Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.


Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

Once a Spy, Always a Spy – The English Teacher

  • Unknown-2The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, Philip Simpson (Translator) (Penguin Books, August 2016) Charlotte Albanna (narrator, Penguin Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A retired Mossad officer, Atir uses his experience to bare the personal conflicts of an intelligence operative and her handler through a retrospective of their mutual history.  An unconventional thriller, the day-to-day costs of spy craft are as compelling as the missions.
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Locale: London, Israel, unidentified Arab nation
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this for an insider’s perspective on the personal price of intelligence work, wrapped in a well-crafted story.

Rachel leads three lives: 1) Rachel Goldshmitt, London-raised and educated daughter who has moved to Israel; 2) Rachel Ravid, Mossad operative; and 3) Rachel Brooks, Canadian Christian English teacher, nature enthusiast and tourist.    Upon the death of her father, Rachel decides to take back her life. Using the skills taught in training, she disappears raising alerts in the agency. Operatives are not permitted to leave the life – it’s too dangerous for all concerned.

From her initial training, Rachel has worked with Ehud, one of the agency’s most senior and skilled handlers. Rachel was his prized student, and his concern and infatuation for her created schisms within in his own family, though Rachel carefully kept dealings only professional. Now, having left the agency, Ehud is called back to recall every detail of their twenty-plus year association in the hope of finding clues to her location. Atir goes back and forth, having Rachel and Ehud voice the details of their operations and communications over the years.

Articles about Atir and his writing indicate that the Mossad demanded changes to plot and techniques to protect its operations. Presumably, there is also some measure of literary license to bring the story together. What Atir accomplishes is bringing the reader face-to-face with the extraordinary stresses and sacrifices demanded of embedded operatives, often for extended periods of time. Operatives may be required to develop relationships, only to leave in the dark of night with no future contact. The English Teacher achingly describes the loneliness of a woman living a dual-life, but really having no life at all.

Note: I listened to the audiobook, thanks to an early copy from Penguin Audio. This is a great book, regardless of format.



Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

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  • PumpkinflowersPumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story Matti Friedman (Algonquin Books, May 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Friedman shares both his personal and journalistic views of Israel’s experience in Lebanon in the 1990’s with the outpost called Pumpkin as the focus. Heart-wrenching and informative, it reminds the reader that history happens one person at a time.
  • Genre: Narrative history/memoir
  • Locale: Israel/Lebanon
  • Time: 1994-2002

Two years ago I first learned that Matti Friedman’s next book would be about the little-mentioned experience of Israeli soldiers in outposts in Southern Lebanon. These fortifications and their platoons were protection from Hezbollah incursions into northern Israel. This is a personal story for him – it was in the Pumpkin that Friedman served during his time in the IDF in the late 90s. Pumpkinflowers goes beyond his story to tell of those who came before him, their families and friends, and of the women whose outcry led to the abandonment of these positions on the hills.

In Israel, all but the ultra-Orthodox are obligated to serve in the military. Leadership is cultivated early and the bonds of service continue beyond the time in uniform.  Israel is a small country so troops are rotated from post to training with frequency and weekend visits home are a part of the culture. And when there are casualties, each wounded soldier (flower) or death (cyclamen) is a collective sorrow, invariably a distant relative or friend of a friend’s cousin.

The early days of the Pumpkin are given life through Avi, a writer by temperament, who was sent with his platoon to the Pumpkin in 1994. Friedman uses diaries and letters, interviews with Avi’s parents and others from the platoon, to paint the picture of life on the hill.  Friedman lays out the routines, the boredom broken by fear when trying to ascertain whether a shepherd is merely looking for lost sheep or is actually a threat. The platoon members are from different backgrounds, religious to completely secular, though all are schooled in the Biblical history of the land. They are at the cusp of adulthood, intrigued by popular culture, keeping in touch with their friends, trying to figure out what is next.

Access to the outposts was difficult and troops were often conveyed by helicopter. In February 1997, poor weather conditions contributed to a tragedy that changed the direction of Israel’s defense in the security zone. Begun by mothers, slowly but surely pressure to bring the soldiers home from the outposts began.

And it was after this that Matti Friedman, at nineteen, was sent to the Pumpkin.  Only after telling the story of the early years does Friedman share his experience.

Well-conceived narrative history can bring breadth in a very compelling way. In Pumpkinflowers Matti Friedman gives life to the Pumpkin and to the terrain that the platoons are charged with protecting.  The difficulty in defending borders when combatants look just like their neighbors. The combination of bravado and naiveté among the IDF’s soldiers, and a country where each casualty is a tragedy within the family. Friedman also lays out the politics and resistance.

In the end, it is a very personal story, incomplete without Friedman’s visit back to where it all began. After the Pumpkin was the temporary home to too many young men lost, it is now a hill with scars. And the view remains essentially the same as it has for thousands of years.

Pumpkinflowers is well-documented and tightly written. Covering a rarely discussed period of Israeli history, this book is important for the gap it fills and the manner it which it is addressed. As he says, this period is the beginning of a new type of warfare in the Middle East and Hezbollah was its start. This book has appeal for readers of all genres and will be a great source of discussion.

Matti Friedman is a journalist and author. His 2012 book, The Aleppo Codex, was awarded numerous prizes, including one which afforded him the opportunity to turn his attention more fully to his experience in Lebanon.  Friedman continues to write both narrative journalism and opinion pieces.