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My Path to Conversion Started with ‘Masada’

How the mini-series, starring Peter O’Toole, saved me from a brutal British school and led me on a spiritual journey that ended in the Mikvah

Gretchen Rachel Hammond
November 03, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this fall, I spent my first High Holy Days as a Jew. Admittedly, my Days of Awe were sometimes days of befuddlement, as I tried to figure out where in the prayer book everyone else was, whether an emailed atonement to the ex was less sincere and more a passive aggressive criticism of her motivations for leaving me, and why I was the only person wearing white on Yom Kippur— leading to a brief fashion-fret as to whether or not I’d got the days mixed-up.

But they were also the days that reminded me why I became a Jew in the first place and why, from the moment I emerged for the final time from the waters of the Mikvah, I felt the peace of coming home and the pride of knowing that home is mine.

On Rosh Hashanah, as the Rabbi and Cantor led myself and my fellow Jews in the song “Return again to the land of your soul,” over the music I heard the voice of Peter O’Toole as Roman general Lucius Flavius Silva speak with a beautifully rendered sense of defeat and irony.

“A victory? What have we won?” he wondered as the standard of the Roman Tenth Legion Fretensis was placed on the summit of Masada while the bodies of Eleazar ben Ya’ir and 900 plus Jews lay strewn around the fortress having taken their own lives. “We’ve won a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shores of a poisoned sea.”

I was 11-years-old when the Boris Sagal-directed miniseries Masada featuring O’Toole, Peter Strauss, Alan Feinstein, and Anthony Quale as the leading players during the circa 73 CE siege aired on British television for the first time.

To this day, I don’t know why I thought to shove a blank VHS tape in the recorder and press down the over-sized “record” button as the first episode began. However, when all was said and done, I watched the entire miniseries over and over again, completely consumed in the story despite my father’s nationalistic outrage that all the evil Romans had British accents while Americans took the roles of the heroic Jews.

Each time Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score heralded another replay of the story of Masada, I became increasingly attached to the Jews of Masada. I cheered as they tortured the parched Romans by sending cascades of dirty bathwater down the side of the mountain, laughed as Silva’s priest was forced to jog around the camp naked after Eleazar had fed his goats live maggots, and felt their terror as he and his followers watched the Roman battering ram rise up the assault ramp.

I became so emotionally attached to them that I yearned for a different outcome in which the Jews of Masada were able to escape their attackers. I wanted escape, not death. When Silva ordered a night’s reprieve from the final attack and Eleazar gathered his closest advisers together to ask them “what is possible?” I shook the small television as if I was trying to shake some sense into him and cried “get a bunch of ropes, put the Nikes you were wearing earlier in the movie back on, and go down the back way!”
So frenzied was my hope for their escape that I felt that the Roman circumvallation wall could be overcome. On about the fifth viewing, I noticed that while General Silva was delivering his embittered “I should have made the proposition sooner” monologue to Eleazar’s dead body, it was clearly still breathing.

“They all tricked Silva!” I thought with optimistic glee. “They’re only pretending to be dead. When the Romans clear off, they’ll wipe away the make-up and launch a bid for freedom!”

However, at least in pre-franchise 1981, the wait for Masada II–So Long Suckers! was one in vain.

As for the miserable 2015 CBS take on Masada, in keeping with Hollywood filmmaking today, The Dovekeepers was so bereft of the heart and character essential to good story telling that, even if I was still that more impressionable child, I could have cared less how it ended.

I was raised British/Indian under a curious mix of Hindu and Church of England ideologies and I had never even met a Jew.

As my young eyes watched the story of Masada unfold, any religious tenets seemed immaterial. As Silva’s Jewish girlfriend described Purim to him, it wasn’t the meaning of the holiday that captivated me so much as the song echoing down from the mountain.

But, in much as I wept as Eleazar and his followers decided “to put each other out of [the Roman’s] reach; that is what is possible”, I slowly realized I had missed the point.

Silva saw it as an act of futility; a waste of “a chance to build something good,” but the Jews of Masada had given me my first lesson in the absolute strength and courage of defiance and I loved them for it.

While my peers at school found role models in Manchester United players, Tom Baker’s Doctor Who or Adam Ant, mine were a group of ancient Jews about whom none of my friends had ever heard and quickly forgot after a few brief reconstructions of the siege were staged on the playground and lost their luster in favor of the more enticing idea of a Dalek invasion.

But they stayed with me and, it turned out, I needed them.

Shortly after Masada aired, I was sent to North Cestrian Grammar School—one of the more vicious examples of the British system of education in which once top of their class elementary school students are suddenly thrust into a bewildering high school environment. In as much as the school provided a boastful talking point at my parent’s dinner parties, it was designed to literally beat the childhood out of the child.

