Tag Archives: Jewish Literature

Book Diva Review: The Dovekeepers

thedovekeepers Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah are four women who share a common thread within The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman.

Each woman’s story is told separately, but within the pages, each person is connected within the environment of Masada, the Jewish stronghold against the Romans. Masada was an ancient fortress with several palaces, sitting high atop a hill in the harsh desert where the palace and home of King Herod once stood. The four women depicted, live life in a challenging geographical environment, but more so, in a physically and emotionally challenging atmosphere. The four women more or less shared not only food and lodging, but also emotionally involved secrets, fears and losses, all beginning within their interactions within dovecote.

Masada’s cliffs and passages created a fortress for the Jews until the Romans took siege upon it in the last quarter of the first century. The Jews were known as “Zealots”. Each person was assigned a role, and the four women whose lives are intertwined worked in the dovecote. The dovecote was where the women worked to gather fertilizer for the gardens that supplied staples to the inhabitants.

Their lives bring history alive, and Hoffman wasted no detail in telling their stories, stories that show the deprivation, repression, and suffering thrust upon Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. Yet throughout all of that, there were also sexual encounters, willing ones, at that. Hoffman’s prose is masterful, and her word imagery is vivid and filled with perspectives of history that are an extremely amazing accomplishment on her part.

Yael was cast aside by her Sicarri father at birth, and feels her life is worthless. Revka is a grandmother, whose two grandsons became mute after watching the murder of their mother, at the hand of the Romans. Shira is a mystical woman who was accused of witchcraft because of her medicine practices. Aziza, one of Shira’s daughters disguises herself as a man in order to fight like one. Each woman has an intriguing story to tell, and each one has faced the extremes of physical, mental and emotional boundaries.

Love, loss, submission, hardship, discrimination, religion, culture and customs, perseverance and strength reign supreme within the pages. The four women each have tales of their own to tell, involving how they came to the stronghold of Masada, how their lives were connected through the dovecote, but also connected in other areas. The book held my interest, although it was a slow read at times. I did want to know about the characters, wanted to know of their struggles against the harsh environment, but also against the superstitions, religious fanaticism, and the treatment of women in general during the time period portrayed.

The Romans lay siege upon Masada, and their abilities and strength to build not only a wall around the perimeter of Masada, but also a ramp in which to climb to the hilltop in order to release their scourge on the Jews is a part of Jewish history that has been told and handed down through the centuries, based on the writings of Josephus. The almost 1,000 Jews who survived until the scourge, lived their lives until, in an act so dramatic, they, en masse, made certain that they would not die or become enslaved at the hands of the Romans. They did die, but by their own decision to do so. All but seven individuals committed mass suicide, according to history. Two women and five children managed to survive.

Some of Josephus’ contemporary historical writings of the time were based on witness accounts of one or more of the women mentioned in The Dovekeepers. The novel is based on historical fact, and Hoffman writes of the historical data within the pages with the insight of extreme research and travels to Israel and to the site of Masada.

The Dovekeepers is a long read and not a particularly uplifting one, other than the fact that the Jews held up at Masada, fought to survive for their own beliefs. It is a story that is depressing, as a whole, especially if one knows the end, before beginning the book. I highly recommend The Dovekeepers for the historical aspect, and for the educational aspects of the novel. Alice Hoffman has surpassed herself, in my opinion, as far as her magnificent and detailed prose is concerned. Her devotion to accuracy, within a fictional framework is incredible and should be applauded, in my opinion.

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First Desire, by Nancy Reisman

the-first-desire1 In First Desire by Nancy Reisman, we are given a set of characters who appear to be constantly yearning for acceptance and love, within the confines of the familial structure.

The Cohen family is composed of a tyrannical widower, Abe Cohen, and his five adult children, who seem to be stuck in a time warp, lost within the familial folds. The family unit is composed of four daughters (Jo, Sadie, Celia and Goldie) and one son (Irving). They are seemingly lifeless and unmotivated individuals, overpowered by loss, and by a dictatorial father.

All of them are still in mourning for their mother, and they are lost in a cycle of escaping the painful aspects of life. Their father, seems to be uncaring, and is a demanding and authoritarian individual, especially with his daughters. He escapes into a relationship with a women named Lillian Schumacher. Goldie can’t cope with the demands of her father, and the loss of her mother, and escapes by fleeing the house, leaving those behind to wonder about her, for years (not knowing whether she is dead or alive). Sadie questions her own sanity and the relationship with her husband, who only seems to want her company during times of sexual relations, and watches him become almost as tyrannical as her father. Jo is lost within her protective, obnoxious attitude, which is her form of escape. Celia escapes within her mind, which is sometimes coherent, but more often, not. Irving escapes into alcohol and gambling.

First Desire is adeptly written, and Nancy Reisman’s characters give us insight into depression, patriarchal pressures, and family interactions and dynamics, during the turbulent years that range from the late 1920s to 1950. They are believable individuals, and the climate of the decades is believable.

