Masada: the very name of the towering mountain fortress overlooking the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea conjures images at once historic, mythic, and symbolic. King Herod built it between 37 and 31 B.C.E. as a royal refuge, and decorated it with splendiferous mosaics. But it is best known as the final refuge of 960 Jewish zealots who, in 73 C.E., committed suicide en masse, rather than succumb to a massacre by besieging Roman soldiers who were part of the army that had already quashed the Jewish rebellion and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that, for many years, the Israeli armed forces were formally sworn in atop the remains of the fortress, in a service that ended with the promise, “Masada shall not fall again.” Today, the rugged mountain top archaeological site — with its ruins, restorations, and museum of recovered artifacts — is one of the top tourist sites in Israel.
And now Masada has become the historic backdrop for “The Dovekeepers” (Scribner), the newest novel by the prolific fiction writer Alice Hoffman. It’s one of those books that readers will either love or hate — or, like me, both admire and shake their heads at. It is by turns inventive and clichéd, hypnotic and — with a length of 500 pages — at times tedious. If there are sections that make you dare not put it down, there are also repetitive stretches that tempt you to skip ahead.
But there are reasons to keep on trekking. One is that Hoffman compellingly, and memorably, dramatizes the difficulties of daily life in the demanding, unforgiving landscape of the desert. She evokes the month-by-month changes of the animals seen and heard or growing scarce as each species progresses through its individual mating and migration cycle, and she is particularly sensitive to the seasonal variations of a desert that can transform from eerie parched beauty to unexpected flowering.
Another is her complex, multi-faceted portrait of an era in which Jewish religious practice, along with the degree of adaptation to or rejection of the surrounding cultures, could differ widely from one group or sect or region to another. Hoffman’s extensive research into the period clearly went far beyond the description by Josephus, whose history The Jewish War provided the only contemporaneous source to the story, and she also has incorporated more recent archaeological evidence that opens up new questions about what happened at Masada — when, to whom and why.
Hoffman channels this panoramic history through the first-person narrative voices of four women, each of whom has arrived at Masada by a different route, and each of whom tells her story — and the story of Masada — in turn. First comes Yael, the Jerusalem-born teenage daughter and sister of members of the Sicarii, a Jewish Zealot group known, and feared, for using daggers (“sicae”) to assassinate Roman sympathizers. To escape the marauding Romans, Yael follows her father — and other Zealots and their families before them — into the Judean desert, headed for Masada. Hoffman’s hauntingly detailed depiction of their nomadic wanderings and thirst- and hunger-driven struggles for survival in the wilderness contains lyrical echoes of the Bible and foreshadows worse violence ahead.
Next comes the narrative of Revka, whose husband the Romans had killed upon entering her their small northern village, and whose daughter was subsequently raped and murdered by Roman soldiers stumbling upon the family’s wilderness hide-out. While Revka’s two young grandsons react to the trauma of witnessing their mother’s gruesome death by becoming mute, her once pious son-in-law is transformed into a revenge-hungry warrior. They arrive at Masada as shell-shocked refugees driven by grief.
There they meet the teenage Aziza, who is able to use her androgynous beauty, along with her superior skills with bow and arrow, to pass as a young male fighter among the Zealots at Masada. She is the daughter of Shirah, the fourth of the dovekeepers of the book’s title, and the most mysterious of the women who tend the dovecotes. Shirah has brought Aziza and her two other children to Masada, ostensibly to receive protection from her cousin, the rebel leader and commander of the fortress, Eleazar ben Ya’ir. But, it turns out, there are other bonds between Shirah and Eleazar, as well.
All these characters share an absolute faith in God and unquestioned acceptance of God’s will. But the raw uncertainty of fate tempts them to superstition and magic. In addition to seldom leaving a dream untold or its foreboding meaning uninterpreted, they pay keen attention to omens, and again and again seek safety in amulets, potions, spells and sorcery. Most practiced and skilled in these forbidden magic arts is Shirah, who had learned her craft from her outcast mother, and who long before her arrival at Masada had earned the nickname of the Witch of Moab.
Although each woman tells her tale in what is supposed to be her own voice, these narrators can sound interchangeable in tone, as well as in their sturdy resilience in the face of tragedy. Still, as they go about their duties in the dovecotes and make a world within the fortress walls, these women, and the men whom they attract, come to possess an archaic, archetypal quality. Hoffman further emphasizes this aspect by referring to Revka’s reclusive warrior son-in-law as “the Man from the Valley,” and to a Roman slave captured by the Zealots and enlisted to help the dovekeepers as “the Man from the North.” It’s hokey, but it’s effective.
Hoffman pulls no punches in her blood and guts descriptions of battle, but in many ways “The Dovekeepers” is a domestic novel about women coming of age and coming into their own. In an interesting twist on teenage rebellion and mother-daughter strife, for instance, Shirah’s second daughter Naraha rejects her mother and all things pagan to join the small band of Essenes that had also found its way to Masada. This group’s aesthetic of ascetic purity and non-violence is also in direct opposition to the war culture of Masada’s Zealot leaders. Yet ironically, both sects come to a similar conclusion: that the end of days — or at least their days — is inescapably near.
Because the novel’s setting is Masada, we know the book’s end before we’ve begun. It’s a tribute to Hoffman’s magic that when we’ve finished, we want to return to, or visit for the first time, the archaeological remains of Masada, to reimagine for ourselves the events of 73 CE.