Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Meeting Anita Diamant

Who is Anita Diamant? She is a respected writer on contemporary Jewish living, and the author of The Red Tent, a NY Times bestselling novel about Dinah, the little-known daughter of Jacob, and the sister of Joseph in the Old Testament. Moreover, she created a new genre of literary fiction, a wave of biblical literature that remembers the voices of forgotten women. Invisible women, silenced women, women of seemingly "little consequence." She affirms the message: as women, we all have consequence. Each and every one of us. We all have stories, and other women want to hear those stories.

As you can tell, I am a huge fan. I read The Red Tent when it was first published in 1997, back when I was in college. Two years later, I bought a secondhand copy of the first paperback edition with my newly depleted college graduate's budget. (Being Asian, we typically don't buy books when we can borrow them from the library. But I had to have this one.) I did not know then how much this story would inspire me, but the journey of Dinah, her courage and authenticity, stayed with me as I traversed the Middle East: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, as well as ancient cities like Ephesus, Cappadocia, and Corinth. When I struggled in my spiritual journey and began writing the tale of Simon (St.) Peter's wife, Anita's book became a bedside reference that continually drew me into the lush, vibrant Old Testament world and gave me a path to a beautiful and visceral New Testament world of my own imagining.

I was excited. And nervous. I boarded the subway at the MBTA red line Braintree station at promptly 5pm, and arrived at Coolidge Corner at around 6:15pm. I was forty-five minutes early to her event at Brookline Booksmith, and I realized I had not eaten dinner yet. Frantically, I paced the neighborhood looking for food, but I could not find anything that suited my appetite. So I rushed back at 6:45pm hungry.

There she was, looking elegant in a black polka-dot sundress and matching sweater. She even brought a wedding cake for the occasion, since she was promoting her latest, The Jewish Wedding Now. (Note to self, cure for the stomach rumbling.)

I gingerly approached Anita and introduced myself, and she was gracious enough to sign my worn, dog-eared, twenty-year-old copy of The Red Tent. Then I presented her with a copy of my novel and signed it, citing her as one of the major inspirations. In between, we chatted and I mentioned we shared the same initial literary agent, Carolyn Jenks, but the traditional publishing route did not work out for me, so I self-published and went on my own. Anita did not seem to disapprove, and she asked me what I was doing to promote it. Was I talking to churches? Good, she nodded, and I realized it was probably a more effective venue than I gave it credit for. We took photos together, and then I sat down in the second row of the audience.

The New Jewish Wedding was actually Anita's first book, which she wrote in 1985 because she needed a similar guide for when she got married and could not find one. It has been revised and updated twice, every 16 years to be exact (once in 2001 and again in 2017). Concepts of huppah, mikvah, and klezmer were all new or vaguely familiar to me, but I was intrigued by the richness and vitality of the Jewish wedding traditions. She spoke about how the times have changed, and how the Jewish community has become much more open and inclusive in the last 32 years. What struck a cord with me, even in my ignorance of this heritage, was how the authenticity of the Jewish identity seemed to be preserved in the evolution of the traditions. And how welcoming it seemed, even to this South Vietnamese-American Catholic.

So I bought a copy of that book, partly for my Jewish friend who had very little to do with most things Jewish but seemed to be searching nonetheless with two young daughters who may want to know these traditions someday. The other part was that I was impressed by traditions I had never even thought about it, and wanted to peruse the book at leisure before giving it away to my friend.

Her presentation ended after maybe twenty minutes, and Anita began signing books and chatting with fans. I had a piece of cake, adorably adorned with wedding photos, and broke my sugar-free fast, but to be fair, it was really good cake. Then she began congregating with family and friends, and I realized that Brookline was now her neighborhood, and this was a community gathering of folks she knew well. Still I lingered. I didn't know what I was waiting for, but it was such a memorable moment for me that I wanted to prolong it somehow.

When I went to say goodbye, Anita said to me, "I am so glad the book meant so much to you. But I need you to tone it down. I am just me." I was suddenly embarrassed. Even then, I was grateful for her humility. "Other authors who are not as accomplished as you are not so down to earth," I said. She smiled. "Success after forty...you don't expect it."

I walked (well, walked for few blocks and rode the MBTA red line) home with a profound lesson. Anita Diamant reminded me of the intrinsic value of being human, and that we are all "just us." No matter how successful, wealthy, famous someone may become, they are still just a human being who can connect to me as another human being. We are all equals and we are all "just us."

Remember your place.

It was a fundamental lesson in self-respect.

One I am not apt to forget.

Thank you, Anita.

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