Anita Diamant’s sister-speak
NEWTON — This year marks the 10th anniversary of Mayyim Hay-yim, the ritual bath founded in Newton by the novelist Anita Diamant. She raised the backing for the traditional mikveh in the wake of the phenomenal success of her debut novel, “The Red Tent.”
In Jewish custom, immersion in the “living waters” of the mikveh is one way to solemnize life’s turning points: marriage, religious conversion, the death of a loved one. It’s also an Orthodox requirement for women of childbearing age.
It’s been a big year for Diamant, whose fifth novel, “The Boston Girl,” will be published Tuesday. On Sunday and Monday, the Lifetime channel will premiere its two-part miniseries based on “The Red Tent.” For the author, the Hollywood adaptation — it stars Minnie Driver, Debra Winger, and newcomer Rebecca Ferguson — has been an immersion of an altogether different sort.
While in New York recently, Diamant marveled at the city buses wrapped in huge ads for the miniseries, which Lifetime has been promoting heavily.
“It was trippy,” she recalled this week at her home in Newtonville. “It doesn’t feel like mine, to be perfectly honest.”
And that’s just fine with her. Unlike so many of her fellow novelists, Diamant has excused herself from the ritual griping that typically attends page-to-screen adaptations.
“I was taken to task for not being faithful to the Bible,” she pointed out. “I can’t complain about them not being faithful to my book.”
In “The Red Tent,” she imagined a fuller life for Dinah, daughter of Jacob, whose relationship with the prince Schechem led to a brutal massacre carried out on the royal family by two of her brothers. The “red tent” is the traditional retreat for menstruating women, and a symbol of their mutual love and support in a world dominated by men.
In the years since the book’s belated rise to the bestseller lists, two years after its 1997 debut, “The Red Tent” has sold about 3 million copies. (“That’s when movies get made,” Diamant said.)
“The themes of family, love, community, tradition, and sisterhood transcend time and are as relevant today as in biblical times,” Lifetime’s Nancy Bennett, an executive producer on the show, said in an e-mail. “Keeping people alive by telling their stories is truly the message.”
Though Diamant’s tale is beloved by women, she still receives letters and e-mails from many men — each of whom, she noted, tends to think he’s her only male reader.
Having given voice to one of the Bible’s silent women, she believes both genders can appreciate the perspective: “We’ve been reading it from men’s point of view for thousands of years.”
Revisiting “The Red Tent” led to the realization that her new novel, “The Boston Girl,” is a companion of sorts, Diamant said. Both books tell the stories of strong, independent women “who want to be remembered.”
Addie Baum is 85, the “Boston Girl”recounting for her granddaughter how she came of age in the North End in an era when modern women were learning what it meant to be feminists, taking jobs that were previously unavailable to them, and socializing in ways that sometimes scandalized their Old World parents.
“She tries to find meaningful work and a satisfying partner in love. It’s not a straight line,” Diamant explained.
Resilience, she said, is a recurring theme in her books. So is the idea that women are especially good at developing support systems for one another.
“None of these characters are loners,” she said. “They recruit help.”
Before her breakthrough as a novelist, Diamant, 63, spent years as a journalist, contributing to The Boston Globe and many other publications. In the early 1980s she worked for the Boston Phoenix. Starting out as an assistant to the editor, she kept a sign on her desk that claimed she fielded “phone calls from the dead.”
“We got some weird calls,” she said with a laugh.
Working at the alternative weekly was like her “grad school,” she recalled. “It was on-the-job training. There was a big news hole to fill. You could write as many inches as you wanted. We had to keep the ads from falling in on each other.”
Around that time, as she prepared to get married, Diamant asked her rabbi for reading recommendations. The wedding advice she was aware of “really had nothing to do with me,” she recalled — “a liberal, feminist Jew marrying someone who was Jewish by choice.”
Her rabbi’s suggestion that she write the book she wanted to read led to her long-running sideline writing Jewish-themed how-to books, from “The New Jewish Wedding” (1985) to “How to Be a Jewish Parent” (2000).
“The Red Tent” was shot this past summer in Morocco. Diamant had no interest in leaving the comfort of home to see the set.
“I heard it was hot and sandy,” she said.
The historic setting of her Bible story called for flowing robes and crude dwellings. Viewers may recognize actor Iain Glen, who plays the patriarch Jacob, from another antiquity, “Game of Thrones,” in which he plays Jorah Mormont.
Diamant is aware of the connection, though she hasn’t watched “Game of Thrones.”
“Too bloody,” she said.