I was slightly too young to swoon over the iconic mini-series “The Thorn Birds” in the early 1980’s (though my babysitters weren’t). So imagine my excitement, tinged with an eye roll or five, when I saw that “The Red Tent,” based on Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel, would be broadcast over two nights (two nights!) in December. In spite of more inaccuracies than the rabbi in me could count, Lifetime Television for Women (coincidence? methinks not!) did manage to present the movie around the time the Torah portion containing Dinah’s story is read. “The Bible Gave Her One Line” the trailer intoned dramatically. Fine. They had me at one line. With a December 2nd article from the Forward titled “159 Thoughts We Had While Watching ‘The Red Tent’ (We Watched It So You Don’t Have To)” beside me, and my husband happily watching the Packers game in the other room, I settled on the couch and prepared for Part One, also known as “A Blissful Two Hours Of Mockery.”
And I found I couldn’t look away.
To assuage said embarrassment, and mostly thwarted mockery, I’m playing with a few theories as to why.
Good production values. I want to say that the Torah is just as visually arresting, and sometimes it is. But sometimes sweeping desert vistas, ominous drum beats, what sounds like the almost constant accompaniment of the sitar, and veils softly billowing in the wind help things along.
Even better hair. Whether growing up under the watchful eyes and shaped by the hyper-articulate wisdom of her mothers, lighting up a darkened palace with her first sexual awakening, losing more than anyone has a right to, suffering terribly, then flourishing in ways she never predicted, Dinah’s curls were unfailingly gorgeous.
Genuinely moving theological soundbites. I still can’t put my finger on what lifted reflections like “God’s will doesn’t come through words – it’s in what we become,” and “To mourn is respectful; to remember is holy” out of the realm of florid nonsense. Could it be that when you peel away the mannered accents on the actors’ part, and the tendency towards sarcasm on mine, these insights are more or less true? The lump in my throat said yes.
To round out all the possibilities, at a pre-Chanukah gathering last night, I asked a member of our congregation’s Sisterhood what had moved her about “The Red Tent.” She told me it had to do with Dinah’s ability to take what the women in her life had taught her and to use it to survive what the rest of her life brought. Well… right, I thought. If we’re very lucky, that’s something we all do with the memories of those who matter to us most.
I read The Red Tent in 1999, just months after my mother died, during my first year at HUC in Jerusalem. It was neither my favorite nor my least favorite piece of literature. But this congregant’s words struck a chord. I realized that this story – however hyperbolic — is bound up with a specific loss in my life and with the person, and the rabbi, I have since become. That’s what our best stories do. They give our worlds back to us. We bind ourselves to them. And they point us towards something new.
By the way, the Packers won. And against all odds, “The Red Tent” as a mini-series did too. I’m filing it under “oddly compelling.” And then I’ll be putting the word out to see if anyone has a used, double VHS tape of “The Thorn Birds.”
Rebecca Gutterman is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, CA.