Flights of fancy and imaginative games were replaced by rigidly applied lessons in Latin and Geometry. Any displays of individualism were whipped away with a bamboo cane wielded by teachers who strolled the corridors in black cloaks and flat caps seeming less interested in providing an education than instilling terror. Beatings often took place in front of the entire class in order to add shame to the mix. Another form of torture they liked to inflict was to force a pupil to stand in front the entire school in a cruciform position with heavy books placed on both outstretched hands.

Just as fearsome were the Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth formers (11th and 12th graders) who were given the role of Prefects—a sort of in-school brute squad who delighted in their license to beat the hell out of any young students to whom they took a dislike.
I would often come home with cruises and black eyes or long, deep scars on my backside and, while my mother fretted, my father hoped it would all lead to a fine model of British citizenry.

* * *

“Fight! Fight them!”

As the assault ramp grew closer to their gates, the Jews of Masada begged the slaves the Romans were forcing to build it to revolt against the whip. But the slaves kept working and I was just as angry at them for it as I was at the image in the mirror with each day that followed.

I believe North Cestrian might have accomplished every wretched thing it set out to do in robbing me of my humanity had I not taken to waking up at four every morning, creeping quietly downstairs to the living room, and watching an episode of Masada—sometimes falling back asleep to the voice of Eleazar taunting Silva’s soldiers. “Friends of the Tenth Legion, will you truly sacrifice your lives because a monkey wants to scamper up this mountain on a pile of your rotting corpses?”

The immobilizing dread I felt every day I took the bus to North Cestrian slowly began to melt away.

I forged myself into Masada and every Jew who stood upon it. The teachers, the prefects were just as much an enemy deserving of my contempt as the Romans. I began to engage in acts of outward rebellion and to defy any way I could; leaving school at lunch to go to McDonalds in the town (a privilege reserved only for the Prefects) or not even going at all and, instead of walking from the bus station to North Cestrian, buying a ticket for a train ride sometimes as far as London and back.

My English essays centered around growing rage in which North Cestrian teachers were impaled at the end of my sword. If they overwhelmed
me, my stories ended with my taking my own life.

After one too many meetings with a corrupt but deeply concerned headmaster, my parents got the message and pulled me out sending me instead to the slightly less abusive environment of a Comprehensive (state) school.

That was what was possible.

Free to craft more of my own education, I tried to learn as much as I could about Masada and the Jews. Even though I discovered that many of the elements of the miniseries and its source material—the Ernest K. Gann novel The Antagonists—were fiction, an awe of the Jewish people I nurtured from that very first episode never wavered.

In keeping with the racist ideology which formed the curriculum at North Cestrian, history teachers had no more time to cover the diasporas, persecution in Christian Europe, the Holocaust, or the founding of Israel than they did the war for American Independence which was taught “Oh and in 1776, we lost the colonies, moving on….”

Learning about it for myself after I was freed from North Cestrian’s indoctrination was much more fulfilling and my desire to become a Jew grew in fervor with every passing year.

North Cestrian led me to believe that England shunned all who were different. Back in the 1980s, America was sold as the place where anything could happen; where you could be anything you wanted to be and, as my father had pointed out, the Jews of Masada were all American. So, it was here rather than Israel that I went in search of them.

It turned out to be a three-decade journey through multiple religions. I lived with Mormons during my first year here as an exchange student. I briefly worked for an organization which emerged from Roman Catholic priest abuse. In my early 30s, I accepted Christ as my lord and savior and joined an evangelical church only to keep the peace with the demands of my then-wife. After we were divorced, I wrote a book about and so immersed myself in the lives of Wiccans.

But Eleazar was always in my mind and heart. He had such a profound effect on my childhood, that his voice (at least in the form of Peter Strauss) etched itself into my values and I never felt worthy enough take that walk into the Mikvah.

Ironically, on the day I finally sat down with the Rabbis of the Beit Din, I knew that, had the historical Eleazar been among them, he most likely never would have countenanced my conversion. The Eleazar and his Sicarii followers Flavius Josephus described in Book VII of his work Wars of the Jews would, instead, have probably run me through with a sword.

“The one part were desirous of tyrannizing over others, and the rest of offering violence to others, and of plundering such as were richer than themselves,” Josephus wrote. “They were the Sicarii who first began these transgressions, and first became barbarous towards those allied to them, and left no words of reproach unsaid, and no works of perdition untried, in order to destroy those whom their contrivances affected.”

As, I read such passages, the 11-year-old child emerged and was furious—not at Eleazar, Peter Strauss or Boris Sagal but at Josephus for insulting a personal hero.

