Alice Hoffman’s latest book, “The Dovekeepers: A Novel,” which was just released this month (Scribner, 10/4/11), follows the lives of four women from the time the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., through their separate journeys to Masada, and the final stand of the Jews there against the conquering Roman legion.
Divided into four parts, the novel starts with the story of Yael, the daughter of a master assassin, whose brother takes up the family trade to become an assassin as well. Yael and her father flee Jerusalem with a young couple and their two sons after the Romans destroy the Temple.
We follow Yael and her companions as they travel through the desert, facing sickness, hunger, and thirst on their way to Masada. Once at Masada, Yael is sent to work in the dovecote, where she meets the other dovekeepers referred to in the book’s title.
The second section of the book describes the story of Revka, and her terrifying journey with her daughter, son-in-law, and their two children. Finally, the third and fourth sections reveal the secrets of Aziza and her mother Shirah, known as the Witch of Moab.
One of the things that makes this novel so fascinating is that it is told exclusively from the point of view of women. While the men may be concerned with the loss of the Temple as a place to be close to God and to make sacrifices, the women’s experience of the Temple was only to be brought there to be judged regarding suspected adultery.
As a result, the women are less concerned with the loss of the Temple than they are with the loss of their homes, their way of life, their innocence, and the lives of those close to them who fell at the hands of the Roman soldiers or on their treacherous journey toward Masada.
The women, far from being pious Jews who current Orthodox women would want to emulate, live in a world dominated by magical spells, amulets, and divination. These women follow the law when it suits them, but do not hesitate to pray to the goddess Ashtoreth or to resort to magic when trouble arises. The synagogue and the laws belong to the men, but the women find their own power elsewhere.
Throughout the book, Hoffman skillfully balances tragedy with hope, and death with new life. We all know, as the book marches toward the Roman’s siege of Masada, what the outcome will be for the majority of those living on the mountaintop. Yet there are plenty of surprises in the narrative, including an ending which affirms that life continues and is worthwhile, even in times of great tragedy and destruction.
This book isn’t for the feint of heart, or for those looking for exemplars of how religious Jews are supposed to behave. But if you’re looking for tale of four strong women doing the best they can in the midst of harrowing circumstances, with a fair amount of magic thrown in, this novel is for you.
Disclaimer: TCJewfolk received a free copy of this book so we could review it. If you think this in some way guarantees a positive review, please refer to our review of The Book of Life.