leyning and crying

This is the d’var Torah that I gave this morning at Hebrew College on the occasion of celebrating a siyyum of sorts, the Torah that I have read the last six years in rabbinical school.

I’m so glad to see all of you here this morning, and I’m grateful for your presence. I am throwing myself this siyyum to celebrate the Torah reading that I’ve done since I started rabbinical school.

I didn’t know how to chant Torah when I started rabbinical school. Let’s be honest, I barely knew Hebrew at the beginning of rabbinical school. So my first bit of thanks should go to Rabbi Daniel Klein for taking a chance on me.

I enrolled in Cantillation my Mekorot year with Cantor Louise Treitman. I was terrified to have to do the singing aloud that the class required. I didn’t know how to learn music. I couldn’t keep the trope sounds or names in my head long enough to practice. But somehow I made it work. And so I first read Torah in this space on Rosh Hodesh Iyyar five years ago, the second aliyah, along with other members of my class. I think the feeling of standing here that morning has long since been eclipsed by the hundreds of times I’ve since stood here but that morning something grabbed me. And I grabbed back. I became one of the מַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ.

For the past five years, I’ve leyned almost every Shabbat. During the school year, I’ve tried to do the same here as often as I could on Monday and Thursday. I feel confident that I can chant any part of any parshah, and I feel confident that someday I will chant every part of every parshah. But I learned from experts, and I read alongside experts. I’m no expert. I still sometimes forget trope, misremember vowels, mispronounce consonants. I still find myself up at an amud with shaky knees.

But over these past five years, something has happened, and that something is that I’ve gotten better.

Part of getting better is knowing how to practice. I now know how to learn an aliyah: I know how much time I need, and how to split up that time. I know where and when to practice. And I know that practice, and more practice, and more still practice, is the only way to continue getting better.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” It’s not a sufficient condition for success, he emphasizes. His point is that that even natural ability takes an enormous amount of time to be made manifest. If I had to guess I’d say I’m probably at about 1/5 of that, maybe 2,000 hours over the past five years.

Where has that gotten me? I can start with statistically, because I’ve kept track, in a spreadsheet, of every verse of Torah I’ve read. To date, since April 2013, I’ve read 63.5% of Torah: 79% of Bereshit; 75% of Shemot; 52% of Vayikra; 38% of Bemidbar; and 69% of Devarim. I’ve read something from all but three parshiyot (Behar, Bechukotai, and Beha’alotcha), and I have a plan to remedy that before ordination.

Ironically, I haven’t leyned any of Genesis 14, the subject of my Capstone and a good 24 verses that I practically know by heart by now.

I’ve read all of Vayeira, Chayei Sarah, Mikeitz, Yitro, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel, Pekudei, Tazria, Acharei Mot, Vayeilech, Ha’azinu, V’Zot HaBracha and Ki Teitzei. Yes, I have leyned all of Ki Teitzei, the parshah I’ve been telling anyone who will listen how much I dislike.

A few years back Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a short piece in The Atlantic: “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” He talks about the experience of learning French as an adult: He doesn’t believe in fluency, he says, but he believes in getting better. He says, “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.

But getting better, he notes, is really about getting better at stumbling. And for me, stumbling when reading Torah takes a lot of different forms.

10269515_10203449167287766_4003875064976983340_nOne of the most painful experiences I’ve had reading Torah was a few years ago, here, on Yom HaShoah. We were reading the weekday section of Emor. I got to the line

.וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן כִּי תֵחֵל לִזְנוֹת–אֶת-אָבִיהָ הִיא מְחַלֶּלֶת בָּאֵשׁ תִּשָּׂרֵף (Vayikra 21:9)

And I just started crying; it was just a ghastly line to be reading that day or any day, really. And I don’t think the coincidence even occurred to me as I practiced. It was only as I was up here, at this amud, in front of the scroll. In that moment I was overwhelmed with anger at Torah. I felt physically ill. I felt helpless, imprisoned by the unfeeling cycle of the weekly parshiyot that have been chanted for generations with the same regularity since Ezra instituted public Torah reading.

