The novelist, journalist, essayist, and author of six guidebooks to contemporary Jewish life talks about women’s empowerment, social justice, and living Jewishly
LENOX – On Tuesday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m., the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires hosts an intimate evening with best-selling author Anita Diamant (The Red Tent, The Jewish Wedding Now) on the themes of women's empowerment, social justice, and Jewish living. This in-person Super Tzedakah Week program will take place at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox.
This special event coincides with the Federation’s annual Dignity Drive of personal care products, which last year collected thousands of period and incontinence supplies. These essential personal care items were distributed to ten social service agencies across the Berkshires. Diamant’s latest book, Period. End of Sentence., explores issues surrounding the effort to combat feminine hygiene poverty
Elisa Spungen Bildner – Federation board member, journalist, and co-author of The Berkshire Farm Table Cookbook – will guide this informative interview and leave plenty of time for questions. A selection of books will be available for purchase or bring your own book for Anita Diamant to sign.
Know Before You Go
This event is open to Federation donors who make a household commitment of $36 or more to the Federation’s Annual Campaign. Seating is limited. Registration is required, and cancellations will be most appreciated if you register and cannot attend what is sure to be a full house.
Masking and proof of full COVID vaccination is required for entry. Check our calendar of events for up-to-date COVID protocols.
BJV Interview: Anita Diamant
By Carol Goodman Kaufman / Special to the BJV
Although best-known for her breakout novel The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has authored 14 books in multiple genres, including five novels, six non-fiction guides to contemporary Jewish life, and a memoir. Her most recent book, Period. End of Sentence., is a deep dive into the worldwide phenomenon of menstrual injustice.
Carol caught up with Diamant last March for a wide-ranging conversation about the author’s literary career, engagement with women’s issues, and her work with Mayyim Hayyim, Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, MA.
The red tent in your book of the same name was a place of exclusion, keeping menstruating women away from the camp. Is The Red Tent the reason you were approached for this book?
In a way, yes. I was watching the Academy Awards when the movie, Period. End of Sentence., won. It was very exciting. I jumped off the couch when the director said, “I can’t believe a movie about period just won an Academy Award.” It seemed like all the women in the audience got up to applaud. I watched the movie the next day, and I was impressed. I had recently written a couple of essays about menstrual injustice, both locally and internationally.
A few months later, the filmmakers were in New York talking to people about getting a writer to do an accompanying book. They were at my book agent’s office, and I believe they saw one of my books on her shelf, and someone asked if I’d be interested. I said yes. Although I was not at all an expert on a subject, it seemed like a good fit. All my novels are about women’s lives, and as a journalist, I felt like I could take it on.
The book is a companion to the film in that it contextualizes the story that the film tells, and the work of The Pad Project, which is the nonprofit that made the film.
To some extent, the book also fits in with your work with the mikveh.
I know it looks like The Red Tent led to this book, but they’re really very different. I think what connects them is the fact that I tend to focus on women’s lives and untold stories.
In the book, you list many negative names for menstruation, starting with “The Curse.” My mother called it a ‘period,’ rather neutral, and several of my friends called it their ‘friend,’ which to me is more of a positive take on menstruation. What was your experience? Did you get a slap? [Editor’s Note: Chabad.org describes this “supposedly Jewish ‘custom’ of a girl being slapped across her face by her mother upon getting her first menstrual period. After ‘reddening’ her daughter’s cheeks, the mother blesses her with fertility while warning against extramarital sex. Since she has now reached sexual maturity by ‘becoming a woman,’ the thinking goes, she is taught that sexuality is sinful or immoral.” The article also points out that the source of this custom is not the Torah or Jewish halacha; it is likely to have been adopted by some Jews from the cultures in which they lived.]
My mother never told me a thing about menstruation. From what little I can remember, I kind of figured it out with friends. I ask people (about the slap), and a lot of them – especially younger women -- have no idea what I’m asking, which is terrific. It was just handed down from one generation to the next, but we don’t really know why. And I love Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s reformulation that we should say a blessing when someone gets their first period as opposed to getting slapped.
I do remember a friend saying that her mother told her that the slap should be the worst pain you ever have.
That’s a nice way to put it. But who wants to be slapped? Better to get chocolate or flowers or whatever. We can dress it up any way we want to, but it’s not a positive message.
I’m sure the custom goes way back, and I don’t know if it’s part of Sephardic tradition. In America, where most Jews descend from Ashkenazi culture, we’re less familiar with Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewish customs. If I was doing this book again, I would dig a little deeper into that, but Period. End of Sentence. is not a Jewish book.
You talk about the curse being made of three things: lack of knowledge, stigma, and shame. Can you talk a little bit about each of those?
They all fit together. There’s a lot of secrecy around menstruation and a lack of knowledge. We are, for the most part, quite ignorant about how our bodies work and the education we give our young people is inadequate. It’s hurried and segregated. Boys and girls aren’t in the same room together, which means we don’t have a common language, and it’s whispered about. Anything that’s whispered about makes it seem dangerous to ask questions. So, stigma feeds ignorance, and ignorance and stigma result in shame.
If someone has a period stain on their clothes, it can seem like the worst thing that can happen to you, especially if you’re a 12- or 13-year-old kid. That should be an accident and not a catastrophe, but it feels like a catastrophe.
And in some parts of the world, it really is a catastrophe. In the book, there are examples of girls who quit school and two terrible cases of girls who seem to have committed suicide immediately after being shamed publicly in school.
