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The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

Discussion Guide

The cover of Anita Diamant's extraordinary book reads, The Red Tent: A Novel. A more accurate description of her rich elaboration on the biblical narrative of Dinah would be The Red Tent: A Midrash. The richness and joy of midrash lies in its unique ability to weave the yarns of biblical verse into a tapestry of detailed design and intricate patterns. The bible tells magnificent narratives with remarkable preservation of words. The midrashist's job is to fill in the spaces between the words.

Diamant provides us with a most helpful tool to help us navigate through her rich midrash: a map of the generations. One tool Diamant does not provide the reader is a code by which to distinguish between biblical details and her own midrashic inventions. By the time the reader finishes this novel, many questions arise, most backed by the single question: Is this in the Bible?

As we are caught up in this extraordinary tale of mothers, daughters, husbands, and brothers, we can't help but wonder which pieces are biblical fragments and which are the inventions of the author's imagination. Most novels allow us to accept the premise unconditionally, as the author's own invention. Diamant's novel/midrash requires us to travel back and forth in our minds from biblical narrative to the midrashic imagination. It is a complex process, but well worth the journey.

This readers' guide will help us:

  1. To distinguish between Bible and Midrash (a task that requires us to turn again and again to the biblical text)
  2. To examine and interpret the complex evolution of Dinah's life
  3. To find ourselves in this text by seeing reflections of Dinah's world in our own.

Structure of the Story

Prologue

Dinah explains why her story must be told. She begins, "We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote...." Dinah tells her tale (by way of Diamant) in order for women to know her, in order to turn the footnote of her life into a living, breathing story.

She views the telling of her story as a holy act. "It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing."

And just as every sacred Jewish act begins with a blessing, so does this one: "I am so grateful that you have come. I will pour out everything inside me so you may leave this table satisfied and fortified. Blessings on your eyes. Blessings on your children. Blessings on the ground beneath you. My heart is a ladle of sweet water, brimming over. Selah."

Part One: My Mothers' Stories 

Dinah's Family History: From the arrival of Jacob in Haran to the birth of Joseph (Midrash on Genesis 29:1 - 30:24)

Part Two: My Story 

Dinah's first life: From the childhood of Dinah to the massacre of Shechem and (Midrash on Genesis 30:21 - 35:26)

Part Three: Egypt 

Dinah's second life: From the aftermath of the massacre to Dinah's reconciliation with the family of her childhood (Parallel to Joseph's Story: Genesis 37:1 - 49:27)

Maps of the Generations

First Generations: Diamant's first diagram comes directly from the bible, with one midrashic invention: Ruti, and her sons Kemuel and Beor. In the novel, Ruti serves as a female link to Laban, and she allows us to understand the depths of his cruelty from the perspective of a battered wife.

The Children of Jacob and The Children of Esau: These diagrams help us visualise the complex structure of these biblical families. The details are drawn directly from the bible, with one notable exception: In the Genesis story, Naphtali is born to Bilhah, not to Leah. In her midrashic account, Diamant chooses to develop an interesting relationship between Naphtali ("Tali") and Issachar ("Issa") as twin brothers. Using midrashic license, she "swaps" mothers, giving Naphtali to Leah rather than to Bilhah.

Dinah in Egypt: The account of Dinah's life in Egypt, as well as this final map of the generations (with the exception of the name "Hamor") is all midrash composed by Diamant.

The Biblical Narrative: Diamant's novel can certainly be appreciated by readers who have never read the book of Genesis. Her vivid storytelling captivates readers, whether or not we know the context of her narrative. However, to appreciate fully the significance and value of her work, we must read it in conjunction with the biblical text itself. Only then do we realize the tremendous power of the midrashic imagination to bring the silences of the biblical text to life.

Part One: Read Genesis 29:1 - 30:24, the complex but succinct story of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Jacob.