It’s Yom HaShoah, I thought, and I just made it possible for everyone to hear the Torah’s directive to burn a woman to death.

I wish that I had stopped and taken a few moments to compose myself, but after a brief pause I just kept reading, tears streaming and my voice catching. Some of you were in the beit midrash that day, and many of you realized what was happening. But at least one person in the room had no clue, and that person was one of the gabba’im. He just kept staring at me, blinking uncomprehendingly and incredulously as I warbled through the end of the aliyah. I think he thought I was crying because I was doing a poor job of leyning.

And to be fair, I have done exactly that. The worst was Shabbat Ki Tavo four years ago, when I was reading all 63 verses of the sixth aliyah: the tribes, divided between Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, shouting back and forth. It was my first paid gig at this synagogue. And my mind just went blank; I could hardly remember anything: not the words, not the trope. Total disaster. It was brutal. The balm for that morning, however, was one of the elderly congregants who came up to me afterwards and said, “I totally understand what happened. It was all of those curses! You are so sensitive that it was hard for you say them!” (The congregation was kind enough to give me another chance, and I continued leyning for them regularly on Shabbat for about a year.)

And as Rabbi Victor Reinstein and a few of the Nehar Shalom-niks that are here know, each year I cry leyning on Simchat Torah, my favorite holiday (obviously). I always read the end of Devarim, and I have to pause and let the tears flow for just a moment when I get to the line:

.’וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב–עַל-פִּי ה (Devarim 34:5)

As conflicted as I am about Moshe as a leader, by the fall each year he’s become a good friend, and I mourn his death and the fact that he won’t get to see his life’s work completed.

In thinking about what I wanted to share today, I didn’t expect that so many of my stories would center around the gut-wrenching emotional side of leyning. And there are many other stories. But I think what I shared today makes sense for where we are in Torah right now, parshat Shemini.

It’s traditionally understood that this parshah contains, by words, the center of the Torah, the space between the two words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ (Vayikra 10:16). “He diligently inquired . . .” In other words, דָּרֹשׁ ends the first half of Torah, and דָּרַשׁ starts the second half. In many scrolls, דָּרֹשׁ also ends a line, while דָּרַשׁ begins the next one. The Chida says:

This means – when you have expounded (darosh) the Torah to the point that you think you have exhausted all its meaning, and you think that you are at the very end of the line – not the line of layout, but the line of enquiry and scholarship – you should realize that you are really only expounding the beginning of the line.

The work continues; there is always more to say.

But I learned Vayikra from Rabbi Nehemia Polen, so I want to talk about a slightly different center of Torah. The chapter in which the words דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ appear begins with the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu in a devouring fire. דָּרֹשׁ דָּרַשׁ is what Moshe does when he checks the offerings and discovers that Aharon and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, didn’t eat the sin offering that was meant to expiate the people. Moshe flunks his pastoral counseling class as he angrily confronts Aharon for not doing what he was meant to.

A grieving parent, Aharon responds. What, today, did God want me to eat the sin offering?

Nehemia says, what Aharon means is, My heart is broken, and I didn’t agree to stop being a human being when I became high priest.

And Moshe has no response. How can he? Aharon is right.

Nehemia points out that it’s the way of priests to put the most important things in the middle. It’s true of the mishkan, it’s true of the temple, and it’s true of the P source. What happens here in this exchange is the heart of Torah. And it’s about the human heart. There are times when it breaks wide open, and we have to attend to it even amidst our most sacred rituals.

Vayikra is about the intimacy we create and maintain with God, and about what the presence of God on earth requires of us. And right in the middle of that, in parshat Shemini, we’re told that relationship with the divine means that we should never stop acting with our hearts.

For me, this has meant that I have learned as much from the technical reading of Torah as I have from what has emerged in that process.

