On New Year’s Eve I finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, my first by her. I picked it up because it’s the next book of a Jewish Reads book club I just started getting emails from (not sure yet if I will go to a discussion).
The book is the about the settlement at Masada, where Jewish rebels in 70 C.E. resisted the Roman army for months before killing themselves in a mass suicide when their destruction was inevitable. The story is told in four parts, each by a woman who took a different path to arrive at the mountain in the Judean desert.
Yael begins the story. Her father is one of the Sicarii, assassins who kill Jews complying with Romans bent on the destruction of the Temple. It’s in this environment of civil war and anti-Semitism that Yael’s brother, also an assassin, and eventually Yael and her father, are forced to flee Jerusalem. On the way across the desert, Yael and one of her traveling companions become lovers, but he and his family don’t survive the journey. She arrives pregnant at Masada and begins to work in the dovecotes with three other women.
One of them, Revka, picks up the thread of the story. A baker’s wife in Shiloh, she leaves with her daughter, scholar son-in-law, and their two sons after her husband is killed by the Romans. En route to Masada, on Yom Kippur, they are set upon by Roman army deserters, who brutally gang rape her daughter. Her son-in-law returns from prayers to find his wife and her attackers dead. They arrive at Masada, her grandsons rendered mute by the trauma and her son-in-law, a brutal warrior with a death wish.
Aziza speaks next. Raised as a boy in the land of Moab, across the Dead Sea, she becomes a skilled warrior. She arrives at Masada, along with her half-brother and beloved half-sister, after being sent for by her mother’s lover.
Her mother, Shirah, the last of the dovekeepers, finishes the story proper. Born in Alexandria, she is raised by her mother to practice magic. But when her mother falls out of favor with the Jewish community, Shirah is sent to her mother’s family in Jerusalem. Unmarried, she is banished after she gives birth to Aziza but is rescued by a Moabite, who takes her to his homeland. She arrives at Masada from Moab, with Aziza and two other children, to reunite with her Jerusalem lover.
The historian Josephus, the main source of the siege of Masada, reports that the only survivors were two women and five children. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s imaging of how a settlement of nine hundred got winnowed to seven. But it doesn’t just seek to humanize those who in modern times would be considered akin to the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple. It is a story of women in the society of ancient Israel that is constructed by and for men. As Hoffman notes in the acknowledgements, “[T]he stories of women have gone unwritten . . . It is my hope that . . . I can give voice to those who have remained silent for so long.”
Hoffman immediately sets up the dichotomy between the world of men and the world of women when Yael seeks out the kephashim for a protection charm for her brother as he begins to kill as part of the Sicarii. She notes,
In the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and imposters by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches.
But in the book, kephashim magic runs the world. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, explained by Yael at the outset, is tuned on its head as the reader is left with the clear feeling that women’s magic, over and over again, sets right the world that is continually destroyed by men. It is not the women who want a civil war, or to fight the Romans (they are used to doing that they need to do in secret), or, least of all, to make a stand at Masada. And that is probably why only women (and children, their wards) survive. Though the men of Masada are fierce warriors, it is the women of Masada who have the real strength.
I am sorry to say that I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of ancient Israel is, although it has been reported that Hoffman researched the book for five years. She explains how moved she was by a visit to Masada — and how her story is built around the remains that were found in the archeological excavation of the site. To the extent that it’s true to life, it did help me understand, at least a little, the motivations of the Jewish rebels. When I visited Masada, in contrast to Hoffman, I was struck by the fact that we might be lionizing crazy people.
In the world of ancient Israel, men set the rules — and time and time again, women break them. And that world is better because of it. In Hoffman’s beautiful and haunting narrative, each of the women gets to tell her story and how she became who she is against the backdrop of impending disaster.