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.


Seeking and Finding ‘In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist’

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • 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.