But was such anger misdirected? Did it belong with Hollywood for fooling me with their sympathetic rendering of the Jews of Masada?
For help, I turned to Paula Fredriksen— the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem and an award-winning author.

She counseled me not to allow his often less than subtle anti-Sicarii trashing of my heroes, taint my opinions of Josephus as a historian.
“In a nuts and bolts way, he meets the bar that we would set for ourselves as modern historians,” she said. “Except for that gap between nightfall and the following morning when the Romans actually go in, his description of Roman strategy and the mechanics of the siege, the text does map onto the territory. Where Josephus disappoints is exactly where he is excellent as an ancient historian.”

Examples of where Josephus does not meet the standards of today’s historian include the long speeches he asserts Eleazar made to his people prior to their mass-suicide—words Fredriksen calls “historical fiction; imagining how his characters are feeling when he has no conceivable evidence for it, putting speeches into their mouths when there’s no way he could have any knowledge of what Eleazar ben Ya’ir said.”

Yet, Eleazar’s speech as Jospehus writes it is as beautiful as it is self-condemning.

“Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us,” Josephus quotes.

“Part of the rhetoric of the Eleazar’s second speech is a kind of acknowledgement of divine justice,” Fredriksen said. “The really radical theological claim that Josephus makes and puts into the mouth of Eleazar is that it was impious, in terms of the Jewish God’s will, to go up against the Romans. Am I disappointed with [Josephus] for making up an incredibly dramatic speech that is historically improbable? No. He’s a first century historian. He’s not obligated to be like me.”

But am I obligated to accept the Josephus creation of Eleazar over that of Peter Strauss? Am I to give thanks for my conversion to a Hollywood contrivance? To which Eleazar do I owe a changed life?

Add that to the list of questions which seem to infuriate academics and the usual armchair commentators whenever the subject of Masada is raised.

Is Masada a testament to defiance in the face of overwhelming odds or a spectacular feat of Roman engineering? Were Eleazar and his followers all terrorists who killed their fellow Jews or were they the last, brave hold out against a cruel occupation? With a lack of corresponding human remains did their mass suicide actually occur and, if it did, was it a courageous act or one which the people of Jamestown and Waco have since relegated to the blind allegiance of a cult? Besides, if everyone died on the summit, who were the over 20 people discovered in a cave at the Southern rim of Masada?

That the mountain itself has been the focal point for heated debate has only strengthened its power over me. I can at least be assured that Masada will never fall to a history which has become increasingly obscured under a constant demand for the immediacy of a 24-hours news cycle.

Yet, just as I did as a child, Fredriksen wonders why Eleazar chose to hold out on Masada even as he could see the fires of a fallen Jerusalem prior to being surrounded by the Roman 10th.

“I really don’t know what he was thinking when I try to think practically,” she said. “They could have conceivably tried to escape, I imagine, to Egypt. They didn’t and I can’t explain that. You can’t set up indefinitely on Masada. When I think in terms of an ancient, charismatic, Jewish military leader, he probably had some kind of sustaining interpretation of particular Biblical scripture to stiffen his resolve to be there.”

And what of the resolve and that of his followers to take their own lives? I asked Fredriksen with a sense of trepidation. After all, no one wants to have believed in a lie. Did it happen? Was it right?

“Even with the bodies discovered in the cave who were probably butchered by the Romans, I imagine that there were a substantial number who were suicides,” she replied. “Josephus doesn’t say anything about the Romans taking slaves away from Masada which inclines me to think that anyone they found, they killed.”

She remembered once being asked by a journalist to compare modern cult deaths with those on Masada as being offensive. What Eleazar and the Sicarii faced had they been captured wasn’t the prospect of imprisonment or having his name immortalized by right-wing conspiracy theorists.

“Eleazar knew how the Romans treated rebels,” Fredriksen said. “Everybody did. The smallest children would have been killed in front of their parents, the women would have been raped and killed, the men would have been crucified.”

If the Jews of Masada did choose to take their own lives, it was because the alternative was utterly abhorrent and terrifying.

As Josephus quotes Eleazar “but as to the multitude of those that are now under the Romans, who would not pity their condition? and who would not make haste to die, before he would suffer the same miseries with them? Some of them have been put upon the rack, and tortured with fire and whippings, and so died. Some have been half devoured by wild beasts, and yet have been reserved alive to be devoured by them a second time, in order to afford laughter and sport to our enemies; and such of those as are alive still are to be looked on as the most miserable, who, being so desirous of death, could not come at it.”

I wonder how my life would have turned out if I had been forced to stay under the whip of North Cestrian’s teachers or if it would have turned out at all. There were days when wondering “what is possible” took me down dangerous paths.