That’s an extreme example, but there are girls in every ZIP code in America who are missing school because of their periods. Can you imagine going to school without what you need, depending on a wad of toilet paper in your underpants while you’re taking a math test? Are you going to try out for the track team?
One of the great commercials I found online – which will probably never be seen on American television -- showed a group of attractive young people, men and women, at the dinner table, and a woman stands up and asks, “Does anybody have a tampon?”
Can you imagine doing that? Can you imagine standing up in your office and saying, “Who’s got a tampon? I’m out. I need one.” We need to poke holes in that silence, which I think comedians do very well, and it’s happening all over popular culture now.
In the animated Pixar movie Red Panda, a 12-year-old girl turns into a big red panda when she gets her period, and while it’s a shock, it comes with strength and self-confidence. Some people are shocked about this; they think we shouldn’t be talking about menstruation in public. Even in a cartoon, people find it offensive. It’s not just about menstruation; it’s about a girl finding her voice.
I was thrilled that Period. End of Sentence. was on Netflix.
Yes, and I believe it’s been on ever since it won the Oscar. After the Academy Awards show, millions of people watched, and The Pad Project got inundated with emails and requests for help and with stories. The Internet has been very good for getting the word out about this. It also makes information about menstruation available to people who might not otherwise have access.
One of the most exciting things I read about in the book was the Revolutionary Girls Baking Society. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I found this story on Twitter. There was an image of tampon cookies with a story about how a group of middle-schoolers had gone to their principal and said they should have period products in the bathroom. He said, “No, because someone is going to abuse the privilege.” Those were his words! So, what did those girls do? They went home and baked tampon cookies — which were very accurate — strings and all.
The story blew up on Twitter and it got back to the principal, so he was shamed into making the period products available. The girls had a website up called Revolutionary Girls Baking Society, and while their message was focused on menstruation, it encouraged people to get involved and made the point that menstruation is connected to other issues and basic fairness.
What I loved was the sense of humor, the refusal to be ashamed or quiet. The menstrual justice movement in the US is largely powered by young people in middle school, high school, and college. And it goes beyond their own schools.
In Brookline, for example, there are now free period products in the town’s public buildings because of an op-ed written by a high school student about the need for free products at her school. Someone on the Town Council read her story, brought the issue to her colleagues, and an ordinance was passed.
States all over the country are now passing laws making period products free in schools, shelters, and prisons, virtually all because of efforts by female legislators and their constituents.
I remember that when I was a kid, you had to pay 10 cents to get a tampon from the machine.
And the machines were always broken, weren’t they? Of course, it costs much more now, and what about kids who don’t have money?
If you’re in school and you need a pad, if you’re lucky someone will tell you to go to the nurse’s office. But why? Having your period is not being sick. And then, in many schools, there’s no money in the budget for period products, so the nurses end up buying supplies.
When people ask why “we” should pay for period products, I talk about toilet paper. We’re not carrying toilet paper around with us, are we? Half of the population, at some point, needs this the way you need toilet paper. Period products should be available and free in public bathrooms. Period!
It’s not as if people are going to hoard them.
People steal toilet paper, but that doesn’t stop us from putting free toilet paper in bathrooms.
Toward the very end of the book, you mentioned a writer saying that providing menstrual products is a rather paternalistic way of dealing with the problem. I’m thinking along the lines of “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Being able to provide the machines to manufacture pads was a step in that direction, giving women the opportunity to earn money and help support their families. At one point in the documentary, a young woman talks about how she gave her brother a gift. Usually, it’s the brother who always gives her a gift, but now she has the wherewithal to do it. Another woman was planning to use the money she earns to train to become a police officer. Ironically, it’s a man who designed the machine.
What’s wonderful about the inventor — Aranachalam Muruganantham — is that he refused to patent his machine, which would have made him a lot of money. But he wanted people to improve on what he’d done so they could reach more women. He knew those machines could be a boon to women’s empowerment. The notion that we can fix menstrual injustice just by providing products is unfortunate.
Days for Girls is an early program in sending sent period supplies to Africa, and while they continue to do that, they also fund and support microbusinesses and training so the local women become educators. So, there’s this sisterhood empowerment element to this.
Is there anything else that I have not asked you that you’d like to tell me?
I am struck by the amount of energy for menstrual justice in the Jewish world, among Hadassah groups, NCJW, synagogues, youth groups. For example, Melissa Berton, founder of The Pad Project, is Jewish. It’s interesting that younger women show up because the issue speaks to them. Everybody’s been without a pad or tampon at least once, and the idea that people are missing school because of that? Because their mothers can’t afford the products? It just feels personal.
This fits in with the cohort of young social justice warriors like Malala, Greta, and Emma -- young women we know by their first names. I have tremendous faith in them all.
Do a Mitzvah – Support Federation’s Dignity Drive, May 5 to May 31
Menstrual and incontinence poverty is a real but often unseen and overlooked need, especially during difficult times as so many are experiencing right now. You can bring dignity to a neighbor in need by dropping off new, packaged menstrual and incontinence products at the following locations between May 5 to May 31.
- The Co-op Market, Great Barrington
- Concepts of Art, Lenox
- Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, Pittsfield
- Williams College Bookstore, Williamstown
Federation volunteers will be collecting the donations weekly and organizing them for distribution through local food banks and social services organizations across the region.