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What the Lifetime Adaptation of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent Missed

Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about turning King David into a villain and Lot's wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I began writing the stories that make up my collection, After Abel and Other Stories, I wasn’t thinking about other fiction writers who had reimagined biblical tales. I had been steeped in biblical scholarship for so many years that my mind was filled with it as I sat down to write. Within months, though, word started leaking about a miniseries based on Anita Diamant’s beloved novel, The Red Tent. That was soon followed by advertisements, and then, of course, the movie itself.

I read the novel—about Jacob, his four wives, and in the central role, his daughter, Dinah—when it first came out but hadn’t revisited it since. The arrival of the film adaptation seemed perfect, almost like a sign that my timing was right—that I was responding to something larger happening in the realm of stories about the Bible. It also gave me a chance to reread the book and see how the people at the Lifetime channel had adapted it and to reflect on why these kinds of stories still speak to us and why they remain important.

Back in 1997, some readers were scandalized by what they saw as the book’s impiety and its frank sexual depictions, but over the years, The Red Tent has lost its shock value. Still, I was shocked by how little about The Red Tent the miniseries left intact and what the filmmakers chose to keep.

Diamant’s book attempted to give more fullness to the experience of women than the Torah affords them. What drew readers by the millions is how she filled in the lives of Rachel, Leah, Dinah, and the other women with whom they live and die. She gave each woman a distinct personality: Leah became forceful and competent; Rachel is beautiful (as in the Torah itself) but a bit self-involved; and Dinah emerges as a watchful younger child in a large family, a beloved daughter who is nonetheless expected to follow the rules of her mother’s home. Notably, the women practice their older pagan-inspired rites alongside Jacob’s belief in his father’s God. In what is perhaps the most important point made by the novel, these belief systems peacefully coexist.

The problem with the Lifetime version is how the novel’s nuance is flattened.

Dinah is somewhat passive in the novel, which allows her to be the reader’s stand-in, watching everything unfold around her. But in what passes for a strong female character in so many movies, she becomes a brash heroine in the miniseries.

Lifetime’s Rachel remains moony-eyed from start to finish, filling Dinah’s head with decidedly modern notions of romance, especially that tired trope of all-encompassing love at first sight. And, not for nothing, the women’s syncretistic belief system is now set against Jacob’s rigid, even angry, monotheism. All that’s left of Diamant’s original is the title and cast of characters.

The upshot is that we’re given a story we’ve seen so many times before, one in which there is only one plotline for women to follow—that of romantic love. Despite the bloody ending to Dinah’s romance, she is set on the same path as every other boyfriend-seeking heroine of recent rom-coms.

It’s been seventeen years since The Red Tent was published. In that time, Diamant’s vision doesn’t raise eyebrows anymore. It has become naturalized and accepted. It’s too bad that Lifetime scrapped it, because she managed to give the story, its female characters, and family life a sense of complexity that it was missing before and that has been stripped away again.

Female characters and experience can be reduced in any number of ways: Dinah becomes smugly virtuous and headstrong, which may be hackneyed, but at least has some redeeming value. But in truth, she’s one-dimensional, her stubbornness put to use only to snag the heart of a prince.

The search for romantic love is a universal theme in stories of all sorts—novels, movies, songs. It’s powerful. We do crave love. Experiencing love is rewarding. But women’s lives are so much richer—and sadder, harder, more complicated, or conflicted—than many of the most enduring and popular narratives would have us believe. We needed The Red Tent seventeen years ago. We still need to give women the texture and variety that the stories of their lives deserve.

Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more atmichallemberger.com.

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How Can You Make King David into a Villain?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about Lot's wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As the publication date of my book grew closer, I began to imagine some of the questions that readers might ask me. Chief among them was: how can you make King David into a villain?

King David is a great hero in the Bible. I could even argue that he is the great biblical hero. He unifies Israel and Judah once and for all to create the nation. He is the progenitor of all the kings of Judah and the “eternal House of David.” God loves him. These are not the attributes of a villain.

It’s true that the book of 1 Samuel, which tells his story, doesn’t paint him as perfect. There’s that unpleasantness with Uriah, who has to be gotten rid of so that David can marry his wife, Batsheva. David doesn’t step in when his son, Amnon, rapes his daughter (and Amnon’s half-sister), Tamar. He doesn’t act like a conquering hero when his son, Absalom, tries to wrest the crown from his head. The only thing that saves David in that case is Absalom’s vanity and long, luscious hair.

