Spirit & Place interview: Anita Diamant


Anita Diamant is one of three participants — with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas Lynch — in the Spirit & Place Public Conversation, which will cap off 10 days of S&P events pertaining to the theme of the body. The free conversation is Sunday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth El-Zedeck.When Congregation Beth-El Zedeck Rabbi Sandy Sasso was recently in Boston, she and her friend Anita Diamant got to talking about how Diamant, an author of novels and non-fiction work largely pertaining to the Jewish experience, might make her way back to Indianapolis to speak again. Spirit & Place was just such an opportunity; after all, Diamant's four novels all discuss body issues, from The Red Tent (1997), the title of which refers to a tent where women during the Biblical era would sojourn while menstruating, to Good Harbor (2001), a contemporary work concerning a middle-aged woman's diagnosis with breast cancer.

Diamant's most recent novel, Day After Night, tells of four Jewish immigrants held in an internment camp in pre-Israel Palestine following WWII. She's the author of several guidebooks to Jewish life and culture, including volumes about Jewish weddings, Jewish funerals, how to raise a Jewish child and conversion to Judaism. Diamant is also the founder of Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh, or a bath used for ritual immersion.

NUVO: How does your work address Spirit & Place's theme?

Anita Diamant: I'll be talking about the body in my novels - all four of them. They focus on women's experience, women's friendship, women's relationship to their body and the way women's bodies are understood in different societies and different historical periods. I'll be reading briefly from my four novels and talking about the role of the body in the way women's lives unroll and the way we understand ourselves.

NUVO: In your first novel, The Red Tent - and several others - you have female characters that don't have access to the kind of Our Bodies, Ourselves feminist discourse.

Diamant: The one novel that is contemporary, Good Harbor, the characters do use that kind of . But throughout history, women have had to cope with what it means to live in a woman's body, to have the joys of that - the ability to give birth - and the vulnerabilities and dangers of that - which also includes childbirth, but also physical vulnerabilities, in terms of violence. But all of the books - and the three historical novels in particular - include episodes of violence that are specific to women and women's bodies. So they have to cope with that in one way or another. Whether or not they have access to the same kind of language as we have today, they still have to figure out where to put that in their histories and their minds - and what does that do to them as people if they can't talk about it? How do they share it they ever do, and if they don't, what does it mean?

NUVO: Soes your work have any kind of didactic, social justice message that maybe it would have been better if these women could talk about these things?

Diamant: Oh, Lord, I hope not. I hope it doesn't have a didactic or moralistic sense. I think the value that they all express is a kind of respect for and celebration of women's bodies wherever, whenever, whatever they go through … I think that readers really respond to that, and I've heard from readers who say that. Women feel affirmed, and men say that they've both learned something and have participated in that kind of affirmation. Oh - I'm starting to sound like Jack Handey!

NUVO: There's also an emphasis on the mind-body health at Spirit & Place, and I wonder how that might relate to the mikveh you founded?

Diamant: Well, actually, the mikveh is more in line with a discussion about the body and the spirit and health in the holistic, body-mind-spirit sense, in that all religious traditions use ritual around the body; and, actually, all of them use water. This is one of the oldest continuous Jewish rituals, which uses water to signify transformation, change and a new beginning. The mikveh, which I'm the founder and president of, is a reclamation of an ancient ritual in contemporary terms; we've democratized it and opened it up to the broadest definition of the Jewish community.

NUVO: Could you unpack those contemporary terms?

Diamant: Mikveh, for millennia now, since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, has been limited to use by married women on a monthly basis after their menstrual cycle. After mikveh, they are sexually available to their husbands. It becomes both a celebration of sexuality, but also a control of sexuality, women's sexuality, in particular. It has also been used as the last ritual step in conversion to Judaism for men and women and children; everybody would immerse, and that really speaks to the notion that you're enacting a choice and a change in your status, as you define it.

Contemporary uses of mikveh have opened it up in that there are many transitions in live that our tradition hasn't ritualized or hasn't acknowledged as requiring ritual. That includes the decision to become pregnant. If one is married or partnered and they now want to try to have a child, that changes your sexual relationship, right? So women go - and sometime men - to say, "OK, we're going to have a child, and this is one of the biggest decisions you can make in life." People have also traditionally gone before weddings, and at Mayyim Hayyim and other contemporary mikvehs, you can also go after divorce; just as you've changed your status from unmarried to married, which is a major change in your life, to recognize that transition from married to unmarried is something we offer people to do ... People have gone to the mikveh upon coming out as gay to their families. People have gone to the mikveh before they're ordained as rabbis or cantors. People have gone to the mikveh after they've become physicians.

So there's this notion that something big has happened in my life and I want to take this ritual moment to mark this transition. It's not just in your head; ours is an intellectual tradition, very verbal, but it's more about clearing your head. You take a shower before you get in the water - this is not about getting clean - and then you let the water touch every single part of you. You go under, and you're very quiet, and you may say your blessings a few times or your own prayers, and it embodies transition.

NUVO: I wonder how the mikveh experience compares to something without quite the same spiritual underpinnings, like yoga or mediation.

Diamant: Well, I am a yoga practicioner, and I love my yoga practice. It's all about intention, to be honest. If you walk into the mikveh without intention, or if you practice yoga as a sort of aerobic exercise, I don't think it necessary has the same spiritual dimension or impact as it would if you approached it with intention, if you went into looking for or open to the possibility of learning something thats not necessarily intellectual. There's one of those mind-body moments; you can do the best downward dog to crow and be a jerk when you get off the mat. But if you take that off the mat with you - if you take that kind of patience with yourself with your own body to other people - then that transcends the physical. With the mikveh, if you just go because someone's telling you to go or because you feel that you ought to and without, at least, an openness of heart and a curiosity, I think you're going to just feel like you took a bath, as opposed to having a moment.

NUVO: I read your Huffington Post essay concerning a balance between yoga and Judaism. There's an interesting line in there where you note that you don't want to combine those two practices because "anthropomorphic male images that tend to block my access to divine unity" might crop up during yoga if you were to attempt to practice a sort of Jewish yoga. Can you talk about that conflict?

Diamant: Oh, man, I'm not a theologian! I actually think, in the 20th and 21st centuries the notion of the male god in the cloud with the long white beard - that kind of embodied god - has become exposed as idolatrous. In Judaism, you're not supposed to depict God because you can't: God is God and God doesn't look like anything else. And, yet, the language is very much that of a male king God. So the language has fostered that image, whether or not people have fully understood it. But there's an awareness of the fact that that has to be understood as a metaphor and that other metaphors are just as powerful. God as a nurturing womb-like mother has been posited. It's shocking to hear that because it's so outside the realm of what we're used to; we're used to God the father, the protector, the rock. It's kind of a seismic shift in how we understand divinity, and it has a lot to do with the body and leaving the body behind, which is tough for us because we have bodies.


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