To end, I want to thank a few people specifically. Cantor Louise Treitman, first and foremost, as I mentioned before, my principal teacher of trope. To whatever extent I am good at this, it is because of her. (All failings are my own.) I’d also like include many other cantors and cantorial students and faculty. Cantors are the holy transmitters of sacred Jewish music, and it has been cantors who have been generous with their time and patience to help me learn to read many of our most precious texts: I’m thinking specifically of Cantors Risa Wallach, Lynn Torgove, Vera Broekhuysen, Hinda Labovitz, Sarah Bolts, and Aliza Berger.

I also want to especially thank Rabbi Shayna Rhodes, who was a never-ending source of encouragement. In true Shayna fashion, one of the ways that she was helpful was to criticize. As Ebn had done for her, she would correct all mistakes in my reading not just the ones that were technically correctable mistakes. I am a better reader of Torah because of her.

Thank you to Sigalit Davis and to Harvey Bock, for making me learn Hebrew grammar and pronunciation so well.

Thank you to Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Nehar Shalom, my spiritual home for the past five years. He created and nurtured a community of practicers in so many senses of that word. For years, I got up and read Torah nearly every Shabbat, and no one there made me feel anything but appreciated for my efforts.

Thank you to my classmates, the best people I know, and the ones who have supported me through everything, including this maniacal quest, these past six years.

And thank you to all of you, the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Many of you have sat patiently through some pretty questionable leyning over the years.

I am sorry that Rabbi Ebn Leader can’t be here today, but I want to share what part of what he wrote to me from Israel. “The Torah is eternal, but heaven forbid, she could also be eternally dead . . . It is the breath of those who read her words that give her life with which she can then continue through eternity. It is in the communal ritual of reading Torah, listening to it through each other’s voices, that we express our commitment to this ongoing process of giving life to Torah. Perhaps this is the meaning of חיי עולם נטע בתוכנו. God has planted within us the capacity to give life to that which is eternal. And through this of course, both sides, we and Torah, develop in wonderful and unexpected ways . . .”

May it ever be so, and may we strive to make true the words that we sing at the end of our ritual reading of Torah, the anthem of spiritual practice. הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה.

Thank you shavua tov, and chag sameach!

the wall(s) of Jerusalem

Last Sunday, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got dressed in preparation to walk to the Old City to participate in that morning’s shacharit service. By all accounts I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping at all that evening, since it was Shavuot, and traditionally on this holiday Jews stay up all night learning Torah and then go to morning davvening. But I’m a morning person (generally of no use to anyone after 9:00 p.m.), so Shavuot’s marathon study sessions have always been challenging for me. I prefer just to eat cheesecake in celebration of the revelation at Sinai.

Along with my mom and my roommate, I headed towards the Western Wall, walking in darkness with many dozen others from the neighborhood. We reached the Dung Gate and entered Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian praying space at the Wall. Well, not exactly at the Wall — or not at the Wall’s main plaza, the one that is always shown in photographs of the prayer and pilgrimage site. Instead, we walked down a long set of wooden steps and across a wooden bridge to a temporary platform erected near the remains of what is known as Robinson’s Arch, which once supported a massive staircase that led up to the Second Temple.

The schatz had just begun birkot hashahar when we arrived. As I settled into the space, I looked around at the attendees: lots of Americans (I ran into someone I knew from D.C. on the way down the stairs), lots of what seemed like secular Israelis. Everyone looked tired, resulting in pretty quiet and lackluster singing — especially in comparison to the very loud davvening a little up and over on the main plaza. The sound of men’s voices threatened to drown out our service.

