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.


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.



‘The UnAmericans’ deserves your attention

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  • Unknown-2The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: In eight stories, Antopol crosses continents and decades bringing together politics, love, longing and the human condition.
  • Genre: Short stories
  • Locale: Various
  • Time: Various
  • Read this to experience the richness of an excellent collection of short stories.

I admit it.  It took far too long for me to pick up Molly Antopol’s extraordinary collection of stories. From the opening sentences, each story in the UnAmericans drops the reader into a distinct location and time. Throughout the collection, Antopol brings in elements gleaned from her family’s Eastern European experience and their leftist leanings when they arrived in the U.S. Several stories in the collection take place in Israel, each depicting very different family situations.  The precision with which she creates the wide range of settings is extraordinary in writings of this length.

The first story, The Old World, brings together a lonely dry cleaner and a woman longing for her life in Ukraine before Chernobyl. Antopol deftly weaves in each character’s backstory, bringing in the disapproving daughter and son-in-law to underscore the businessman’s vulnerability.imgres

Both The Quietest Man and The Unknown Soldier are twists on the classic theme of divorced fathers seeking to elevate themselves in their child’s eyes. The Unknown Soldier is set as an actor-father leaves prison, having been jailed as a result of the McCarthy hearings. His celebratory road trip with his son does not go as planned, each wanting it to be the other’s trip of a lifetime. In The Quietest Man, a young woman has sold her first play. Long divorced, she has spent little time with her father over the years. Her parents were Czech activists and her father was a celebrated lecturer on their arrival in the U.S. While in the spotlight he neglected his family. Over the years, as new world crises arose, his fame declined. Now her father brings her for a visit seeking reassurance that his image isn’t tarnished in her writings.

With all the different timeframes and settings, there are recurring themes throughout the book. Family is key. Standing up for your beliefs should be lauded, fakery punished. Love isn’t always what it seems. It is how these themes are revealed that differentiates Molly Antopol from most other writers. Antopol was recognized by the National Book Foundation as “5 Under 35” author for this book. She won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and finalist for numerous other awards. The UnAmericans appeared on more than a dozen “Best of” lists in 2014. My only criticism is I enjoyed the stories so much that I rushed to read through them rather than taking more time to savor each one.



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.






Seeking and Finding ‘In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist’

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  • Unknown-17In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist by Ruhama King Feuerman (The New York Review of Books, 2013)
  • In 40 words or less: A rebbe’s courtyard in Jerusalem and a shard of pottery discarded on the Temple Mount are catalysts for life changing experiences for three lonely people.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 1994
  • Read this book for a well-crafted story bringing in the many different peoples that make up Jerusalem.

There is a timelessness to Ruhama King Feuerman’s novel despite its contemporary setting. The courtyard of the title, on Nineveh Street in Jerusalem, is a place where seekers of all sorts congregate. A wise and ailing rebbe and his wife offer guidance and soup to an array of regular and occasional visitors. Isaac, a former haberdasher from the Lower East Side, arrives in the courtyard while looking for a new direction in his life. As luck would have it (and out of the goodness of their hearts), Isaac becomes the assistant to the rebbe, ferrying messages, keeping order and conversing with the visitors.

Among the visitors is Tamar, a young American who has moved to Israel and become more religious. She is effervescent in personality and dress and is in search of her bashert, the person who’s destined to share her life. She asks the rebbe’s guidance in finding him.

On the Temple Mount, Mustafa toils daily as a janitor, sweeping, washing, and hauling trash to maintain the holiness of the site. Mustafa has been an outcast from birth, his head awkwardly twisted almost over his shoulder. Rejected by his family who are concerned about the negative influence his condition may have on the marriage prospects of his siblings, he lives narrow existence of work, dinner and sleep with little human contact.

In the course of clearing out buckets of debris from questionable digging on the Temple Mount, Mustafa finds a shard of pottery that appears to have some value. Mustafa sees Isaac as someone who can explain what he has found. Looking for answers endangers Isaac and Mustafa but they are resolute in what becomes a quest for both. As with almost everything in Jerusalem, religious and political controversies, control of holy sites and distrust among groups become obstacles in their path.

Over the course of the novel, these three lonely, family-less people find connections with each other. The story has ample twists and turns, but it is the blossoming of the people and their friendships that gives it lasting strength. This is a slim book, tightly written and very well-suited for discussion among book groups.