Masada, the Judean Desert fortress wrested from Jewish rebels by a Roman army in the first century CE, left so deep an impression on author Alice Hoffman that she wrote a novel about that historic siege, one of the most significant events in Jewish history.
Hoffman, an American who lives in Boston, visited the site for the first time five years ago, and she was smitten.
“I was so inspired by the sense of the past, by the ruins themselves, and by the pure spiritual nature of the place,” she explained in an interview.
Her novel, The Dovekeepers, (Simon & Schuster), covers a period of four years around 70 CE as the Romans sack Jerusalem and wage war against 900 Jewish rebels and their families in Masada.
According to the historian Josephus, only two women and five children survived the onslaught. The remainder of the Jews committed suicide rather than submit to capture and slavery.
In The Dovekeepers, Hoffman deftly remasters and retells this iconic story from the viewpoint of four women, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah, all of whom harbour secrets.
These characters are figments of her imagination, said Hoffman, who has written 28 works of fiction, including Here on Earth, an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
“It was extremely difficult to find information about women in the ancient world, especially details about their domestic lives,” she said.
Hoffman was greatly influenced by Yigal Yadin, the Israeli general, archeologist and politician who worked at Masada in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I always deferred to his findings about the siege, though there are many interpretations of it.”
Hoffman, too, was immensely influenced by the weathered artifacts associated with the siege she saw in Masada’s Yigal Yadin Museum.
She included them – a tartan fabric belonging to a Roman legionnaire, the skeletons of a young warrior and a boy, and the sandals and hair of a young man whose remains were found next to a fountain – in the novel.
Currently a visiting scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and the grandchild of Russian Jewish socialists, Hoffman is pleased to have written a book on such a perennially interesting topic.
“It was an honour to give a voice to the women who were at Masada and who have remained silent for so long.”