To my surprise, occasionally walking through the service, to get closer to the wall accessible from a staircase at the far end of the platform, were a number of Orthodox Jews — men, women, and children. They just passed by, prayed at the lower platform, and then passed back by again. The logical extension of an egalitarian space, I guess: everyone is welcome. 

view of the walls of jerusalem from the ramparts walk; photo by salem pearce

By the time the Torah service started, I had moved to the front of the platform, partly to see what the davvening crashers were doing. I also turned around in a circle to really see where I was, continuing to sing the prelude to taking out the scroll.  As we got to the line tivneh chomot Yerushalayim, “build the walls of Jerusalem” — our plea to Gd each time we read Torah on Shabbat or holidays — I happened to be looking at the sun rise over the actual walls of Jerusalem. In spite myself, I was moved.

I say “in spite of myself” because I don’t feel particularly invested in prayer services at the Western Wall. For one, I’m actually glad the temple cult in Jerusalem of the 1st century CE became the current diasporic system of symbolic remembrances of the temple. I question the holiness ascribed to the remnants of the ancient sacrificial site. What’s more, many of those who revere the Wall actually want the temple to be rebuilt, on the Temple Mount, where currently stand the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred Muslim sites. The Third Temple can’t exist without starting the Third World War. This fact doesn’t stop various Ultra-Orthodox rabbis from making provocative statements to that effect from time to time. And even more, when the Israeli army captured Jerusalem in 1967, a Palestinian village was razed to widen the plaza for increased access to the Wall — for Jews only. But the folks fighting for the right to hold egalitarian prayer on the Wall’s main plaza, in the name of justice, don’t talk about that.

The Torah service was followed by the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Or at least traditional for Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardim don’t read Ruth, so as a compromise we read just the first and fourth chapter of the book. As a convert, I love the book of Ruth. I say the famous line from the first chapter when I put on my tefillin in the morning: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people, my people; your Gd, my Gd. My friend Rachel was leyning the book that morning, and she has a beautiful voice. I stood mesmorized as she sang, all the way to the end of the book, which traces the lineage from Ruth’s child to King David, whose son Solomon . . . built the First Temple.

All right, Western Wall, you got me this time.

asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”

korbanot

קרבנת collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

We take a journey through time, flying up out of the 21st century CE room at Hebrew College, into the air, back down to the 5th century BCE Temple in Jerusalem.

We say birkot hashachar together as we ascend the steps of the Temple. Fifteen steps is fourteen fixed prayers and one individual prayer. And then we split up.

The Temple is crowded, and it’s hard to take it all in. I meet with the high priest in his inner chamber, but I have nothing to give. He gifts me anyway.

We don’t say blessings. We do blessings. We offer sacrifice. We are offered in return.

We convene again, and we descend the steps. We run. We fly. We are back at Hebrew College, its own Temple.

We say baruch sheamar.

I wrote most of this right after a guided meditation for korbanot, the prayer that my tefila group is looking at this week. Unlike the guided mediation for elohai neshama, the prompts for this exercise were not the actual words of the prayer (which is part of why I haven’t reproduced them here, as I have for previous tefila group posts) but the idea of the prayer.

Korbanot are a selection of biblical and Talmudic passages that explain how the service in the Temple operated. It can be generally said that in the post-Temple era, prayer replaced sacrifice. Thus, “[a]lthough these passages can be found in most traditional prayer books, reading them has become less common. Because of their focus on animal sacrifice in the Temple many liberal prayer books do not print them at all” (Ben Kell). Indeed, the siddur that I use does not include them.

As part of what I would describe as a liberal Judaism, I am uncomfortable with references to the Temple that indicate a longing for its return – which I would suggest that these do. Thus, I appreciated the fact that we did not focus on the prayers themselves; it is unlikely that I will incorporate them into my practice. My ambivalence about the prayers is reflected in my collage (above), into which I incorporated photographs of temples that don’t cause me so much consternation: the Pantheon in Rome and the altar of Vespasian in Pompeii.

Yet I find compelling the metaphor of prayer as concrete action. I generally pray without expectation of its literal efficacy in anywise other than on me. Could I also begin to think about my prayer as an offering to G-d?

______________________________________________________

This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

the dovekeepers

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

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.