Most people have forgotten her name. Only those that have read the Bible, know her story, the little of it that the authors of the Torah deign to tell us about. Dinah, the sole daughter of Jacob-Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, aka Jews, merits a mention of her name twice in Vayishlach chapter of Genesis. She is mentioned only when she is born and when she becomes the cause for the slaughter of the males of Shechem. Dinah is abducted and defiled by the prince Shechem who then wants to marry her. Her father will only allow this after the prince and all the males of his city submit to circumcision. When they all do and are laying wounded in their homes, two of the sons of Jacob with their men descend upon the city and kill all the men and loot the city. They then take Dinah from the palace and leave the city. We have no idea what happens to Dinah after this happens. Her name is never mentioned again. So in the entire “story” of Dinah, she is not even an active player. She is essentially a name drop.
In “The Red Tent”, Dinah is a real person. From the first lines of the book, you get the full sense of her as a real human being, not as a character in someone’s book, but a real, living, breathing woman. Though the book starts similarly toned to the Bible, by telling a story of her family, Dinah tells us the story of the women in her family, the story that the readers of the Bible really don’t ever hear. She first tells us the stories of her mothers’ youths: both her birth mother Leah the Earth Mother, and her sister-wives, Rachel the Beautiful, Zilpah the Witch, and Bilhah the Kind. Men are incidental to the story of Dinah’s mothers and her own childhood. They are there, you know their names but they are not active participants. In the red tent, where all the women of her childhood go to congregate in sisterhood during their times of the month, Dinah grows up with the stories of goddesses populating her mothers’ worlds, the goddesses governing everything from childbirth to puberty. She grows up to know that being a woman means to be strong and skillful, that it means to be open to all possibilities and gifts of the world. As she learns about herself, she learns to love being a midwife and it is this love that brings her to her prince, Shalem when she assists Rachel with a birth that takes place in the palace. As they fall in love at first sight, they lose all sense of caution and the die is cast. When Dinah’s brothers take her out of the city covered in the blood of her beloved husband, she curses her brothers and her father and disappears from their history forever. Dinah ends up in Egypt and lives an entirely different chapter of her life eventually coming back full circle to the curse that she placed on her family.
It’s needless to say that I loved this book as desperately the second time I read it as a 32 year old woman. I may have seen Dinah the impulsive teenager in a less romantic light, but I also saw and appreciated Dinah the woman in Egypt. This story is not a fanciful imagination of a feminist author. The Red Tent is Dinah’s opportunity to speak in her own voice. She is confident, unencumbered by worries of inferiority and social class. She is a woman who is a strong woman because she is raised by such women. She sees visions like her brother Joseph and feels the presence of her gods, she makes her own choices, she heals and helps bring new life in the world. She loves with her entire being and shares herself completely. She is a full kaleidoscope of a human and you root with her even as you cringe with the steps she takes and smile when she is finally happy. She comes into her own in her own time, on her own terms, and when she is fully ready. In Dinah I find a complete woman, someone who I would love to have met in my own life.