Part Two: Read Genesis 30:21 - 35:26, from the simple sentence that announces Dinah's birth through the biblical description of the rape of Dinah. Note that the final verses here proclaim that Jacob's children were twelve in number. Dinah's name is not listed among her brothers.

Part Three: Read Joseph's story, Genesis 37:1 - 49:27. There is no mention of Dinah here at all, but Diamant brilliantly weaves strands of Joseph's story into her description of Dinah's life in Egypt.

Questions for Discussion

Part One: My Mothers' Stories

Chapter 1: Introduction to the world of Rachel and Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah

  • Compare the biblical description of each of the sisters with Diamant's descriptions. How does Diamant's midrash on Leah's eyes change your impression of her?
  • Diamant writes in the prologue, "And you should know that my mothers were sisters as well, Laban's daughters by different wives...." Some rabbinic midrashim also suggest that Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah were all sisters. However, the bible never once mentions their mother (or mothers). How does Diamant portray Rachel's mother (p. 8) and Leah's mother (p.11)?
  • What is the significance of the fact that Leah's mother is named here ("Adah"), though she is not named in Genesis? Note: Diamant names several other women who are not named in the bible, including Laban's wife Ruti (p. 46) and Potiphar's wife Nebetper (p. 286).
  • How does your understanding of the four women change knowing that (according to Diamant) they are both sisters and sisters-in-law?
  • Reread the ritual on p. 24 that welcomes Rachel into the Red Tent. Can you think of any parallel rituals that we embrace today? What is the significance of a ritual to celebrate this moment in the life of a young woman? .

Chapter 2: The beginnings of the nation of Israel

  • Read the biblical verses of Genesis 29:21-30. Compare this version of the two wedding nights with Diamant's on pages 30-36. Where the bible simply exclaims, "And there was Leah!" Diamant provides a rich tale to explain this complex scenario. How do the two versions compare?
  • How does Diamant describe the rituals of childbirth? How is the process of childbirth in the Red Tent different from childbirth in our lives today?
  • How do Rachel and Leah relate to each other during the time when Leah is fruitful and Rachel is barren? Compare the biblical description of Reuven's mandrakes (Genesis 30:14-16) with Diamant's description on p. 47.

Chapter 3: The birth of a daughter of Israel

  • This chapter begins with Rachel's sorrow and ends with birth of Joseph. How does Rachel's character change and develop through course of this experience?
  • On p. 62 we read that Laban mistreated Ruti every day, and on p. 63 we learn the details of his abusive behavior. How do Laban's daughters respond to his abuse of his wife? How can you explain their behavior?
  • How do the women treat Dinah in her earliest days? What were their dreams of her before she was born? How do the dreams reflect the dreamers?
  • How does Diamant describe Leah's second month of separation from men? How does she justify the different rituals for the birth of a boy and the birth of a girl? (p. 68)

Part Two: My Story

Chapter 1

  • At the beginning of this chapter, Dinah wonders whether her earliest memories are her own or the result of her mother's stories. Is there a clear distinction between reality and the memory of that reality? What is the significance of childhood memory on adult experience? How does the concept of midrash (elaborating on a text to fill in the details) fit into your response?
  • How does Dinah relate to her brothers? How do Diamant's descriptions of the brothers add to the biblical narrative?
  • Knowing that Diamant invented the character of Ruti, how does Jacob's redemption of Ruti add to the complexity of this family dynamic? (p. 84)

Chapter 2

  • How does each woman respond to the impending move from the life she knows? (p. 88)
  • Discuss Rachel's plan to take her father's teraphim. Why is this act so important to her?
  • On page 91, what do you make of Dinah's awareness that her aunt Rachel tells her, "Remember this moment, when your mother's body heals every trouble of your soul"?
  • What effects does Ruti's death have on the family and their subsequent journey?

