by Justine Johnston Hemmestad
The Dovekeepers, a novel written in 2011 by Alice Hoffman, and its namesake TV movie, executive produced in 2015 by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, are different entities entirely, and as a result of Hoffman’s diligent research and in-depth characters the book stands out as superior. Hoffman is the author of over thirty works of fiction, including The Dovekeepers, which is a feat that makes her one of the most prolific authors on the market today. The careful study that Hoffman has done on the Jewish sect, the Sicarii, and their last stronghold, Masada, has allowed her readers to witness an event that has been long etched into history. What I loved about this book was that though it was written through the perspectives of four different female characters, each of those characters tells a continuation of the story through her own eyes amid varying positions and walks of life that bleed into one. The consistent themes of the story are dedication, God, and The World to Come, as filtered through the Sicarii mind whilst they fight for their ancestral land, and I find it amazing to witness the ways of “our people” through the eyes of these women, each with a distinct voice, keeping in mind that they lived mere decades after Jesus.
The first part of the book, The Assassin’s Daughter, tells the story of Yael via her thoughts and objectives, from the moment she formulates the belief that she “murdered” her mother (who died as a result of childbirth) and therefore deserved her father’s “indignation and wrath,” to her close relationship with her brother Amram, who she says “belonged to dreams rather than to the routine of our daily lives,” to having to flee Jerusalem with her father, an aged assassin, as the second temple is destroyed. It is to Yael that the best part of the book belongs, and to her that such deep thoughts to describe her life find their way onto the page, like: “The voice that arises out of the silence is something no one can imagine until it is heard.” To describe her world, she says, “All that will ever be has already been written long before it happens.” Amram is already gone into the desert when she and her father leave Jerusalem, as she explains the battle for her land, “The desire for Jerusalem was a fire that could not be quenched. There was a spark inside the holiest of places that made people want to possess it, and what men yearn for they often destroy.”
The desert clinches her fate and self-identity, for it is here that her view of herself as a murderess transgresses into one of a lioness who stares down fear and overcomes, for her most identifiable characteristic is her red hair. In the desert they are joined by Jachim ben Simon, who taught her brother the ways of assassins, his wife, whom Yael initially befriends, and their children. On their trek, she offers a window into her soul with, “My feet were bleeding on the rocks in my dream,” which is to say that her life is left behind like her ancestors. The group can only travel during the night, since “Travel was impossible in the heat of the day, for the winds were merciless and could cut a man to pieces.” This allows her the prime opportunity, after days of ben Simon watching her, in which she acknowledges, “He still wasn’t looking at me, but he seemed to know me, even though I was hidden inside my veils.” Their love is a fascinating part of the book, and the reader truly gets a depiction of Yael’s time and customs, as well as the draw between Jachim and Yael. He tells her that God could “distinguish a sinner from a sin,” and that what they did “was beyond judgment.” However, when ben Simon and his family are overcome with fever, she and her father leave to find help from an encampment of Essenes, though they are too late to save the family’s lives.
Since ben Simon once vanquished a lion, and her as well, she equates him with a lion. She has a striking line that foretells of the rest of her life: “I’d been bitten by a lion, but you had to look inside me to see the scar.” She riddles, “If ten men are kept in a room with a lion and only one survives, what does that man become? If a woman with red hair keeps silent, will she ever be able to speak the truth again?” She learns that she must be brutal in the desert to survive. Having lived through these events, Yael seems to consider herself almost superhuman, and she feels she no longer leaves footprints in the sand.
Her brother Amram learns of their whereabouts and sends warriors to retrieve them and bring them to the fortress of Masada — just as Yael realizes she’s pregnant with ben Simon’s baby and haunted by his wife: “It was he I longed for, but it was she who wrapped her arms around me, who slid her fingers over my skin, who whispered in my ear.” She feels that the Serpent’s Path of Masada was written in the Book of Life, and that she was meant to live on the hilltop. Once there, she works in the dovecote where she meets a Roman slave, who is known as The Man from the North (having been stolen by the Romans and made to be a soldier in their legions). Once he reveals that he indeed knows her language, he says to her, “’You think I don’t see you, but I do.’ He didn’t deflect his eyes until she did.” He reaches her on a deeper level than anyone else, where she thought she could never be reached again. She also learns from the Witch of Moab how to banish the ghost of ben Simon’s wife by asking for her forgiveness. I loved the different mentions of herbs and plants and what they were used for in ancient times and as the women valued them in their lives.
