Two years ago, I traveled with my family to Masada, a remote fortress on a mountain in the Judaean Desert of southern Israel by the Dead Sea. Masada is legendary for being the place where more than 900 Jews killed themselves rather than be tortured, killed or enslaved by the Romans approximately 2,000 years ago. The day of our visit was brutally hot and there was little shade in this fortress that King Herod built as a refuge. As the sun was beating down and I looked in every direction and saw only the dry earth of the desert and the salty Dead Sea in the distance, I remember thinking “why did they die for this?” “The Dovekeepers” by Alice Hoffman answers that question.
One hundred years after Herod built Masada, the Jewish temples were destroyed in Jerusalem and the Jews were expelled from the holy city leaving them to wander through the Judaean Desert. In an act of revolt, a group of Jewish warriors decided to take Masada by overthrowing the Romans who occupied the fortress.
The Jews – “the desperate, the devote, the beaten, the lost” – who took refuge in Masada built lives and managed to ward off the Romans for several years until “The Siege of Masada” when the Romans took back Masada by building a ramp up the mountainside to gain access to the fortress on a cliff, but not before the Jews committed a mass murder/suicide among themselves. Supposedly, two women and five children hid avoiding the knives of their own warriors (to spare them a worse fate) and this piece of information is what inspired Alice Hoffman to write “The Dovekeepers,“a fictional tale of the years leading up to the siege.
Published in 2011, “The Dovekeepers” is the story of four women whose lives intersect on Masada. There is Yael, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father, a Jewish assassin bitterly rejected her propelling her to cull her survival skills. We meet Revka, a baker’s widow when she is a grandmother taking care of her two young grandsons on Masada while silently grieving for the daughter that was taken from her. Aziza is the daughter of a “witch” and a warrior who was raised as a boy and becomes a warrior proving herself an expert marksman. And, there is Shirah – the “witch” and mother of four who refuses to forsake life and love despite knowing her fate should she follow her heart.
The book is divided into five sections with each section told from the perspective of one of the women. The foundation of the story is laid out in the first section of the book, narrated by Yael and provides an overview of what drove the Jews to Masada. The subsequent sections are not stand alone for each section gives a history of who the narrator is and how she came to be in Masada before continuing with the story. The thread that binds the women together is their work on Masada: all four women are dovekeepers in the dovecotes: three buildings that “were made of stone and covered with white plaster, raised from the ground so that snakes in search of eggs couldn’t slither inside.” The doves provided eggs but more important was their excrement which provided fertilizer to the gardens making the fields fertile.
Each of the four women has a defining characteristic that emerges: the power of silence, the grace of forgiveness, courageousness, and the consuming desire for love. At 501 pages, the book is long but don’t let the length deter you from starting the book or the detail in the beginning from finishing the novel. It was only after I read the first 100 pages, that I came to appreciate what was before me: the story of four very complex women determined to own their lives.
Alice Hoffman is a gifted writer who meticulously researched Masada before writing “The Dovekeepers.” Recently, I went to hear Hoffman speak at R. Julia Booksellers, a small independent bookstore in Madison, Connecticut. There were about 100 people in attendance, mostly women who listened intently as Hoffman told the audience she did not grow up knowing a lot about Judaism but learned a great deal in the process of researching the book. On Hoffman’s first visit to Masada when she learned that two women and five children survived the siege, she knew she had a story in which she could write about women and survival: themes that run through many of the 30 books Hoffman has published.
“The Dovekeepers” is a fictional story and yet the story explains why a group of people who sought refuge in a fortress would rather die than surrender and why a smaller group of people chose life.