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Best-selling Author Devotes Energy to Unexpected Project — a Mikvah

December 25, 2001
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With her novel “The Red Tent” in its 44th week on the New York Times bestseller list, one might expect Anita Diamant to be basking in the glow of literary and financial success.

Instead, the 50-year-old Boston author is using much of her newfound clout to build a mikvah, or ritual bath in the Boston area.

Called Mayyim Hayyim, Hebrew for “living waters,” the $3 million mikvah is scheduled to break ground this summer and to open in 2003. Half the money will go for the building, the other half to endow programming.

The pluralistic mikvah — which will include not just baths but an educational center and reception room — is part of what Diamant calls a “mikvah boom” among liberal Jews.

Until recently, mikva’ot were used primarily by Orthodox Jewish women, who are required to avoid sexual contact with their husbands while they are menstruating, and end the period of separation by going to the mikvah.

And mikva’ot have had negative associations for liberal Jews. Feminists in particular cringed at the term for the monthly mikvah ritual –taharat ha’mishpachah, or family purity — which they felt implied that menstruating women were unclean.

But as mikvah immersion becomes a standard part of Reform conversions, growing numbers of Jews adopt or convert non-Jewish children, and new healing rituals are developed that use the mikvah for healing from rape and miscarriages, the baths are gaining new attention and acceptance.

“We’re living in a time when, for the most part, liberal Jews are less defensive about old practices and are willing to re-examine, rethink and reclaim,” Diamant says.

In the past decade, at least 10 Conservative synagogues and several Reform temples in North America have built mikva’ot.

Sensing the change, some Orthodox groups — like Chabad Lubavitch — have started promoting monthly mikvah use more actively to non-Orthodox Jewish women.

It is perhaps not surprising that Diamant, who has introduced a whole array of Jewish traditions to readers and whose best-seller chronicles the traditions and rituals of biblical women, would take the lead promoting a ritual site associated with women.

“The Red Tent,” which is narrated from the perspective of the Biblical character Dinah, was described by one reviewer as “what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women.”

It became a sleeper success, popular with many book clubs. It also has been optioned for a movie.

Until “The Red Tent,” Diamant had been known primarily as a journalist and as author of “The New Jewish Wedding,” “The New Jewish Baby Book” and other books on tradition and ritual.

But Diamant says her passion for the mikvah project had less to do with her books than with her experiences accompanying prospective converts to the mikvah.

Her first encounter with a mikvah was almost 20 years ago, when her future husband, Jim Ball, converted.

While her husband’s immersion experience was powerful and “life transforming,” Diamant has often found the mikvah lacking, particularly as a way of welcoming someone into a new Jewish life.

“There’s nowhere to celebrate, nowhere for family members to stand,” she says. “I didn’t want to give anyone else flowers in the parking lot — I felt we should be able to do better.”

Most mikva’ot have limited hours available for conversions and alternative rituals. Since they usually are run by the Orthodox community, they sometimes can feel intimidating to liberal Jews, Diamant says.

Diamant hopes Boston’s new mikvah inspires new rituals and uses.

“We won’t know how it will get used until we build it and people feel ownership,” she says. “There will be new music composed, new brachot, new art, new liturgy and new rituals.”

Diamant is president of Mayyim Hayyim, which has the support of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts — an interdenominational umbrella group — and several local Jewish agencies.

So far, approximately $100,000 has been raised.

Diamant did not grow up with a formal Jewish education, and has done most of her Jewish learning as an adult.

She and her husband belonged to a Jewish book club for years and are active in their Reform temple, Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley in Sudbury, Mass.

Their teen-age daughter, Emilia, is a leader in the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth.

Diamant also participated in Me’ah, an intensive, two-year adult education course in Boston.

An adult Bat mitzvah is “on my list,” she says, but she’s been putting it off because “I have a hard time with Hebrew. I think I’m a little dyslexic.”

Diamant is also making time for writing, though not — as some “Red Tent” fans might hope — more biblical epics.

She recently published a novel about two middle-aged women in a Massachusetts seaside town, and now is working on a novel set in 19th-century America.

Eventually Diamant plans to return to nonfiction, possibly a book about the mikvah.

Has the popularity of “The Red Tent” changed her life?

“It’s every writer’s fantasy, so there’s that kind of dream come true, Cinderella, I can’t believe it quality,” she says. In addition, she notes, “People call you back.”

“I might have poured as much energy into” Mayyim Hayyim “before, but in terms of raising money and capability it’s easier now because of The Red Tent,” she says.

Nonetheless, she notes wryly, “It hasn’t changed my daily life all that much. I still have to walk the dog.”

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