One year before I converted, I was able to spend seven days in Israel as part of a tour for journalists offered by the America-Israel Friendship League. I believed that an over three-decade dream of climbing the Serpentine path to the summit of Masada and standing where both the fictional and real Eleazar had stood, the former with defiant hands on hips as he called Silva “Vespasian’s monkey”, was about to be realized.

But a visit to the mountain wasn’t on a very packed schedule. With the limited free time I was given, there was no way I could have travelled there alone.

There was one point I was less than two-hours bus ride from a meeting with Eleazar on his turf. To get that close……it doesn’t quite cover how disappointed I felt but I wasn’t about to make demands on my hosts.

At the close of my first high holidays, I was at least able to do the next best thing: a thirty-minute phone call with one of childhood heroes; one of the Jews of Masada who was there when Eleazar made his speech to die with dignity—at least as interpreted by Peter Strauss.
Feinstein played the fictional character of Eleazar’s right hand man Aaron—a tough, head-strong individual utterly devoted to his leader but unafraid to take him to task.

Outside his extraordinary achievements both on stage and in film and his work with celebrated artists such as Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, Feinstein has taught for nearly a quarter of a century. He spoke to me from his acting studio in Los Angeles.

“The role was just offered to me,” he said. “Back in those days, each studio had a casting head and producers would rely on their judgement 90 percent of the time. I’d had success playing Stanley in the 25th Anniversary revival of Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. So, I was hot property when I came out here.”

Every day for four months, Feinstein joined the cast and crew on location at Masada where the unforgiving conditions hadn’t mellowed over time.

Like many other cast members except Peter O’Toole, Feinstein got sick during production. “I don’t know if it was the flu but a doctor came to my hotel room and put electrolytes and saline back into me,” he said. “I was out about 24 hours. Peter Strauss was fighting some sort of dysentery. He had to take a few days off and go to hospital in England.”

As Aaron was a fictional person in a historical event, Feinstein used his imagination to fill in the blanks and, as shooting progressed, the Jews of Masada all got along famously.

“Peter Strauss was very generous of spirit,” Feinstein recalled. “It was a comfortable, relaxed group. I personally made friends. There was a big guy named Paul Smith [Gideon] and we remained friends when we got back to the States and until he passed away.”

Feinstein also became close to the people of Israel.

“It was a time when you could move freely,” he said. “I found the people to be very warm and direct.”

The Jews of Masada mingled just as freely with their Roman oppressors at parties held at the hotel in which they were all stationed or at the home O’Toole had rented. Sometimes, they popped down from their fortress to watch O’Toole and his soldiers work.

“The very first day I was there, they were shooting a mutiny on the Roman side,” Feinstein said. “It was about 115 degrees and they spent three hours shooting this scene from all different angles with hundreds of extras. I was very impressed because he would do a take full out, finish, calm down and go again; full out. He did this rip-roaring monologue and, as soon as Boris said “cut” I heard Peter say ‘How was that, love’?”

Shooting the suicide pact had a profound effect on Feinstein.

“It was the lengths that people would go to express their desire for freedom; to say ‘if we can’t have freedom, we’ll take death over capitulation and being ruled by someone else. This is our defiance and we’ll leave them with nothing to rule’,” he said. “I felt that was extraordinary and a morally different choice than Jonestown. To look at myself, could I do something like that? I have no idea. Talking to you now, I can’t imagine dying when there is hope for change or a better day.”

Looking back, Feinstein acknowledged that Masada changed him.

“I experienced something different than what I was accustomed to,” he said. “What struck me was that there were parts of Israel that are only ten miles wide and I was amazed at the significance of what is essentially such a small piece of land and how much attention and focus there has been on it both historically and currently.”

At the end of our call, I broke with journalistic protocol. I don’t think Feinstein knew quite how to take my admittance of the role he played in my childhood and that, in part, he was bound to my conversion. He was gracious but, I think, shocked at both the emotion in my voice and the unsolicited responsibility I’d handed him. He knew Peter Strauss as a fellow actor and there was no way he could counsel me to make a choice between the Eleazar of my childhood or Eleazar of antiquity.

As for which was with me that day in the Mikvah, both the man who admitted

“Truly I was greatly mistaken, when I thought to be assisting to brave men, who struggled hard for their liberty, and to such as were resolved either to live with honor, or else to die” and the man who asserted “The army of light cannot help us now but they can watch and they can learn from what we do” are one and the same.

They both believed that a small piece of land; a rock in the middle of a wasteland on the shores of a poisoned sea was worth fighting and dying for.

It is that belief and the defiance of the Jews of Masada—not merely the manner in which Feinstein and his fellow cast members captured the imagination of a child—which is both responsible for the Jew I am today but for the responsibility I believe I have to honor my new heritage with their unyielding conviction.

Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.