The second part of the book is told through the perspective of Revka, who is The Baker’s Wife. Revka’s tale is told in a completely different manner than Yael’s, which I felt was a bit jarring at first — just when I began to care about a character, she’s done telling her part of the story (but later I realized the uniqueness of this type of storytelling). Revka already works in the dovecotes when Yael arrives, and her backstory is just as brutal. Her husband, who was a baker, and her daughter were murdered by Roman soldiers, though she finds some measure of justice when she kills her daughter’s murderers with rat poison. Her son in law Yoav, who was at the time a respected and learned young rabbi, is distraught with guilt and his whole demeanor changes at Masada, whereupon he becomes the vengeful and death-defying Man from the Valley. He is self-torturing and brazenly fearless, for both he and his mother-in-law are guilt-burdened by the loss of his sons’ voices due to the trauma of seeing their mother tortured. Of her son-in-law, Revka says, “Brambles and thorns are threaded through the strands as they are in the wool of sheep and goats, but he doesn’t notice, for he lingers in the world of grief, not in ours. Thorns mean nothing to him. Brambles are all he expects from the world.” Besides Yael, Yoav is the most well-rounded and thought-out character of the book, possibly because Hoffman writes him as so emptied and therefore so filled with alternate life. He seems more human than most of the other characters, like Amram.
Whereas I first thought the Assassin’s Daughter was better than The Baker’s Wife, I realized that as it continued, it’s a portion of mourning and had such depth. Revka says of her family, “We had entered the territory of silence, slipping inside of it the way shadows fold across the earth with the lengthening day.” Poignant realizations reside in Revka’s section, such as, “…in the world God has given, all things must change,” and the reader learns Yael gives birth to a son from ben Simon, whom she calls Azieh, which very aptly means lion. The reader becomes intimate with the baker’s wife, learning that her lamentation is like “an arrow piercing through me…Melancholy was around me like a shroud, my sorrow sewn to me with the black thread daemons are said to use.” She mirrors her son-in-law throughout her section, and she acknowledges, “we were so alike it was painful, two people who had drowned in the same pool.” This overwhelming loss of her daughter and his wife is felt in the sharp-edge bronze that Yoav wrapped his arms with as a form of self-torture. She goes so far as to give him her daughter’s last breath, which was her sacrifice to him in his pain.
When the story delves into the characters’ femininity, and the mourning of women, Hoffman is at her finest. It is in Revka’s section that she makes the mistake of letting Yael’s infant son be held by the wife of Ya’ir (the leader of Masada), Channa, in exchange for time Yael can spend with the Man from the North, who has been imprisoned for attempting to escape. Predictably, Channa gets attached to the baby and tries to keep him, and the narrating women must use their judgement and skill to get the child back.
The Warrior’s Beloved is the next section, and it contains the perspective of Aziza, Amram’s beloved and the Witch of Moab’s daughter, having come with her mother when her mother is called by her beloved, who we come to learn is the leader of Masada/Channa’s husband, Ya’ir. Whereas we first see Aziza’s love for Amram from Yael’s perspective, we now see Aziza’s love for him through her own eyes. However, “He did not see through my veils, and I did not reveal my deepest self to him.” Aziza notably never tells him what her true name was before her mother changed it, for the essence of who she is resides in her name and therefore she is never really his and she knows it: “When you change your name, you change your fate as well. The person you had been vanishes, and not even the angels can find you.”