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A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua

“A Late Divorce”, by A.B. Yehoshua, is a novel that was translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin.  The story line revolves around Yehuda and his wife Naomi.

Yehuda has traveled back to Israel from America, in order to obtain a divorce from his wife, Naomi.  Here is where the tour-de-force begins.  “A Late Divorce”, in my opinion, has a dual purpose, and is a true tour-de-force novel with its story lines regarding family dynamics, within the tapestry of the State of Israel, a country whose own threads encompass its own state of being, culturally, emotionally, physically and geographically.  Obtaining the divorce requires strength, and is no easy feat for Yehuda, and his determination has thrown his family members into a state of emotional turmoil.

The book takes place over a period of nine days that lead up to the Passover celebration. Each day (a chapter in the book) is devoted to one family member’s perspective, not only on the divorce, but family life in general, and how they remember Yehuda’s time spent with them.  Yehosua is masterful in his ability to get inside the human mind, and see life through nine family members, each bringing a different analysis to the current familial situation.

For some, the situation is unbearable, and for others, daily verbal assaults and torture is a way of life, thinly disguised as joking.  We have the character of Gaddi on Sunday, a seven-year old, and grandson of Yehuda.  We are privvy to his thoughts within his racing mind, and Yehoshua is ingenious in the way he presents Gaddi, unarticulated, fast talking, thoughts running from one subject to the next.  Yet, within his immaturity, we also see a Gaddi who seems persceptive, and a child who exhibits emotions turned inward.

Monday brings us Yisra’el Kedmi, Yehuda’s son-in-law, married to Ya’el.  He is called Kedmi, as he feels one Israel is enough.  Kedmi is more of an “out-law” than an in-law.  He is the “jokester”, the one who demonstrates passive-aggressive behavior through his obnoxious and snide remarks.  Yet, he might just be the sanest of the bunch.

Tuesday is Dina’s day.  She is Asi’s wife, and Asi is the son of Yehuda.  She is an only child of Hungarian parents, who are Hasidic Jews, who are constantly at her for not having children, yet.  Dina is an aspiring writer.  Her writing is her family, each page is like one of her children.

Wednesday is Asi’s voice, one that is told in an environment of sadness.  Asi has a passion for 19th century terrorists, and he lectures at the university.  He has a compulsion that is harmful to him, and it began when he was a child.  Asi acts superior to his wife, Dina, and treats her as if she is a child.  He has yet to fulfill his marriage bed.

Thursday we hear a one-sided conversation that Refa’el Calderon has with Tsvi.  Tsvi is Yehuda’s son, and Refa’el is Tsvi’s current lover.  Not only is the conversation one-sided, but so is the relationship, as Tsvi treats Refa’el with extreme disrespect.  Refa’el is of Sephardic Jewish heritage.

Friday is the day that Tsvi meets with is therapist, right before Shabbat evening prayer service begins.  He is an extremely manipulative person, and is always looking for an easy and quick way to make money, even if it is at another’s expense.   He lives in Tel Aviv.

Saturday is not only the Sabbath, but is a day that takes place three years into the future.  We are seeing the day through Ya’el’s mind and eyes, as she tries to focus on the past and remember what events occurred.  What tragic incident happened that has caused her to block her memory of the day.  Ya’el has been the quiet force in the family, always trying to please.  Also, in this chapter we are introduced to Connie, who was Yehuda’s bride-to-be, and their son.  In this chapter we realize what the ending to the story will be.

Sunday is the day of the Passover Seder, and we meet Naomi, Yehuda’s wife.  She has been confined to a mental hospital ever since she stabbed Yehuda.  She has been labeled as crazy, although I am not so sure that she is.  She has many coherent and cognizant moments, more than other family members.

Monday is Yehuda’s story, his memories and perspectives.  We begin to see the overall picture in this chapter more clearly.  And, we realize who is manipulative, and who is trying to drive the other to madness.  The greed and guilt combine, bringing out emotions that were harbored and festered to a crescendo of an ending.

The stories within the chapters of “A Late Divorce” are a metaphor for dysfunctional family relationships and interactions, and a metaphor for the daily lives and dynamics that make up the fabric of Israel’s very core.  We see the comparison through Yehoshua’s characters.   “A Late Divorce” is a story of sadness and humor, both, yet the sadness is dominant, as each family member tries to heal the family as a unit, as a whole, and put it back together, failing in their endeavors.  There is never peace, in any situation, and each family member is constantly on guard, often on guard for the unknown and unseen, as if awaiting disaster.  Each voice is a thread in the fabric of the whole, the complete tapestry is told with the incomparable voice and brilliance of A.B. Yehoshua.  He is masterful in his word visuals, and brings incredible insight into the human mind and emotions, blending both in a concise and astute vision of both family and the State of Israel.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~Book Diva

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