Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Red Tent

Since graduating from college last year, one of the greatest pleasures I have discovered is reading. That may sound odd, considering that I was an English major and did nothing but read (and write about what I read) for a good four years. The difference is, now I can read whatever I want to, and I can do it at my own pace. I've re-read a lot of the books I had read hurriedly for classes and discovered new ideas I missed the first time. I've re-read the entire works of Orson Scott Card and was reminded of why I fell in love with his writing at the age of 13. Yesterday on my way to take a bath (ah, the luxury of my life!) I picked up my copy of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I enjoyed it the first time I read it several years ago, and this time it took hold of me so completely that I didn't even notice the bath water growing cold around me until my cat jumped up onto the side of the tub and peered down at me like I was crazy.

The Red Tent is a fictional retelling of Genesis 34, the story of Dinah the daughter of Jacob. Following the Jewish tradition of midrash, Diamant makes Dinah the narrator of her own story. In a simple but poetic voice, Dinah recounts the history of her family. Some aspects are familiar - the jealousy between Leah and Rachel, Jacob's wrestling with the angel, the sons of Jacob slaughtering the men of Shechem.

The difference is Dinah's voice. She speaks to the reader as if to a friend sitting in the same room. "We have been lost to each other for so long," she says in the prologue. "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." The heart of her story is in the traditions of her mothers, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. She tells about the work of their daily life: gardening, tending animals, cooking, spinning wool, carrying water, making beer. At a young age she becomes a midwife and learns how to use herbs, incantations, and birthing bricks to help mothers deliver their babies.

She also describes the religious traditions of the women, which were completely separate from those of the men. Long before the revelation of the ten commandments and the injunction to "have no other gods before me," Diamant speculates that the women likely worshipped a pantheon of goddesses. Some of those mentioned are Gula, goddess of healing, Taweret, goddess of maternity and childbirth, and Innana, the Great Mother and the Queen of Heaven.

The center of the women's spiritual lives is the red tent, the place where they gather together to separate themselves from the men while menstruating or giving birth. Far from being a punishment for impurity, this was a time of rejoicing and celebrating life; as Leah puts it, "In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of the last month's death, preparing the body to receive the new month's life, women give thanks -- for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood."

The women's lives revolve around fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. The first time I read the story, I was fascinated by this at an intellectual level. Diamant provides many details about the herbs the women used for contraception, the prayers they uttered to induce labor, and the lengths they went to in order to achieve pregnancy. I guess it shouldn't have surprised me that this time, my interest was much more personal. I cried as I read the story of Rachel, who was infertile for many years before finally conceiving. "Rachel could not smile at her sister while her own body remained fruitless. She was often away from the family's tents, seeking the counsel of Inna, who had a seemingly endless list of concoctions and strategies to open her womb. Rachel tried every remedy, every potion, every rumored cure. She wore only red and yellow -- the colors of life's blood and the talisman for healthy menstruation. She slept with her belly against trees said to be sacred to local goddesses. Whenever she saw running water, she lay down in it, hoping for the life of the river to inspire life within her ... But all these things did nothing for Rachel's womb."

I relate to her feelings of desperation, to her willingness to try anything. That's the same thing I feel as I give myself shots each day and go to seeminlgy endless doctors appointments. And I count myself lucky that I was born in a time when effective treatments are available to me.

But there is something they had then that is missing now. Inside the red tent, the women care for one another and remind each other of the miracle of their bodies. While giving birth, the woman in labor is held up on three sides by her sisters while a midwife catches the baby. After the baby is born, they all care for the newborn and the mother until she is well enough to resume her normal life. The world we live in now is very different. Fertility treatments are not discussed openly, and are often kept a secret. Women give birth in hospitals with a husband and often no other women in the room. When she goes home with a new baby, she does it alone, unless she is lucky enough to have a mother who lives near by who can help. We live our lives largely separate from the support of other women. And at this particular time in my life, I grieve that loss.

Dinah speaks from the past, reminding us of the stories that are missing and urging us to remember them. "And now you come to me -- women with hands and feet soft as a queen's, with more cooking pots than you need, so safe in childbed and so free with your tongues. You come hungry for the story that was lost. You crave words to fill the great silence that swallowed me, my mothers, and my grandmothers before them...It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing." At the end of the book, Dinah leaves us with a promise that if we remember her story we won't be alone. "Blessings on your eyes and on your children. Blessings on the ground beneath you. Wherever you walk, I go with you."


  1. Anonymous3:27 PM

    Wow. Ok, that was a great post, and now, I need to go find that book. I've never heard of it, and love reading, and it sounds awesome. Thanks for posting about it.


  2. Kris, Thanks for reading! I've read your blog before and enjoy it. And definitely go out and read this book!

  3. Argh, words cannot express how much I love that book. I cry everytime I read it. Thanks for your very eloquent thoughts.

  4. Im not a religous person or maybe its just that i havnt found my religion yet but i am always interested and facinated with other peoples religion.
    My mother im law is a hindu so im learning all about that at the moement and its quite complicated!!!
    reading your post has made me think that perhaps we have too many things now and too much to do when all we really want is human kindness and to feel loved, a smile a cuddle, a little time is so much better than a fancy t.v or new carpets etc.
    Im currently reading about the east end community of london during the second world war and i think its so sad that theres is hardly any community spirit at all.
    I know my immediate neighbours but theres loads of them i see everyday and weve never stopped for a chat or even just a wave to acknowledge each other !!!
    I think a red tent would be brilliant.


Give it to me straight!

  © Blogger template Simple n' Sweet by 2009

Back to TOP