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Well, I went to the water one day to pray.
As a Jewish woman who feels deeply rooted in her African- and Native-American family’s heritage, the famous Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” holds multiple and profound layers of visceral meaning for me. It was a central component of an alternative Rosh Hashanah ritual I created and observed in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park a couple years ago. And a couple years before that, “Wade in the Water” was bittersweetly at the heart of a soft-spoken, yet powerful conversation between Alana, a dear friend of mine from college, her Hungarian-Jewish grandmother and me in her grandmother’s home in Mayen, Germany.
The classic spiritual was originally among a number of songs used as vocal instructions sung in the cotton fields to help fugitive slaves navigate the treacherous, but ultimately liberating path of the Underground Railroad.
One night during a five-day layover in Germany in 2009, Alana shared with me that the “Wade in the Water” segment of Alvin Ailey’s famed “Revelations” dance sequence was once playing on her grandmother’s television. She explained to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, how enslaved African-Americans used the song to escape from slavery. After a few moments of silence, her grandmother began crying as she asked Alana, in German, “Why didn’t we think to do that?” With Alana’s permission, I gently broached the subject with her bubbe a couple days later. What ensued was one of the most meaningful conversations of my life.
Black people, my people, literally found their way to freedom through song. Similar to making aliyah or immersing oneself in the mikveh, song is a spiritual vehicle that guides and elevates both individuals and communities to higher ground. The Jewish people, also my people, are well-versed in spiritual elevation, as well as immersion. It is embedded in the mundane to mystical elements of our religion.
One of the nicest ways that spiritual immersion is still alive and thriving in the Boston area is found at Mayyim Hayyim. Now in its 10th year of existence, the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh and Paula Brody & Family Education Center is a community mikveh that has stayed true to its mission of reclaiming and reinventing one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals—immersion in the mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim has brought this sacred tradition to life by encouraging its traditional, as well as creative contemporary spiritual use. Each year the center teaches thousands of interested visitors. And on a daily basis, it models how to make the mikveh a sacred space that is open and accessible to all Jews and those who are becoming Jews. This was the vision of Mayyim Hayyim founder and acclaimed author Anita Diamant.
As Mayyim Hayyim’s founding executive director Aliza Kline once stated, “The explicit mission of Mayyim Hayyim is to provide a space that is warm and welcoming of the broadest sense of the Jewish community.” In a world where not enough Jewish communal spaces fully embrace interfaith families, let alone the rest of the Jewish community’s expansive diversity, the Newton-based non-profit stands in a distinctive category of its own. It has become a destination for interfaith families and Jews across the spectrum of observance and affiliation. Mayyim Hayyim actively welcomes interfaith, multiracial and LGBTQ members and families.
“Wade in the Water,” along with many other songs and poetry from Jewish and other spiritual traditions are resources Mayyim Hayyim has available for visitors of their mikvehs to use as they feel inspired.
Whether you are undergoing conversion, a life cycle event or a personal journey of healing or transformation, I recommend you schedule a visit to Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Mikveh.
If you haven’t read Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel, The Red Tent, here is some extra incentive. Lifetime is launching what they call an “epic movie event” on December 7, starring Rebecca Ferguson, Minnie Driver, Morena Baccarin and Debra Winger based on the book. Even if it doesn’t go on your summer reading list, here are five fun facts that will make watching it even more fun. Did you know that:
1) The book was a sleeper until Diamant got the idea to send doomed-to-be-shredded copies of the novel to rabbis who then used it in their teachings and made it a worldwide phenomenon?
2) Diamant used the first chapters of the book of Genesis as a launching pad for her creativity, based in the silence of the character of Dina who is said to have been raped in Genesis, Ch. 34?
3) Goddess worship in the novel is based in scholarship of the biblical period? In fact, even the Torah itself tells us of the matriarch, Rachel, taking off with the household idols.
4) The Red Tent purposely gets the birth order of the tribes wrong? The author plays throughout the novel with the ideas of storytelling and authorship, maintaining that women were absent from the construction of the Torah and, therefore, left out of the telling of our history.
5) Countless midwifery communities have named themselves, The Red Tent, after the novel?
And now a bit of explanation.
The Rent Tent was published in 1997 with limited success, and within a few years went from being unheard of to a bestseller. What turned it into a book group phenomenon? Anita Diamant was well-known long before the novel for those of us who help people create Jewish life-cycle rituals. She wrote several how-to Jewish books that are the first ones I recommend when someone is planning a Jewish wedding, baby naming or thinking about conversion (The New Jewish Wedding Book, The New Jewish Baby Book). But then Diamant wrote her first novel, The Red Tent, an imaginative telling of the life of the matriarchs in the book of Genesis. When the book wasn’t finding great success, the author got an idea. She sent copies of the book to Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, many of whom knew her earlier work well, and later to women ministers and independent booksellers. Leaders found that the book opened up a much needed conversation about women in our texts and historical silence. Before long, no book group was without its Red Tent month. It became a bestseller.
You don’t have to know the story of Genesis to appreciate the book. But many readers have found that they want to crack open a Torah for the first time in eons to distinguish what is actually written in the Torah about the matriarchs of Genesis and what is Diamant’s creative retelling. She jumps off from the Genesis stories, only using them as a frame. But even the pieces she fabricated are largely based in research. Not only did she include details that come from traditional Jewish sources like the Midrash (see below), she based much of her story in research about the lives of women in the biblical period. She studied daily life in the region at that time, including ancient goddess worship, birthing rituals and midwifery, medicine and funeral practices.
The worship of gods and goddesses, for example, is rampant in her story which reflects what scholars know about near Eastern practice and is hinted at in the book of Genesis and the prophetic writings of the Torah. The matriarch, Sarah, is referred to as a priestess in The Red Tent, another gleaning from early feminist biblical scholarship. She gives names to women who are left unnamed in the Torah. She imagines that Dinah was following a tradition of being a midwife when the events of Genesis 34 unfold.
She once said of her novel, “Dinah is one of the silent women of the Bible. Her silence intrigued me…gave me a window. Where there was silence, I created three-hundred pages.” [Cynthia Dettelbach, “Entering The Red Tent With Anita Diamant.” The Cleveland Jewish News 74, no. 2(1999): 4] In her version, women tell their own stories and, at times, are frustrated at hearing them mis-told by the men in the family. She goes as far as to insinuate that the “writers” of the biblical tales made mistakes because women’s voices were not involved in the construction or transmission of the Torah.
Within Jewish circles, there has been some controversy stirred by the novel about who is “allowed” to interpret and reinterpret Jewish texts. Diamant says she wrote a work of historical fiction, not midrash (a creative elaboration of the Torah, filling in the gaps in the Torah narratives), but still some argued that her work pretends to fit into that textual tradition dating back to the Rabbis of the 2nd-6th centuries BCE. Her response to one such opponent was that, “It is my birthright. My audacity is the Jewish approach to Scripture…Every word of Torah has seven hundred faces of God and six hundred meanings. There is no one correct interpretation of Scripture as Jews have made up stories…for centuries”. [Joan Gross, “Jacob’s Daughter Hits the Bigtime in 2001.” The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California 105, no. 13 (2001): 40.]