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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Tragic story of suicide at Masada comes to the small screen

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About 10 years ago, Alice Hoffman, a screenwriter and author of more than 30 books, visited the ancient ruins of Masada for the first time. As she walked amid the crumbling cisterns, the synagogue and the dovecotes, she felt intensely the echoes of the tragic history that had occurred on that arid plateau some 2,000 years ago.

During and after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., more than 900 Jewish refugees fled to King Herod’s old mountaintop fortress, where they lived and practiced their religion until around 73 C.E., when a Roman legion laid siege and built a sky-high ramp to smash through Masada’s thick walls. Rather than allowing themselves to be murdered or enslaved by their enemies, the Jewish rebels opted to commit mass suicide, so when the Romans finally burst onto the plateau, they found only dead bodies and just seven survivors — two women and five children.

“The tragic events of the past and the extraordinary sacrifices that were made in this fortress seemed to be present in the pale air,” Hoffman writes in the afterword to her novel “The Dovekeepers,” which spotlights the lives of women in Masada and has been turned into a two-part TV series of the same name, which will air March 31 and April 1 on CBS. “It was as if those who had lived there, and died there, had passed by only moments before.”

“I almost felt like I heard a whispering,” said Hoffman, whose novels, which often spotlight women, include “At Risk” and “Practical Magic,” which was adapted into a 1998 film. “I felt the presence of stories that had been untold, and especially I heard women’s voices. I might have left it at that, but then I saw a little plaque that said there had been survivors, which shocked me because I had never previously heard that. And I knew then that I had the subject of my next book. I couldn’t have written the novel if there hadn’t been any survivors,” she said.

Back home near Boston, the author read books such as “Masada:  Herod’s Fortress and the Zealot’s Last Stand” by the famed Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, and “The Jewish War” — the only historical account that exists of the tragedy — by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus. Although Hoffman came to learn that subsequent scholars have debated the account of the mass suicide, as relatively few skeletons have been discovered at Masada, she opted to base her novel on the earlier accounts.

The novel begins before the Romans arrive and imagines four women who have sought haven at Masada and work together in the community’s dovecotes: Yael, the daughter of a Jewish Sicarii assassin spurned by her father since her mother died giving birth to her; Revka, whose grandsons have remained mute ever since they witnessed the rape, torture and murder of their mother at the hands of Roman soldiers; Shirah, the alluring “Witch of Moab,” who infuses her Judaism with magic her mother taught her during her childhood in Egypt; and Shirah’s daughter, Aziza, whose stepfather had trained her to become a warrior and who fights, disguised as a man, alongside the Masada rebels.

Hoffman said many details of the novel were inspired by ancient artifacts she viewed at the Yigael Yadin Museum at Masada and other institutions throughout Europe and Egypt. The names found on ostraca at Masada, including Yoav, the Man from the Valley, and Ben Ya’ir, the leader of the rebellion, became two protagonists in her novel. A tartan fabric that had belonged to a legionnaire conscripted from Wales prompted the character of a Roman soldier captured by the Jewish zealots; the hair and sandals of a young woman discovered alongside scales of armor led Hoffman to create the female warrior Aziza; while amulets and incantation bowls that had belonged to other nomadic women of the time, in part spurred the author to envision the magic she imagined had been secretly practiced by the women of Masada.

“I have long been drawn to stories of survival,” Hoffman said of one reason she was riveted by the Masada story. Growing up essentially without a father on Long Island, her childhood heroine was Anne Frank; Hoffman’s beloved grandmother, Lillie, had fled Russia for the Lower East Side, where she lost a son and a husband; and Hoffman herself was diagnosed with cancer around the same time as her own mother some 15 years ago.

Since her grandmother died some years ago, Hoffman added, she has become motivated to write for the first time about Jewish subject matter, first in “The Dovekeepers,” then in her Lower East Side saga, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” (2014) and in her upcoming novel, “The Marriage of Opposites,” which revolves around the Jewish mother of the painter Camille Pissarro.

“The Dovekeepers’ ” 500-page saga proved a hard sell to Hollywood until Hoffman received a call from producer Roma Downey about two years ago.

Downey, who is producing the series along with her husband, Mark Burnett — the creator of hit reality TV shows such as “Survivor” — had read the novel in one sitting during a flight to Europe and had sobbed so much that a flight attendant came to comfort her. Having lost her own mother to a heart attack when she was 10, the Northern Ireland native was moved by “The Dovekeepers’ ” accounts of mothers and daughters lost. Downey and her husband, both devout Christians, have become Hollywood’s go-to couple for producing stories revolving around faith; their 2013 miniseries “The Bible,” for example, drew more than 100 million viewers on The History Channel.

“I think that people are hungry for God,” Downey said of why she and Burnett have dedicated their career to faith-based shows. “And with ‘The Dovekeepers,’ ” she added, “we have the story of a [religious] community that stepped up for each other … at a time when the Romans were crucifying up to 500 Jews a day.”

With Hoffman’s blessing, Downey took the project to Nina Tassler at CBS, who coincidentally had just returned from visiting Masada. Within seven months, the series was shooting on location in Malta, even though “emotionally we would have all preferred to make the film in Israel,” Downey said (an Israeli production proved impossible for budgetary reasons).  But the crew was able to secure aerial shots of Masada that were seamlessly merged with images of the set via computer graphics.

“I’m hoping the series will still be great for Israel,” Downey said.

“The Dovekeepers” airs March 31 and April 1 on CBS.

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