But David remains a hero. He’s still the warrior who took down Goliath. He’s still the talented musician, the Psalmist. For religious Jews, David is tied up with the hope for a messianic future. Prayer services still talk about “restoring the fallen Booth of David,” meaning, a religious monarchy in the land of Israel under the leadership of the messiah, who will come from David’s lineage.

So how could I paint him as a villain?

Two clichés come to mind, both of which are pertinent here: “there are two sides to every story,” and “history is written by the victors.” The story of the nation of Israel as we have it is a record of the victorious House of David. It’s the story told from David’s point of view. But there’s another story there—of his struggles with Saul—and it tells another tale.

Every detail about David that I included in my story, “Saul’s Daughter,” comes straight from the biblical text. In addition to being a great warrior, musician, and follower of God, David also ran to Moab—Israel’s historic enemy—to hide from Saul. He sold the services of his growing army as mercenaries and fought for Achish, king of Gath, against his own people. Achish trusted David, because, as he says, “he has aroused the wrath of his own people Israel.”

What these details point to is the complicated way in which David finally reaches the throne. To put it simply, he was a populist leader who attracted the poor and disenfranchised to his cause, but the wealthier classes—the landowners and professional warriors, for example—didn’t fall in line. They stayed loyal to Saul. That was the reality I stepped into when I wrote Michel’s story.

She, after all, was Saul’s daughter. She was married to David, but he ran out into the night without a glance back at her. And then she married Palti, one of Saul’s supporters. The question for me wasn’t: how do I tell this story and make David the hero? It was: given the political realities of their lives, how would these people—his abandoned wife and her second husband—feel about David? To put it plainly, they would despise him.

What we tend to forget when we read the Bible is that it tells more than religious or legal stories. In 1-2 Samuel, we get glimpses of a political environment every bit as complex as our own.

In a civil war, one side inevitably loses. Michel’s reasons for hating David are easy to understand: He fights against and defeats her father, which she might view as treason, especially after he deserted her. Even worse, when she finally gets comfortable in a new life, he pulls her back, forces her to stand by his side while the man who loves her is left crying by the side of the road as she is led away. She is, by any definition, one of history’s losers.

Interesting things happen when we tell the losers’ stories. David is a national hero, but to some of his contemporaries, he would, indeed, be the villain.

Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more atmichallemberger.com.

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Looking Back at Lot's Wife

Monday, April 20, 2015 | Permalink

Michal Lemberger is the author of the book After Abel and Other Stories. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Lot’s Wife. She’s a fascinating character. So many theologians, poets, writers, and artists have been drawn to this mysterious figure. What does it mean to turn back? Why was she turned into a pillar of salt? Was the pull of home just too powerful to resist a last glance? Did she show too much attachment to the past? Was she punished for giving into a voyeuristic urge to see others suffer?

I thought about her for decades, beginning in Jewish Day School, then in college, where I studied English and Religion, and into graduate school, when I wrote a dissertation about how twentieth-century American poets interpreted the first three chapters of Genesis. I wanted to include her, but Lot’s wife didn’t fit. I guess she had lodged herself into my mind and stayed there, though, waiting patiently for the moment to make her presence felt again. And when she did, I realized that it wasn’t the woman-as-pillar-of-salt that drew me to her. It was what came before. If all we focus on is what happens to her at the end, we lose sight of the life she may have lived up until her dramatic, terrible transformation.

Who was she? What was her name? We could ask these questions about so many of the women who walk through the Bible’s pages. Many of them aren’t even named, because too often a woman’s presence in a story is important or worth noting only because of her connection to a man. Her husband, her father, her brother may each be a main player, but she usually stays in the background.

We are all the heroes of the stories of our own lives, but the women of the Bible aren’t given the chance to play those roles. (That’s even true of some of the women—like Yael or Hagar—who do get to play active roles; their stories often advance the interests of others.) The questions that my book, After Abel, attempts to answer are: what are their stories? How would they think? What would they say if we gave them a chance to speak? What would be important to them—would it be the same as what the men value? Or would there be a shadow world, one that exists next to the officially sanctioned account, in which the details of inheritance or war don’t preoccupy their minds, but would instead be filled with the smell of food, the feel of a newborn’s skin, and the close ties of family and friendship that hold communities together?

It all started with Lot’s Wife, who lived a whole, nameless life before turning into a pillar of salt.

Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more at michallemberger.com.

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