Tag Archives: Anita Diamant

Not really a review review or what I thought of The Boston Girl

I have no plans to post a full on review of Boston Girl. There was a good amount of hype about it when it came out and I know at least several bloggers out here in the blog land have covered it pretty well so I don’t think my review will have much to add. I do want to offer my reflections on the books as more is free form thoughts. Plus having read The Red Tent as basically my inaugural review I can’t not mention Boston Girl

This was my second (?) fiction book of Diamant’s. Actually I think it may have been third but I have almost no memories of reading the other one so my gut memory tells me I either hated it or it was no good. Boston Girl has a funny flavor to it. From the first impression the writing is almost essay like, with chapter headings posed as questions, and the feeling is as if I am reading serialized newspaper articles rather than a coherent flowing novel. Not to say I hate the style though, though at first I thought it quite a bit choppy. But in the end I feel like I did see it for what it was meant to be, a style easily identified as speech of an elderly person from a certain time and of a certain age. When I was sixteen, I worked for an organization that interfaced teens with the elderly in what I am now guessing was a way for education all around. We all had a couple of elderly people that we visited every week and we talked to them about their lives, asked questions and at the end of the year we wrote their stories down in an anthology published by this organization YouthCares ( God I haven’t thought of those guys in over a decade and I still have my anthology!). At the time I was still shaky with my English so I had interacted with a Russian speaking lady and an American. The Russian lady spoke of the war and the Holocaust, things I related to already because of my family’s Holocaust experience.  But the American spoke of growing up in the twenties. Granted this was a decade after Boston Girl but the sentiment and pattern or speech was the same. Slightly stilted, archaic wording but the stories beautifully flowed. I find it all as fascinating now as I did at 16.

Diamant’s Addie Baum grows up as the first American born of a Jewish immigrant family and she is torn between the world of modernity and the Jewish Old World expectations. Like a good Jewish girl, she is expected to do everything around the house, be obedient and respectful, not interact with strangers, not even speak English at home. She is expected to remain in the proverbial ghetto even as the new century opens new opportunities  for those wiling to take them. And Addie takes them, the entirety of the book is proof of her rising above familial limitations and living the life she wanted while creating her own path. I learned much about hard life in the tenements, about the racism Jews faced in Boston and stereotypes they had to overcome. At the same time, I felt Diamant did a great job showcasing parts of Jewish traditions that have as much meaning now as they did back then: the emphasis on family participation in Jewish family events, from weddings to sitting shiva, and the importance of having family holding you up even when it’s against family members, case in point Addie’s sister Betty. Addie delves into the world beyond the ghetto and meets other women in her truly international neighborhood that open her eyes to new books, to new ideas, to popular culture and to the world of more than just marrying as soon as one is able to.

Anyway I was surprised how much I ended up getting out of this story. Seems like Diamant’s other fiction deserves a second try. Women like Addie who were contemporaries of my grandmothers paved the way for us today. Sure my grandmothers likely wanted marriage and family, but they did more. My maternal grandmother born in 1915 became a nurse in the 30s and my paternal grandmother ran a shop at the market with her sister and later own helped my grandfather run a vineyard. These were modern women, early modern granted, but modern enough to step out of the ghetto to do what needed to be done.

Not a review!

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Leaving the tent

My version of the book

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.

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