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Interview with Anita Diamant: Author of Good Harbor

I couldn't wait to see if the walls of her home were painted as brightly as the walls in her new novel.

Driving to interview Anita Diamant after reading her just-published Good Harbor, I wondered if I would encounter walls that were "summer aubergine," "honey," or "translucent pink"--shades that Joyce, one of the novel's two main characters, had painted the kitchen, living room, and study of her new summer house.

And I wondered what kind of home this woman, author of the phenomenally successful The Red Tent, lived in.

I turned a corner and there it was--a modest white wooden house, not at all where one would expect a New York Times best-selling author to reside.

Inside, as well, simplicity and restraint reigned. We sat and talked over a formica kitchen table, on two weathered, 50s-style kitchen chairs, while sipping herbal tea.

But sure enough, as I looked around I noticed that the walls of the two-toned kitchen were light beige and--aubergine. Perhaps not "summer aubergine," but a more serene shade of eggplant.

Diamant, while energetic, exudes a sense of calm. Unpretentious, grounded, and thoughtful are the words that come to mind. She spoke easily and reflectively about her life, her new book, her writing style, and her perspective as the wife of a Jew-by-choice.

How did Diamant get started as a writer? Her career evolved, after a few false starts. While growing up in Denver, a child of Holocaust survivors, her first career choice was to be an actress. But by the time she graduated from college (Washington University in St. Louis, where she transferred after starting out at the University of Colorado), she wanted to be an English professor.

While attending graduate school (at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she got a Masters in American Studies), she decided to become a poet, which may explain the precise use of language and powerful metaphors found in her novels.

When she realized that making a living as a poet would be too difficult, she turned to journalism. Her first job was, surprisingly, as a sports writer, and her first published poem was... about basketball, for In These Times, a national Democratic Socialist paper based in Chicago. This led to a position at Equal Times, an alternative women's weekly in Boston. She then moved to the Boston Phoenix, taking the unglamorous position of assistant to the editor. But this initially low-level job, she says, became her real graduate school education, where she learned her craft.

Diamant strongly believes in apprenticeship, and has this advice for young adults: "Don't worry, don't feel you have to know immediately what you are going to do with your life. Relax and try to do what makes you happy. Work takes up so much of your life. If you hate it, it will spill over into your personal life and affect that, too. Sometimes, it is worth it to take jobs that are just jobs--you never know where they will lead."

From her largely secretarial position at the Phoenix, she began to freelance, and moved on to writing features and a regular column. From there, she advanced steadily, becoming a contributing editor at the now-defunct New England Monthly, a senior staff writer at Boston Magazine, a Sunday columnist for The Boston Globe, a contributing editor and columnist at Parenting Magazine, a commentator for WBUR and NPR, and a weekly columnist for JewishFamily.com.

Her columns, she said, were "a gift," a stimulus to look closely at her own life and the lives of others. And these observations later became material for her novels.

It was while writing an article on Jewish renewal for the Boston Phoenix that she met Lawrence Kushner, who became her rabbi. Kushner converted Diamant's fiance Jim--now her husband--and it was during Jim's process of learning about Judaism that Diamant's renewed interest in her religion emerged. This renewal led her to write several non-fiction Jewish books, each linked in some way with her own personal experience: Living a Jewish Life; The New Jewish Baby Book; Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism; Saying Kaddish: How to Mourn as a Jew; How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life; and the New Jewish Wedding-Revised and Updated.

When she turned forty, Diamant decided to turn her hand to writing fiction and produced a historical novel loosely based on one small section of the Bible that mentions Dinah. And, as a woman who "couldn't live without her friends," she wove in themes about the complexities of female friendship and familial ties back then, re-imagining the tribal and Egyptian cultures, and creating The Red Tent.

Her new novel, Good Harbor, reflects her experience as a wife and mother (she has a sixteen-year-old daughter), a member of her secular community, and a Jewish woman with deep connections to her synagogue and rabbi. The novel is about the friendship between two women--Joyce, who was born Jewish, and Kathleen, a Jew-by-choice--who meet in a synagogue in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Through their friendship, she addresses important issues in contemporary Jewish life such as Jewish renewal, differences in observance levels within families, relationships with non-Jewish family members (Diamant's own mother-in-law is an evangelical Christian who supports her son's discovery of a spiritual home in Judaism), and preserving an authentic Jewish identity while respecting the dominant Christian culture.

In the novel, Joyce and her husband, both born Jewish, call themselves lox-and-bagel Jews. They light a menorah for Hanukkah and attend a seder for Passover, but that is the extent of their Jewish observance. They attended synagogue the night Joyce met Kathleen because it happened to be the anniversary of Joyce's father's death.

Kathleen, born Catholic, is more observant than Joyce. She enjoys lighting candles on Shabbat, an act that evokes the votive candles of her childhood. It is Kathleen, not her husband Buddy, who wishes to maintain a connection with the synagogue. Buddy feels more spiritual while looking at the ocean than at a religious service.

Kathleen's sister Pat was a nun who accepted and respected Kathleen's choice to convert and marry a Jewish husband. Despite their different lifestyles, they remained quite close until Pat died of breast cancer. Now that Kathleen herself has been diagnosed with the disease, she wonders if she will die the way her sister did.

When Kathleen and Buddy learn that their older son Hal has rediscovered Judaism, decided to keep kosher, and wants to attend weekly Torah study sessions, Buddy worries that Hal is becoming a religious fanatic. Their younger son, Jack, a chef, feels disappointed when Hal won't eat his (non-kosher) marinated calamari. Only Kathleen is supportive.

Interestingly, Hal's rediscovery of Judaism came about when his roommate Josh fell in love with Sarah, a non-Jewish woman. Josh and Sarah took an Introduction to Judaism class together and liked what they found. They, in turn, passed their enthusiasm on to Hal, who discovered that Judaism filled a void in his life, which had begun to feel arid. When Hal attends services at his parents' synagogue, he encounters a young female rabbi who has reinvigorated the service and the community.

Diamant feels sympathy for the Jewish alarm over intermarriage, although she disagrees with the despair she often hears. Jews, she says, are "a tiny minority continuing to struggle for their existence." For many Jews, "intermarriage seems like a defection from an embattled group, posing a sense of loss to the whole community." And yet, she believes that intermarriage can revitalize the community--as it does in Good Harbor.

Diamant's newest project is an historical novel set in the 18th century. Not a writer who plots her novel before she writes it, she discovers her characters and themes as she writes.

Does she miss her characters after she finishes a book? Diamant says they are like friends she hasn't seen in a while.

And after she finished Good Harbor, Diamant bought a summer house--not far from Gloucester.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.

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