The Dovekeepers by Alice HoffmanDOVE

In 70 CE (AD), in ancient Israel, the First Jewish-Roman War took a decisive turn when the Roman Legion overtook the holy city of Jerusalem, sacking the city and destroying the sacred Second Temple, which had stood for almost 500 years. According to the historian Josephus (born in 37 CE, died in 100 CE), 1.1 million people – mostly Jews – were killed during the siege, and 97,000 more were captured and enslaved. The few Jews who escaped fled into the Judean desert; some found their way to the fortification at Masada.
Masada was situated on top of a massive plateau, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great had a built a marvelous palace there, with sparkling fountains and pristine white marble rooms and colorful mosaics to take the breath away, but in 66 CE, a group of hardened Jewish rebels, known as the Sicarii, took the palace through trickery and established a base there while the rest of Judea struggled with the brutal war. Then three years after the sacking of Jerusalem, the Roman governor of Judea laid siege to Masada – one of the last strongholds of Jewish rebellion.
After months of deprivation and the threat brought by a massive siege tower manned by Jewish slaves, Masada was finally breeched, but instead of encountering a final resistance, the Roman troops entering the compound were greeted with silence. Rather than being captured, the over 900 inhabitants of Masada had committed mass suicide after burning their buildings and supplies, leaving nothing for the conquering army to celebrate.
Out of all the souls who lived on Masada, only two women and five children survived.
From the account of Josephus, along with artifacts housed at the Yigal Yadin Museum at Masada (such as a tartan fabric belonging to a legionnaire conscripted from Wales) and other historical fragments found in Europe, Israel and Egypt, author Alice Hoffman painstakingly weaves a meticulous and vast tale of four Jewish women whose lives become bound together through adversity and circumstance. All of them are damaged. All of them are vital. And each one of them, in their own way, are survivors.
There is Yael, the red headed assassin’s daughter who loved a man with the heart of a lion after fleeing Jerusalem. Then there is Revkah, the baker’s wife, who cares for her grandsons who have been rendered mute by the atrocities they have witnessed. There is also Aziza, the warrior’s daughter, who masquerades as a boy so as to fight alongside her Jewish brethren, until she is unmasked by love. Then finally there is Shirah, the witch woman from Alexandria: powerful, humble, willing to do whatever it takes to protect those she loves, including the man who leads the people of Masada. Their lives are bound together when all four women are assigned to work in the dove cotes of Masada.
What is most impressive about Ms. Hoffman’s story is the unflinching way that she relates not only the story of the four women, but the harsh yet beautiful environment in which they lived and the piety and passion that ruled their lives. Although they lived at a time and in a society where women were not considered equal to men, they found value in who they were and how they moved through their lives in service to their families and to their people. Each of them found strength in the laws that bound them – both civic and religious – but also unflinchingly defied those laws when confronted with the need to protect their loved ones. Each of them knew horrendous heartbreak, but continued on through adversity and even threat of being outcast because they were convinced of their own value, a value that was bolstered by their faith, yes, and their love.
For anyone who watched the recent television “mini-series” that used this book as its source material – whether you loved it or hated it – know that it was a very, very pale comparison to the depth of the book. Yes, the passion, the love stories, the drama, are all found in the book, but there is so much more. Reading The Dovekeepers not only will gift you with an achingly beautiful – and hard – tale, but also will give you insight into a world and a people whose lives, and deaths, still impact our reality today. It is, in two words, heartbreaking and magnificent.
-Sharon Browning

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