Chapter 3

  • Reread Zilpah's prophesy for Dinah on p. 112. What role does prophesy (and false prophesy) have in the life of these women?
  • On p. 118 Diamant reveals her courage to interact powerfully with the biblical text. How does Diamant's account of the teraphim compare with the biblical account?
  • Compare Jacob and Esau's reunion (beginning on p. 119) with the biblical version. How does Diamant elaborate on Jacob's psychological state as he anticipates the reunion with his brother? How does the scenario relate to contemporary issues of sibling rivalry?

Chapter 4

  • On p. 133 Dinah describes the ritual of Rosh Chodesh to her new friend Tabea. Why is this ritual that Dinah shares with the women of her community so important to her?
  • Why do you think contemporary Jewish women have reclaimed the celebration ofRosh Chodesh? If you have participated in Rosh Chodesh celebrations in your community, how do they compare with Diamant's description of our foremothers' celebration?

Chapter 5

  • In this chapter, Dinah hears a second prophesy for her future. Reread Rebecca's prophesy for Dinah on page 166, and respond to her words for her granddaughter.
  • How does Diamant's portrayal of Rebecca affect you as a reader? How does it affect Dinah?

Chapter 6

  • On page 170, Dinah reveals her conflicted feelings about the transition from girlhood to womanhood. She tells us, "For a moment I weighed the idea of keeping my secret and remaining a girl, but the thought passed quickly. I could only be what I was. And I was a woman." Do Dinah's thoughts reflect our own experiences at different transitions in our lives? How?
  • How does Leah respond to Dinah's new? What rituals do we have for the onset of menses today? Do you see a need to create new rituals for this moment (and others) in our own lives?
  • Reread the ritual for Rachel's first period in chapter one (page 24). How does this ritual compare with the ritual for Dinah? What was your response to the "ceremony for opening the womb" on page 172-173? What is Dinah's response? Why might Diamant have included such a graphic ritual in the story of Dinah?
  • On page 176 we see the women using prayer as a form of medicine. How do we use prayer as a form of healing today? Has song or prayer ever had a healing effect on your own life?
  • Diamant writes of Dinah, "My days took shape in relation to the waxing and waning of the moon. Time wrapped itself around the gathering within my body, the swelling of my breasts, the aching anticipation of release, the three quiet days of separation and pause." Take one month to live your life by the Jewish calendar, noting when the first of the Hebrew month comes, looking at the darkness of the new moon, the gathering of the full moon, and its gradual disappearance from our view. In our hurried lives, we rarely have time to notice the cycles of our body or the cycles of the moon. Do you notice any changes in your daily experience as you count time according to the moon?

Chapter 7

  • This chapter includes the central moment of this novel and requires a great deal of reflection. Diamant reinterprets Dinah's rape as a misunderstood love affair. How do we respond to this? In the Bible, the Hebrew word for "rape" is used. Is it possible that Dinah's brothers misinterpreted her relationship to this man? Or does Diamant take her midrash too far?
  • In the novel, Dinah's tragedy is her brothers' murderous behavior, a rape of her soul, rather than her body. What do you make of this distinction? If you reject Diamant's midrash, how do you respond to the biblical text? Why do you think Diamant encourages us to understand this event in a new light?
  • Go back to the biblical version of this event, and read it twice, once in its own context, and once in the context of The Red Tent. How does your view of both accounts change? What other midrashic questions arise now that you have read the biblical account?

Chapter 8

  • This brief chapter reflects the searing pain of the massacre at Shechem. How does Dinah describe her own pain? How does she describe the death of her mothers?
  • Dinah describes Jacob's act of acquiring a new name (Yisrael) as an act of cowardice and disguise (p. 208). Do you agree? Do you think Diamant takes her midrash too far here, or is this a possible consequence of the sons' terrible actions?
  • Dinah expresses again and again that had Reuben found her, her story would have been forever changed. What comment does this make about the events in our lives? About the choices we make? About fate and free will?

