This week, Jewish families around the world will be celebrating Passover, commemorating the safe passage of their ancestors out of Egypt. With good timing, CBS is running a miniseries based on the very fine novel by Alice Hoffman, “The Dovekeepers,” Tuesday and Wednesday evening.
Fans of “NCIS” will see Ziva (Cote de Pablo) play the protagonist Shirah, a woman who survives the destruction of Jerusalem in the Roman siege of A.D. 70 and a terrible trek across the Judean desert to Masada. Looming over the Dead Sea, this is the rock on top of which Herod the Great had built palaces and other structures and where Jewish rebels were now taking refuge.
The Romans saw pockets of resistance — or insurgency, as we see in the Middle East now — out in the countryside and sent legions to stamp them out, including one to Masada three years after the siege of Jerusalem.
Picture a plateau five-and-a-half football fields long by three wide with forbidding cliffs on all sides. It was enormous and presumed impregnable. The Roman general Flavius Silva set his men and slaves to work building camps to encircle this huge fortress and a siege ramp on the western side.
Why do we know this story?
The Jewish priest Josephus, who had fought against the Romans, only to be enslaved and then finally freed by them, wrote a history of this war. It was a memorial to the bravery, tenacity and essential goodness of his people, despite what he considered a hopeless desire of some of them, including the author himself initially, to be completely free from the Romans.
Josephus’ own experiences inspired him to write a very vivid account of the sufferings of Jewish men, women, and children during this war, including their last stand at Masada. Had Josephus not created his lengthy narrative with two speeches by their leader Eleazar, we would know nothing about it from any other ancient text. Instead, we would have the archaeological remains of a Jewish settlement and the Roman siege (and later occupation), including coins dating to the years of the Jewish rebellion found scattered and in hoards among the ashes on top of Masada.
The siege of Masada ended on 15 Nisan, or Passover in the Jewish calendar, according to Josephus. The horrifying irony of this was lost perhaps on the Roman soldiers that day, but not on the Jewish writer or readers of Josephus’ “Jewish War.”
The historian says he used as his source the testimony of an educated female relative of Eleazar who gave a lucid account to the Romans after she emerged from a cistern along with another woman and five children. These were the only Jewish survivors of the supposedly 960 living on Masada.
Hoffman has taken her cue from Josephus and has woven a poetic story focusing on the lives of these women who suffered through the war, instead of the men who dominate the old “Masada” miniseries, which starred a magnificent Peter O’Toole as the Roman commander Flavius Silva.
I would like to imagine that the Romans, too, understood the poetics of the situation and the female perspective: Archaeologists found at Masada a papyrus scrap left by a Roman of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Book 4, where Queen Dido tells her sister, “Anna, my sister, what dreams terrify me as I hang in suspense!”
The men and women who died at Masada come across heroically in the writings of both Josephus and Hoffman, but so do the survivors — a genuine Passover message.