A whole generation has gone through the Jewish life cycle with Anita Diamant. The guides she wrote in the 1980s and 1990s—The New Jewish Wedding, The New Jewish Baby Book, Choosing a Jewish Life, Saying Kaddish—enjoy such lasting popularity that Diamant is now revising several of them to reflect the societal changes she has also played a role in bringing about. Her novel The Red Tent, a retelling of the story of Dinah from Genesis, quickly attained the status of feminist midrash. Along with half a dozen more novels, journalism and an essay collection, she’s been an activist, founding the Boston area’s progressive mikvah Mayyim Hayyim (Living Water).
Her new book Period. End of Sentence. A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice looks at women’s lives and life cycles from yet another angle. It describes the growing movement to eliminate obstacles posed by menstruation, a cause that speaks both to the enduring issues raised in The Red Tent and to the cutting edge of Gen Z activism. Diamant speaks with Moment book review editor Amy E. Schwartz.
There’s a scene at the beginning of your new book in which the 2018 documentary of the same name wins an Oscar on international TV. Watching at home, you write, “I jumped off my couch and cheered, certain that a million other people were doing the same.” How is the book related to the movie?
The movie inspired the book. After seeing the Oscar ceremony, I watched the movie on YouTube the next day. It tells the story of a small village in India and a group of high school students in California who raise money to donate a machine to the village so they can make menstrual pads. You learn about how little is known about menstruation, how stigmatized menstruation is and how transformative it is for these young girls to talk to people about it. And for the village women to make menstrual pads for themselves and for sale, so they have a microbusiness, is very empowering.
The movie’s makers asked if I’d write a companion book. I spent my locked-down COVID year doing research and was overwhelmed with how many issues come together in dealing with menstruation. There are intersecting issues of equity, medicine and of course poverty, which exacerbates the problems of everyone who menstruates and can’t afford the products or the healthcare they need.
One thing I learned, and that I find hopeful, is how much activism there is around menstrual shame and menstrual pain. I’ve been inspired by the number of people who are dedicating themselves to changing this on every possible level: donating things, getting laws changed to require that there be products in schools and public spaces, and also raising questions about education, health education, sex education and the role of men. It’s a lot. The activism starts with trying to provide products, but it doesn’t end with products.
You say in the book that menstrual justice is a perfect introduction to activism for young women and girls, to give them a sense of agency.
Yes. Everybody who’s menstruated knows the panicky feeling of being out in public and not having what you need, especially as an adolescent. If they’re 12 or 13, it strikes them that this is patently unfair and that it doesn’t have to be this way. So they start collecting and donating products. They get featured in the newspaper. And it teaches them that they can change things. My great hope is that this generation, which is very creative and outrageous, will take from this experience the sense that they can have a big impact on the world and become active in other ways as well.
Many synagogues, particularly sisterhoods, have taken up the menstrual justice cause and organized collections. What more should be done?
There are large and small ways to help. A lot of people are working to get rid of sales tax on menstrual products in their states. Every state decides what it puts sales tax on, and necessities are exempted. Are menstrual products necessities? That question opens the door to a conversation about who counts in the most basic of ways.
One thing I have learned, and that I find hopeful, is how much activism there is around menstrual shame and menstrual pain. I’ve been inspired by the number of people who are dedicating themselves to changing this on every possible level.
In Massachusetts, a very liberal state, there’s a bill languishing in the legislature that, if it passes, will require all municipal buildings, schools, shelters and prisons to have menstrual products available for everybody. And I’m thrilled that more and more synagogues are putting products out in their bathrooms all the time, not just when there’s a wedding or a bar mitzvah. We need to normalize that.
How can men become part of this conversation?
There’s a chapter in the book called Men-struation, which starts with a question somebody posted online, “What’s the most ridiculous thing a man has ever said to you about your period?” Some of the answers are very funny, and some are cruel. But mostly, the chapter is full of men behaving beautifully, examples of dads doing right by their daughters when they get their first period, or teenage boys helping when they see one of their classmates with a stain on her pants. There’s the cab driver in South Africa who, when he noticed bloody tissues on the floor in the back of his cab, bought pads and put them for free on the dashboard. It’s really important that we hear these stories. There have been cultures where the entire community—men, women, people of all genders and ages—acknowledged and even celebrated the beginning of a girl’s menstruation because it was seen as proof that life and the community would continue.
When I started writing this book, I’d take a deep breath when someone asked me what I was working on. I’d say, “Well, I don’t know if you want to hear this.” I stopped doing that pretty quickly. I learned to say, “I’m writing about menstruation.” Then I’d ask people, “Do you carry toilet paper around with you?” And everybody said, “Oh, I guess not. I guess I don’t need to. And I guess if you need menstrual products, you should have them.”
Menstruation has been a recurring theme in your work, from The Red Tent to the mikvah to menstrual justice.
It may seem that way, but it was all so unplanned. For me, The Red Tent was not so much about menstruation. The title refers to the tent where I imagined women would go to menstruate, to give birth and to recover. But I thought of it as more about community than menstruation, a place where women could be themselves and talk to one another. But the blood is part of it, and it’s considered normal. And as I imagined it, the tent was not off in the distance. The men and boys knew what was going on, and it was an accepted part of life. There’s no documentary evidence that our ancestors actually did that, although there have been pre-modern menstrual places all over the world and there still are some, and some of them are horrific, and some are quite beautiful.
When I got involved with the mikvah, the impetus wasn’t menstruation, either, but conversion. I had been working on a book on conversion called Choosing a Jewish Life, and the one mikvah in the Boston area that was open for conversions was not a welcoming, warm place. It struck me that we, as liberal Jews, could do better. So that’s where that came from. Menstruation was not really my bridge to it. But all my work focuses on women’s lives and women’s agency.
Do we need new rituals connected to menstruation? Should there be a celebration honoring menopause?
Menopause is a sort of slow roll out. You start menstruating at a specific time, but it takes a long time before you’re really finished. People have celebrated it in different ways, and some ceremonies feel manufactured rather than authentic. Going to the mikvah feels good because it’s an old tradition you’re using for a new purpose.
But we don’t have any models for this. In fact, in Judaism, we have no models for marking the life cycle of the female body: beginning menstruation, deciding to have a baby, ending nursing, deciding to stop having children, infertility, all of the life cycle of the body with the uterus. We have, what, 100 blessings you’re supposed to say every day? There are a lot of blessings missing. There’s no reason not to add them. The more blessings, the better.
This is an excerpt of a MomentLive! interview. To watch the full interview, visit momentmag.com/zoominars
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