Part Three: Egypt

Chapter 1

  • Dinah is denied a mourning process after her terrible loss. She laments, "We never again spoke of our shared history, and I was bound to the emptiness of the story she told" (p. 215). For Dinah, what is the result of this denial of personal history? How are we affected in our own lives if we deny--or are denied--the memories of our past?
  • How does Dinah describe the experience of giving birth? The first moment of being a mother? In the power of this moment, Dinah manages to retrieve part of her own history: "My mothers and their mothers were with me as I held my baby." Can you relate to this experience of sharing a moment in time with your ancestors?

Chapter 2

  • At the beginning of this chapter, how does Dinah describe the power of time? How has the passage of time affected her pain?
  • In this chapter, Dinah is reintroduced to two parts of her previous life: the practice of midwifery, and her connection with Wenero (Rebecca's messenger). How do these two aspects of her life merge to allow her finally to tell her story? How does telling her story affect her?
  • We see a third prophesy for Dinah's life when Wenero tells her, "Your story is not finished." How do you think Dinah interprets this prophesy?

Chapter 3

  • Dinah experiences a new kind of love and creates her first adult home. What is her emotional response to these changes in her life?
  • When Benia responds to Dinah's story with the words, "Poor thing," she tells us this is everything she longed to hear. What does this say about the power of compassion?
  • At the end of this chapter, Dinah counts her blessings and responds, "It was more than enough." (We express this same kind of contentment with our lot at Passover with the word, "Dayeinu.") Are you surprised at Dinah's contentment after the great suffering she has endured in her life? Why or why not?

Chapter 4

  • When in your reading did you become aware that Zafenat Paneh-ah was Joseph? What was your response? What was Dinah's response?
  • Examine the confrontation of Joseph and Re-mose when they recognize for the first time that they are uncle and nephew. Do you see any parallels between this pair and another troubled uncle/nephew relationship (namely Laban and Jacob, one generation earlier)?
  • Page 292 presents us with a familiar scenario: Joseph reuniting with his siblings in Egypt. Compare Joseph's reunion with Dinah in The Red Tent with Joseph's reunion with his brothers in Genesis.

Chapter 5

  • Compare Jacob's blessing of his sons in The Red Tent and in Genesis.
  • Describe Dinah's experience learning about her family through her niece, recognizing qualities of her mothers, and being reunited with her family from a distance.
  • In what ways does Dinah express her belief in the concept of eternality?
  • How does Dinah's blessing affect you as you finish reading her story?

Themes for Discussion 

  • The Experience of Childbirth
  • The Cycle of Women/The Celebration of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh)
  • Pain and Loss
  • Healing and Renewal
  • Love at Different Stages of Life
  • The Search for Identity
  • The Meaning of Memory
  • The Power of Blessing

Reading this Modern Midrash 

How did your own experience of reading change from book to book? Diamant gets more daring with her midrash as the book progresses. Book one remains closest to the biblical narrative; Book two presents a powerful midrash; And book three reads most like a novel. Do you think Diamant wove her tale in full before she began? Or did the tale emerge on its own as she wrote? Did she know that the defining moment of Dinah's life in her midrash would be different than the one that we find in the Bible? Did she begin with the reading that Dinah's was not raped in body but in soul?

Creating your own Modern Midrash 

Diamant's powerful midrash can give us the courage to create our own modern midrashim. The process begins by asking a single question of a biblical text. Many biblical moments call out for explanation; Choose any biblical text that is compelling to you. (For example, from this matriarchal narrative: Who was Rachel and Leah's mother? How did the sisters relate to their mother--or mothers? Did Rachel and Leah know in advance of Laban's plan to switch his daughters on Rachel's wedding day? If so, how did they respond to this plan? If not, how did each sister react when they discovered they had been switched? How did this experience affect Leah's relationship with her own daughter?) Respond to your own questions by exploring the boundaries of your imagination. Where the biblical narrative is vague or incomplete, our tradition gives us the magnificent opportunity to add our own voices to the text. B'hatzlacha

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