I loved lines she uses to poignantly describe her love for her younger sister, who she helped birth: “I tasted blood and salt, everything life is of, and spat it upon the ground,” and “I took your death and your life into myself.” But when her sister leaves her and their mother to be with an Essene man who has also come to Masada, Aziza feels the pain and uses a moment when the world’s cloak of twilight pulls on her soul: “When I see you at the wall, at prayer with the Essene women at the hour when day becomes night, you don’t glance at me, though my breath is inside you and yours is part of me. No matter how you refuse me, our spirits combine to form a single thread… You are mine and mine alone.” I love how Hoffman captures the sense that ancient peoples weren’t afraid to feel so deeply, for the depth of their feelings/emotion was beyond humanity.
I also appreciated how Hoffman includes meaningful ancient descriptions, such as the engraving of a fish on an amulet, noting how it promised the wearer would be near water, which was recognized as “the most precious element, the giver of life.” She says, “There are those who say that our word for grave, kever, is also used to describe where a child dwells inside a mother, for life and death are intertwined.” I also loved: “I had heard it said that Malachi wrote so beautifully the angels came to watch, for words were the first thing God created out of the silence and were still the most beautiful of all His creations.”
Her mother, the Witch of Moab, disguised Aziza as a boy when she was growing up for her own safety, and when she changed her identity to female again, Aziza feels the weight of the sex she feels she should have been born as. “Every man in this region was said to be born with a knife in his hand, a horse already chosen for him, and a prayer to offer to his god.” When she pretends to be a boy again at Masada so she can enter an arrow shooting contest among the warriors, she says, “All at once I could hear the truth of the moment.” And it is Aziza’s portion that The Man from the North, in a makeshift prison for escaping, is given the Psalms for protection: “I have placed the Lord constantly before me,” and broken free with the help of Yael.
When Aziza accompanies her mother as she performs an exorcism on Channa to get Yael’s son back, all the spells she uses are passages from Scripture, especially Psalms. They chant the words to invoke God, and it’s so amazing and beautiful how what are considered meaningful words today had actual life and rhythm then, and ancient followers believed the words had the power to change the order and composition of the world: “He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. With a long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.” The words are also a metaphor, for the Witch tells Channa that she’s been with her husband, the great leader of Masada, all along, and she shows Channa her pregnant stomach to drive home the point.
Aziza learns the ways of the stealth assassin from Yael’s father, further intertwining the women’s stories and leaving the reader with striking thoughts from the feminine point of view: “Such things as smiles can be weapons as well,” and “…I knew that among men words were not nearly as perilous as the ones women spoke.” It is Yael’s father who tells her, “…a shadow is viewed with the mind, not the eye,” which may also be said of the physical world in which they live. She then takes her brother’s place after he’s injured and goes to battle with arrows that she made herself. Of this moment in her life, as she’s facing battles and action, she tries to weed through her love: “I followed near Amram, so that I might keep watch over him, the dog at my heels, the great beast as silent as we were.” I realize then that the dog that follows her into battle is a metaphor for how she feels like she’s Amram’s dog, following him blindly. She says, “The earth itself seemed to have a beating heart, and the thudding of my pulse met its rhythm,” as though she’s remembering Jerusalem, further creating a sense of what they are fighting for amidst the fighting itself. But when she witnesses Amram murder innocent women and children, and she realizes that he doesn’t recognize her in her disguise, she becomes quickly disillusioned by him. “When I looked at him, I saw not his handsome features but the face of the murdered child from the village, no older in years than the girl who had brought me his message.”
In this time, she grows close to the fearless warrior, the Man from the Valley, and seeks him for comfort whilst spurning Amram, and it’s fascinating to see him from another point of view besides Revka’s. About him Aziza says, “I had never seen a man so open in his agony. I felt that I could weep at the sight of him…” She knows he senses that she’s a woman while Amram does not, and he never reveals her. Instead, he’s focused on doing God’s bidding. She says of him, and of the comfort she feels with him, “Of all who were before me, he was the only one I wished to stand beside.” Aziza’s love and devotion for The Man from the Valley is the only non-destructive relationship in the entire book. The warrior for whom this section is titled is Amram, but it is from The Man from the Valley that the most heavenly love is shown. At the end of her section she says, “’My name is Rebekah,’” I told him as we stood there together. As he was Yoav, the Man from the Valley, the love of my life.”
