death.

Diamant began writing nonfiction when she was engaged to be married and looking in vain for a meaningful wedding guide. Her rabbi surprised her by suggesting that she write a contemporary Jewish wedding book. The New Jewish Baby Book grew, as well, out of a dearth of available titles.

"Where my books differ is in the attitude toward the reader," she observes. "I don't assume the reader has much of a Jewish background, if any. I do assume that he or she is interested, intelligent, and thoughtful. I don't tell people what they should be doing. But, at the same time, I think my books do have the agenda of encouraging people to try things, and to create a Jewish practice that's meaningful and relevant."

For Diamant, writing and the topics she chooses have deep spiritual content. "One of the great joys of my tradition," she explains, "is that an extraordinarily high value is placed on learning. Learning and prayer are not totally separate categories. There's something devotional in study.

"Writing books deepened my connection, my understanding, my commitment: Saying Kaddish, in particular, which I wrote a year after my father died. Really, I was in awe of the psychological and psychospiritual wisdom of this ancient tradition, which asks you to sit still for a week and feel what you're feeling and to re-enter the rest of your life at a measured pace, but insists that you do re-enter it."

Her commitment to the spiritual life of her community has led her recently to establish Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center. In Judaism, a mikveh is a ritual pool for symbolic purification and transformation. "Every religious tradition in the world uses water as a means of spiritual transformation," she points out.

Though there are mikvehs in the Boston area, where Diamant lives, she found them crowded and not conducive to reflection. "It was my dream," she says on her Web site, "to create a mikveh where time and gracious space were available for converts and their families and friends." She gathered an interested group, which grew into a "fabulous board of directors" and an ever-widening circle of initiatives in conversion, healing, spiritual renewal, and education.

"'Spirituality' is not a traditional Jewish word," she muses. "In Judaism, there's no separating the spiritual from the mundane. The notion that you're connected to something bigger than you isn't a separate category. But in American society, spirituality is part of our vocabulary, so I think there's a searching for an authentically Jewish notion of spirituality. There's a yearning for it."

Diamant's attention to making such connections also played a pivotal role during her college years. Originally an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, she transferred to Washington University as a junior. "It was a very happy transfer," she says with feeling. "I loved my two years at Wash. U." Diamant graduated with a degree in comparative literature in 1973.

She attributes much of her writing success to Harry Marten, then a young faculty member in the Department of English in Arts & Sciences. "I think I took every course he offered," Diamant says. Marten suggested graduate student Sondra Stein as a writing tutor for Diamant. "Between the two of them," she says, "they completely changed my writing. Washington University was very crucial to me." She and Stein remain close friends, and she still keeps in touch with Marten, whom she names as her favorite English professor in her latest book, a collection of essays called Pitching My Tent (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Diamant's parents were both Holocaust survivors, and she readily acknowledges that history's formative power. "It is part of my personal background," she observes. "Growing up with that, I embraced a sensitivity to justice and human rights—and that informs all that I do."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.