Barren Bitches Book Brigade: The Red Tent

May 26, 2009

Barren Bitches Book Brigade Welcome to the Barren Bitches Book Brigade, featuring The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

I have a special place in my heart for Anita Diamant. She wrote The New Jewish Wedding, which I memorized practically word for word when planning my own wedding. Thanks to her book (and the rabbi) I singlehandedly planned my own Jewish wedding, without ever having attended one before. My husband had attended a few Jewish weddings, but he hadn’t been paying much attention and had little to contribute. Having attended a score of Jewish weddings since my own, I can say that mine was much more mindful and thought-out than all but one other that I have attended. My first-timer’s take combined with Diamant’s attention to each detail allowed me to bring a unique focus to elements of the Jewish wedding that usually get glossed over.

Diamant brought that same attention to detail to this novel. Usually-ignored adjectives and bits of verse from Genesis get expanded, elaborated, amplified. I enjoyed this book a lot, but it was hard to draw the line between “fact” and fiction. At many points I was unsure whether something was a fictionalization or whether I just didn’t remember it from the original story. And, of course, the female perspective and focus on menstruation, reproduction, loss, and mothering are a stark departure from the usual story.

“The sight of the baby in Bilhah’s arms, day after day, shattered Rachel’s confidence again. She was only the aunt, the bystander, the barren one.” Did you find the author sympathetic or disparaging of Rachel’s barren state? Did she convincingly relate the experience of being barren?

I found the author very sympathetic to Rachel, and her descriptions of Rachel’s mindset compelling, with one exception – there was a sense, via the other characters, that Rachel was too proud and infertility forced humility on her. She probably was too proud, between her beauty and Jacob’s favoritism toward her, but aren’t we all in our own way?

The family trees shown at the beginning of the book don’t include miscarriages, stillbirths, or children who died before weaning. Given the rate of infant mortality at the time, this was a logical method for “counting” children. Now that it’s much more rare (but still too common) to lose children both before and after birth, at what point do you think children should be added to the official family tree? At what point should they be added to the parents’ personal tally of children?

Just this weekend I was speaking to a family friend about family size. More than once she referred to the number of children in prior generations in her family with the caveat, “but they didn’t all live.” For example, “My great-grandmother had 12 children (they didn’t all live) and only 3 of them were girls.” I don’t know whether this included miscarriages and stillbirths or only children who died young, but it was interesting to hear these deaths remembered in this way – casually, but still part of the permanent record.
Personally I would count stillbirths and infant deaths in the official family tree, but not early miscarriages (as my own two miscarriages were).

Dinah is awaited and welcomed by all of Jacob’s wives. The one daughter, the one to carry all their stories, all their voices. In the context of the book it is a literary device that allows the author to tell us stories of Jacob’s wives from their own perspectives. But what does it speak of to you? In your own life, have you felt, as Dinah does, a carrier of living memory? Do you feel your own voice to be better protected in the age of the blog, or do you see an enduring need for connection across generations?

In some ways I do feel like a carrier of living memory, because I am good at listening and good at remembering. I can recount in great detail stories that older relatives have told me; others who were there with me at the time of the telling have no recollection of the stories whatsoever. But, even more, most people were not there at the time of the telling, because they do not have the patience or interest to sit and listen to the ramblings and reminiscences of an older generation.

My own voice may be protected in the blog age, but the earlier voices require retelling from person to person. Their stories are not mine to blog about, but they are mine to tell to individuals within the family — hopefully my own children soon.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Navigating the Land of If by Melissa Ford.


6 Responses to “Barren Bitches Book Brigade: The Red Tent”

  1. Lavender Luz Says:

    That’s a great point about Rachel and pride, that she somewhat deserved some bad luck to even out the score with Leah.

    And yes, you ARE a good listener. One of your many charms.

  2. Julia Says:

    Ok, so I actually participated in a somewhat smallish discussion with her, led by my rabbi no less (as in the rabbi asked her a bunch of questions and then opened the floor to the audience), on the occasion of the publication of the second edition of How to Raise a Jewish Child (formerly called something else). She was a very good speaker. That wasn’t the only time I heard her speak, but that was the most intimate setting, and one in which I got to pose a question or two, and even engage in discussion arising from those.

    About how proud Rachel was… I wasn’t really bothered by that because I don’t think it was anyone’s sentiment that Rachel had infertility because she had been proud. And proud may be the wrong word here anyway– she was a very pretty younger child, everyone’s favorite. Used to getting her way, maybe? Wouldn’t be entirely surprising, given her family structure. But anyway, life experiences, both good and bad, change us, maybe for the better and maybe for the worse. So to me, it’s ok that Rachel changed with infertility, and it’s even ok that one of the changes she experienced was becoming more humble. I mean she was what, 12, when Jacob came? Maaaaaybe 14 when she married him, then. What kind of humility can we expect from a 14 year old whose beauty is legendary in her own time? If anything, I think it speaks well of her that she had it in herself to change in that particular way, you know?

  3. Kristin Says:

    Great book review. I’m so glad you chimed in and like the point you made about Rachel and her pride.

  4. loribeth Says:

    Good point about Rachel. When we first meet her, she’s not the most sympathetic character — I think I used the word “flighty” in my review. Which is not to say she “deserved” what happened to her, of course — none of us do. But I’m sure there are people who think that way.

  5. theworms Says:

    Wow, I need to read this book.


  6. Mel Says:

    Oh, I thought this line was so important: “She probably was too proud, between her beauty and Jacob’s favoritism toward her, but aren’t we all in our own way?” I mean, the whole concept of “you get what you deserve” is so strange when life is so freakin’ random. This same idea of humbling incidents for proud behaviour was in the book I was reading today so it was interesting symmetry to my day to read it here too.

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