The fourth section of the book is called The Witch of Moab, from the point of view of Aziza’s mother, Shirah, who accentuates her tale by describing, “…our people themselves are like the fish in the sea, nourished by the waters of knowledge that flow from the Torah, and that is why we can survive in such a harsh and brutal land.” In her section, the story of the end of the Roman siege of Masada is told. Each of these women cast a shawl of love over the events they witness, and Shirah is a great example of this. Additionally, the use of different natural ingredients, plants, and spices in her magic is utterly breath-taking, and the result of what must have been monumental research by Hoffman.
About Masada’s leader, Eleazer ben Ya’ir, she speaks of how she feels with the magnitude of his words: “This was what I had yearned for when I was cast out of Jerusalem, for the way he spoke was a miracle. With his words, he could approach the soul where it resided, a glory to God, for words were what the Almighty first created, after the silence of the world, and they were Eleazar ben Ya’ir’s gift as well.” She regards his sacrifice of love beautifully when she says, “I listened as he bewitched me, for even then he had a way with what God had created first, and his words poured over me like water.” Though their love seems like a precursor to death, their story is fated and mirrors heaven, especially so considering the messages they pass to one another by the flight of doves. Almost intrinsically, she says, “What had appeared to be a puzzle now formed itself into a path.” She also defines her reverence for him, and her willingness to receive him, with, “I never revealed I was learned in many languages, for it was only his voice I wished to hear, not my own.”
As ben Ya’ir inspires her love, so he inspires his warriors in the face of Roman doom: “As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord will save me,” he says to them. “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and He shall hear my voice. He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me.” Shirah draws a correlation with what he says and with their law: “We did not understand that, much like the ninth of Av, when both Temples fell, when Moses broke the tablets, when sorrow reigned across our world, some days were meant to make us remember that the past was still with us.” And of their impending fate on Masada, and the steadfastness of their belief, she says, “All we could smell then was fire; the fragrance of sweet cypress was like a dream that had once clung in the air.” Of Ya’ir’s child, who she rushes into labor because it would not have survived the devastation otherwise, she says, “I called her Yonah, for she had come into the world because of a message brought by a dove.” It was by the hand of Ya’ir’s love that she dies, amongst the other sacrificial lives of Masada, stealing the Romans’ ultimate victory.
The last part of the book, an epilogue in a way, resumes in the voice of Yael, although she carries the additional identity of the Witch of Moab within her. She tells the tale of her escape within this framework: “We had hurried down the stone steps, breathless in the dark, as Death surged above us, before we slipped into the water, as though we were fish, for our peoples are sister and brother to such creatures, that is why we can endure where others are doomed to perish.” She also tells her story of the lion she set free at Masada and says that the lion was “the king of nothing other than his own freedom… All things change, for that is the way of the world we walk through.”
The first part of the story is animalistic, the second part is rational, the third part is beautiful, and the fourth part is majestic, correlating with each female perspective in whose voice the portion is in. What they all have in common: “Nothing in this world is lasting, only our faith lives on.” The story itself is so moving, and the history so convincing, though the depiction of the Roman army as having taken a break upon breaching the wall before invading, thereupon breaking their momentum for unjustified reason, is rationalized by historians as likely slanted. Regardless, Hoffman presents a brilliant piece of work that will linger in the reader’s imagination. The understanding that this was the world Jesus walked in, and these were the beliefs to which he was accustomed, is stunning with every turn of the page.
Justine Johnston Hemmestad has a published novella called Truth be Told and a published novel called Visions of a Dream, and she is included in seventeen anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries and Into the Glen, Into the Light.
She also has stories published in several magazines, including The Nonbinary Review and Kaleidoscope. In total, she has been writing for twenty-five years. She earned her Master’s Degree in English Literature from Northern Arizona University in 2020, despite a car accident thirty years earlier in which she sustained a severe brain injury. She also has seven children and two grandchildren.