Few places are as iconic in Jewish life as Masada, the desert stronghold where, as the story goes, a courageous group of Jews chose to die at their own hands rather than perish by the sword of the conquering Roman army. Each year, tens of thousands of young American Jews make a pilgrimage to the site, where they learn about its importance in Jewish history. And just two years ago, a pair of pop culture versions of the Masada story hit our screens, the melodramatic CBS movie, “The Dovekeepers,” with its implicit call for religious tolerance, and “The Siege of Masada,” a documentary by the Smithsonian Channel that called Masada the “Alamo of the ancient world.”

Now comes Nathaniel Sam Shapiro’s Off-Broadway comedy “Diaspora,” directed by Saheem Ali, in which a group of Birthright Israel students touring Masada travel back in time to 73 C.E. and encounter a small band of women and children who survived the catastrophe. The play also comes as Birthright is in the news for its recent decision to disqualify the Reform movement from participating as a trip provider, even as both Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox groups are increasing their share of free, 10-day trips to Israel.

The only contemporaneous account of the mass death at Masada comes from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who in Book 7 of “Wars of the Jews,” provides a hair-raising account of the killing of 960 Jews at their own hands. Josephus helped lead the Jewish revolt in the Galilee before being captured by the Romans, subsequently joining their cause. In his account, the Sicarii (“dagger wielders” in Latin) were a band of violent extremists who, after assassinating the High Priest Jonathan in Jerusalem and massacring 700 women and children in Ein Gedi — on Passover, no less — for their accommodation to Roman culture, climbed to the desert fortress. It was there that their ruthless leader, Eleazar ben Yair, seeing the Romans about to prevail, commanded that the men should kill their own wives and children before slaying each other. Only two women and five children, Josephus wrote, survived by hiding in water cisterns.

Jews had little access to Josephus’ writing throughout most of Jewish history. Masada became a crucial Zionist symbol from the 1940s through the 1960s, when renowned archeologist Yigael Yadin undertook a major dig at the site and found skeletons that he said confirmed Josephus’ account. But after the Six-Day War, when entrance to the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs at Hebron and other holy sites was restored, Masada became less central to Israeli self-definition. And with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 and the violent clashes over the withdrawal from Gaza a decade later, the specter of civil war among Israelis gave the legend of Masada a sinister, rather than positive, aspect.

When Birthright students visit Masada, the history comes out to greet them in “Diaspora.” Via diasporatheplay.com

Scholars have also challenged the veracity of Josephus’ account. Nachman ben Yehuda, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, published an influential book in 1995 called “Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel,” in which he wrote that the legend of Masada was propagated by Yadin and others to undergird a way of viewing the Sicarii as the forerunners of beleaguered modern Israelis, who must refuse at all costs to surrender to their surrounding enemies.

Ben Yehuda’s case for the mythic dimension of Masada is bolstered by the fact that the remains of no more than 28 people have been found at the site, including only three in the palace, where, Josephus wrote, all the victims died. As Jonathan Klawans, who teaches at Boston University, told me, “There’s an obvious disconnect between the myth and the archeology. Josephus may not have actually been at Masada; he could have been reading the reports of Roman officers. In any case, Josephus may have seen the Sicarii as horrible people who deserved to die for what they did at Ein Gedi, even as he undercuts the obvious parallel between the Sicarii and the Maccabees for their religious zealotry.”

In an interview, Shapiro told me that upon his own first visit to Masada in 1997, he felt a profound lack of connection to the narrative of self-sacrifice there. “I didn’t see why the Sicarii were heroic,” he said, “and I didn’t identify with their story. If every Jew who had ever been threatened died in the way that they supposedly did, then we wouldn’t be here today.” In penning “Diaspora,” Shapiro picked up on Josephus’ mention of the women and children who survived, and he interwove their story with the characters of the contemporary Birthright students, who spend their time in Israel hooking up with each other and discussing how everywhere that they go, including Yad Vashem, is a sexual turn-on.

While Shapiro has never gone on Birthright himself, he stated that the politics of the Middle East are typically presented by Israelis in an “inaccurate, one-sided way” in which the Israelis are blameless for the perpetuation of the conflict with the Palestinians. As Shapiro wrote in a program note, “speaking out against oppression when that oppression is supported and enabled by some members of my community, felt imperative.” At the same time, he noted, “I’ve come to feel more affinity to the fish counter at Zabar’s than to the Western Wall.”

Shaul Kelner, a professor at Vanderbilt University, has studied what tour guides tell their groups at Masada. Working with Theodore Sasson of Middlebury College, Kelner found that many tour guides, contrary to Shapiro’s assumptions, do challenge the idea that the Sicarii and their followers were heroic.

Moreover, Kelner pointed out, Birthright providers vary considerably in their politics. He observed that while the late Birthright co-founder Edgar Bronfman supported the Labor Party, his successor as the program’s largest individual funder, Sheldon Adelson, is allied with Likud.

Scenes from “Diaspora.” For young
Jews, how does the Masada story translate in 2017? Courtesy of Mati Gelman

Indeed, some observers have wondered if politics played into Birthright’s decision to exclude the Reform movement from sponsoring trips, based ostensibly on low enrollment from the Union for Reform Judaism, even though one out of three Birthright participants describe themselves as Reform. By contrast, while only 5 percent of those who go on Birthright identify as Orthodox Jews, a quarter of Birthright travelers now go through Orthodox institutions, including Mayanot, which is sponsored by Chabad, and Israel Free Spirit, which is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, Aish Hatorah and Meor.

Over the course of seven years spent researching his 2010 book, “Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism” (NYU Press), Kelner found that many students on Birthright were having a deeper experience of Israel than do the characters in Shapiro’s play.

“I remember a hungover male student sitting at a bar wearing a scuba mask and puffing something through the snorkel,” Kelner said. “But the next day I heard him talking to his friends about how moved he was by being in Israel and seeing the sacrifices that Israelis had made for their country.”

“Diaspora” runs through Dec. 23 at The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson St. The performance schedule varies. For information and tickets ($55.50-$79.50), call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit diasporatheplay.com.