Under our very feet: Digging up trouble

Besides all of Israel’s troubles stemming from its geopolitical situation, the country has a sackful of home-grown problems. Cynically, Israelis sometimes refer to the latter as the “J. vs. J. wars”—the wars of Jews against Jews. This internal strife, especially as it pertains to archaeology, was the inspiration for Ilana Berner’s debut novel Cover Up in the Holy Land.
These wars include the never-ending skirmishes over graves uncovered in excavations: Some members of the ultra-Orthodox community insist that the digs be halted and all the remains receive Jewish burial, even when it is obvious that the bones are of people who were not Jews. Other conflicts concern the monarchy of the biblical King David: when the historical monarchy existed and whether it was as large and powerful as the biblical account portrays it. And some disputes are simply the tension between developers and the Israel Antiquities Authority, because whenever antiquities are uncovered in a construction site (and in Jerusalem, especially, this happens very often), by law work must stop until the archaeologists have carried out what is called a “salvage excavation.”
But some of these battles are over finds that have ramifications that extend far beyond the internal concerns of the Jews—particularly discoveries touching on the family, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. Jerusalem already has two tombs of Jesus: one in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is actually a complex of churches of many denominations inside the Old City, and the other known as the Garden Tomb, revered by Protestants, outside the Old City walls. New theories about the burial site arise periodically.
The novel opens with the inadvertent discovery of a burial cave during excavation work for the construction of a parking lot in East Jerusalem. Many burial caves have been found in the area; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher itself is built over caves that were part of a vast Jewish cemetery in antiquity.
Then we learn that Dana Lotan, a professor of archaeology in Beersheba, is passed over for a promotion because of her controversial theories about the size and dating of David’s kingdom and because of rumors that she is a lesbian, though she has been careful to conceal her sexual orientation at a time when Israel had little awareness of, and no tolerance for, same-sex love. To Lotan’s chagrin, her protégé, who is an even more closeted homosexual than she is, gets the appointment.
The plot is set in motion when Lotan is asked to perform a salvage excavation at the newly discovered burial cave. There she finds a burial box with a Hebrew inscription that she deciphers as “Joseph of Arimatea.” According to the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, this disciple of Jesus begged Pontius Pilate to let him have the body of the crucified Jesus and buried it in his own tomb. This cave, she realizes, could be the original burial place of Jesus. And that, she also realizes, means that the government will seal the cave in an attempt to avoid a run-in with the Church. Lotan, however, is determined to let the truth out.
The author is a licensed and experienced tour guide, who has studied history and archaeology, as all Israeli guides do, but who has also participated in excavations. This knowledge and experience enables her to bring alive the excitement of digs, which also involve much tedious, dusty, and boring work. Her training as a tour guide also comes through in set pieces, like her explanation of the Western Wall as a retaining wall built by King Herod to support the Temple Mount (and not, as some people mistakenly believe, a part of the Temple itself).
It is not by chance that same-sex love is an important theme in the novel. The author came out as a lesbian long before others did in Israel.
The novel is set in 1970, partly in the desert town of Beersheba, which was then a sleepy town with a university just beginning to take shape. I remember this period well because I taught at the university in a temporary bungalow from 1970 to 1973. Today, Beersheba—the capital of southern Israel—is a city of nearly 200,000 with a buzz of development (about which I wrote recently).
Cover Up in the Holy Land is available through Amazon. A sequel is under way.


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5 Responses to “Under our very feet: Digging up trouble”

  1. Paul Bullen Says:

    I was just thinking about your blog and am very grateful to see a new addition.

  2. Marilyn Bono Says:

    Excellent review, Esther. I will buy and read this book with special interest having read your review, but also because, many years ago, I knew Ilana Berner. She was a wonderful story teller even then as she povided a lively tour of Israel for me, my father and my husband. Best of luck to you both.

  3. Tamara Says:

    I love the detail of your review, Esther, I’ve learned a lot from it. I nodded my head as well with some of your descriptions about what goes on in Israel. You’re immersed and an expert in that, so how fitting for you to review Ilana Berner’s debut novel. I never knew that theory about the Western Wall for one, so thanks again for your tight, well-crafted, and educational writing.

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