Monday, May 21, 2012

Jewish Women's Lit Review--The Dovekeepers

This week I read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman.

First things first, and since I'm going to get somewhat critical and nitpicky soon enough, and then start talking my own emotional response, I should first offer much-deserved praise: I read this book with enormous pleasure. The writing is lush and dreamlike, and the evocation of the Judean desert and Herod's palace fortress is amazing. I was delighted by the sense of visceral connection to the land that was communicated through the characters' eyes. The Dovekeepers traces the experience of four women following the destruction of Jerusalem, and throughout the siege of Masada, Yael, the daughter of an assassin from Jerusalem, Revka, a grandmother from a smaller community, Shirah, a midwife and witch with a complicated past, and her daughter Aziza, raised as a boy in Moab, and now struggling to find a place for herself on Masada. For all of my criticism, I would absolutely recommend this book.

Reading (and writing) historical fiction about Jewish communities is always odd for me. The people, the names, the language and the cycle of life is always at once utterly familiar, and (sometimes wildly) exotic. Some details of Jewish life portrayed in The Dovekeepers I find odd and unexpected, and I'm not sure if they are actually errors, or if I simply don't know enough about the period to know what I am reading. (I chalked up the presence of a northern European legionary, taken prisoner and sent as a slave to work in the dovecotes, as a somewhat silly plotline, and too reminiscent of The Bronze Bow, however apparently one of the artifacts discovered at Masada is a scrap of plaid fabric, apparently originating in Wales. So see what I don't know?)

Unmarried girls go the mikvah following menstruation, which seems odd to me, but may well have been the custom of the day. (More that I don't know.) At one point, bafflingly, a single, pregnant girl is subjected to the Sotah trial. There is a passage in which it's stated that women are not allowed to touch weapons, and those they handle will have to be purified before men can use them again. This is, in fact, a custom in a lot of places. Polynesia, say, or among Jean Auel's Neanderthals. But where in Torah does it say any such thing? The closest I've been able to find to this is an argument in the Talmud that a woman carrying weapons is beged ish, it is a man's 'clothing', and therefore assur. (I'm not sure that this would rule out one of those cute little 'Hello Kitty' assault rifles you see online occasionally.) However, a woman is allowed to pick up, wash, carry around, etc., a man's clothing. This prohibition has the feel of something randomly made up. Once again: I'm not sure. But it makes me wish that Hoffman's world-building felt more stable, as I attempt to sort out the ways of people who are as familiar as cousins and yet impossibly distant in terms of time, way of life, and religious practice.

There is a complex interweaving of women's magic and religion, which I am not totally comfortable with as an historically and critically minded reader. Shirah, 'the Witch of Moab', is described in lavish detail as having been raised and taught magic in Alexandria, by her mother, a kadesha, a biblical term defined by Shirah as a holy woman who is 'available' to priests. Shirah describes these women as, in her lifetime, being outlawed by the religious authorities, and going from being considered sacred to being considered ordinary prostitutes. Shirah's mother also teaches her daughter the worship of the goddess Ashtaroth, whose cult is presented through the novel in a jumbled way, sometimes forbidden by the priests of the Temple, sometimes accepted as an ordinary although private form of worship by the other women.

Remember, this is supposed to be happening in the first century CE. I'm not an expert on that era, but given how much earlier the emphasis on pure monotheism began, I am having a really hard time imagining that these specific (and highly appealing to a sizeable modern audience) religious practices survived to just about, but not quite the end of the Second Temple Era. It's not quite as insanely anachronistic as Clysta Kinstler's The Moon Under Her Feet, (little is), but it is unconvincing in this era. I bought it, (the concept, not always the portrayal) in The Red Tent. In a novel set during the early days of the First Temple, I wouldn't blink. In the life of a woman living through the siege of Masada, no. And there is something truly miraculous about the way the reverential worship of the divine feminine always seems to last just up to the period of any given novel that wants to include such elements.

Beyond my kicking of the tires of realistic portrayal of time and place, I found myself immediately sucked into the premise, and protective of the characters, and to some extent, the novel itself. Despite my own gripes, I found myself decidedly angry with the author of a dismissive review in the New York Times. I knew what was coming at the novel's end, and it gave the struggles and conflicts of the characters an added intensity for me. All of the characters are suffering recent trauma, in their own lives, and collectively, in the loss of Jerusalem. Hoffman refers to the fall of the city and the destruction of the Temple only glancingly, as in one reference when a character comments that this is the first Pesach when they cannot bring offerings to the Temple. For me, the single passing reference was gut-wrenching. I don't know if it would have had the same effect on a reader further removed from the material.

The fall of Masada was difficult for me, both in terms of reading, and in terms of how Hoffman handles it. Given the determination to survive of some of her characters, it doesn't seem unrealistic that they would disagree with the communal choice of mass suicide, but it troubled me in particular that one young man, chosen by lot to kill others, is treated by the narrator of this section almost as though he were committing a crime for personal satisfaction.

I suppose I wasn't going to react in any sort of a neutral way to a novel about Masada, but I was fascinated both by the novel, and the intensity of my reactions to authorial decsions. The story, realized, belonged to me in my mind, and I was both thrilled that someone was writing, and publishing, a novel about it, and deeply picky about how it should be done. A good read. Recommended.


Anonymous said...

I wasn't really looking forward to reading this book, but I am now grateful that I did. Its a book about nobility, sacrifice, love, and the strength of women in an era in which they were disregarded. Alice Hoffman did an amazing job crafting this book. She spent over five years doing research on the time period, which provides credibility to both her novel and the story it tells. It was beautifully written, and contains characters that many modern day women can relate to, despite the time difference and the characters circumstances. Loved every page.

Micaella Lopez said...

A tale full of mystery and secrets, mothers and daughters, love and hate, and complex human relationships. This is one novel to read slowly and enjoy every word. It would be an ideal novel for book clubs or an exchange of gifts between mothers and daughters. A profound statement on the power and resilience and honour! Highly recommended.

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