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.


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.






‘All Who Go Do Not Return’: One Man’s View of a Hidden World


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All who go

  • All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen (Graywolf Press, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: A rare portrayal of a former Hasidic Jew’s departure from the community and loss of faith.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: Contemporary

The copyright page of Shulem Deen’s wrenching memoir has an unusual statement: “Disclaimer: This is a work of creative nonfiction. Many of the names, and some minor identifying details, have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. All the people in the book are real and the events described actually took place. ….” It goes further delineating other changes he may have made, not substantially altering the narrative.

I can’t count the number of memoirs I’ve read over the last decade.  With each book, I’ve wondered how the author has been able to recount so many instances of daily living. Certainly with celebrity memoirs there are questions about what liberties may have been taken to embellish or airbrush out situations. What makes this memoir so different?

Shulem Deen is a writer and former Skverer Hasid. Most Skverer Hasidim are members from birth, with a large and extensive network of family members. Deen is the child of parents who chose an ultra-Orthodox life as adults, and not as Skverers. His father further distinguished himself by his teaching and associations outside the Hasidic world. This far from conventional upbringing set him apart from the community from the beginning. Glimpses he gives into his childhood suggest Deen was never one to easily acquiesce to communal rules, a personality trait that foreshadows his inevitable banishment from the Hasidic community and enforced estrangement from his family.

In the last five years there have been a number of memoirs, fictionalized accounts and outsider portraits of Hasidic life from the perspective of women who have left their communities for differing reasons. All Who Go Do Not Return is the first book to draw back the curtain on the details of the day in-day out influence of the Rebbe and his inner circle on the lives of all within the community. From the selection of potential spouses, enforcement of laws of family purity, decisions on who will pursue additional study and who must secure approved employment beyond the hall of study- it’s all there.

The intimate details of the creation of a family and its eventual dissolution are the most uncomfortable to read. The shidduch, match, results in total strangers starting up a household with virtually no knowledge of what a marriage entails – physically, emotionally, practically or financially.  In the case of Deen and his wife, without an extensive family network or well-connected elders, their marriage started off at an even greater disadvantage.  Even with the most supportive family, a select cadre of the Rebbe’s trusted provided guidance and made recommendations on everything from consummation of the marriage to how and when to pursue additional employment.

As the Deen family grew from one child to, eventually, five, the economic pressures to support the family on their own grew.  To meet the demands, Deen became a tutor to young yeshiva students, allegedly on secular topics. He contends this was really just a front and that the governmentally funded sessions were dedicated to augmenting the boys study of Torah. This is consistent with the conditions currently under investigation in a number of New York yeshivot where it is alleged that the studies do not meet minimum standards for English, math and other secular subjects.

Eventually, the family’s financial needs required Deen seek employment outside the community. By this time he had begun to engage in forbidden practices: listening to the radio, discovering the Internet and very tame movies using a VCR and television. While he initially kept these practices hidden from his wife, she soon became suspicious and he shared the discoveries with her. These experiences made him more employable but only if he altered the distinctive wardrobe worn by the Skverers.

At the beginning of his exploration of the secular world Deen responds with curiosity and wonder at what he is experiencing.  Over time he increasingly questions the legitimacy of the Skverer leadership and norms and his personal spirituality and faith. More and more he separates himself from communal prayer and activities. Not only does this place him under suspicion but it endangers the position of the rest of his family within the community.  Ultimately he is forced to leave the community and expelled from all contact with the community’s members.

This book is a fascinating portrait of one man’s journey of self-discovery. In losing his faith he also lost his family. At times it is painful to read the details of the Deen family life. It is tragic when a loving parent is separated from his or her children. It’s small comfort to consider how unlikely it is that his wife or children will ever read the book.  After all, such worldly reading is forbidden.



An award winning story of Soviet-era politics meeting contemporary mores

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  • betrayThe Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: A disgraced Israeli politician on vacation sees the man who betrayed him to the KGB forty years earlier. One is a prisoner of his past, the other has no sense of his future. Each is changed by the meeting.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Crimea, Israel, Moscow
  • Time: 2012 and 1972
  • Read this if you enjoy novels where difficult moral choices are front and center. Bezmozgis provides incisive historical context and characters consistent with the issues presented. It is rare that an author can pull it all together so succinctly .

David Bezmozgis has spent more than ten years opening the door on the lives of refuseniks that left the former Soviet Union (FSU) in a trickle in the early 1970s becoming a tidal wave in the 1990s. His latest, The Betrayers, tells of a senior Israeli politician, Baruch Kotler, a poster child of the dissident movement, who travels to Crimea with his young lover as pictures of their indiscretion hit the press. Kohler left Israel in disgrace after taking a position against the government, speaking out against dismantling settlements in the territories. The exposure of the affair came about after he refused to change his position.

The plot centers on an unfortunate coincidence. Upon arrival in Yalta there is a mixup at the hotel and Baruch and Leora are forced to find accommodations in a private home. Their host is the wife of Baruch’s roommate from 40 years earlier. He betrayed Baruch to the KGB, resulting in 13 years of imprisonment. When Baruch recognizes Volodya (Chaim) through the window, he has a choice – leave without disclosing his identity or confront the man he considered a friend and colleague.


From start to finish, the story covers less than a weekend. Using a mix of memory to bring in details of the past and technology to connect to the conflicts of the present, The Betrayers is tightly written and clearly drawn.

The title is plural for a reason. Each of the principals makes explicit choices with major repercussions for themselves and their families. By focusing on the encounter between Baruch and Chaim, the ripples of these decisions are clearly seen.

In this and his prior works, David Bezmozgis has been frank about the motivations that sent Jews (and non-Jews) from the FSU and the reasons some regretted this choice. Each book has shown the challenges in acclimating to a completely different way of life and the difficulties that the older generation, in particular, has had in finding a place in the new world.

As Bezmozgis was completing The Betrayers, the Russia/Ukraine conflict erupted. While this provides an odd current events twist for the reader, the setting was key to the story and Bezmozgis had undertaken extensive research so no changes were made.

For those in the DC area, David Bezmozgis will be on a panel on October 19 at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the DCJCC Literary Festival. The Betrayers won the National Jewish Book Award and was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist in the same year.



David Liss’ The Day of Atonement – Audiobook review

Unknown-6David Liss has created a special niche in historical fiction. His books provide a rich portrait of difficult business and social interactions at pivotal points in commercial history. My first exposure to his work was The Coffee Trader which takes place in 1659 in Amsterdam at the beginning of coffee as an international commodity. In each of his novels the main protagonist is Jewish, well-versed in the different business and social customs of the times and often at odds with those governing Jewish communal norms in the city. Liss is expert at describing the look of the city, its clothing and foods, taverns and houses of worship, elite and servant classes.

In The Day of Atonement, Liss brings a young man, Sebastian, back to Lisbon from London in 1755, during the latter days of the Inquisition. Sebastiao Raposa was smuggled out of Lisbon a decade earlier just as his family was taken by Inquisition. While in London he had been mentored by a man with a keen eye for  business and conspiracies as well as great fighting skills. As Sebastian Foxx he returns to Lisbon with the intention of seeking retribution against those that destroyed his family, killed his father and separated him from his first love.


Every aspect of the story is seen through Sebastian’s eyes. Characteristically, the priests of the Inquisition pitted neighbor against neighbor and were ever vigilant to any inkling of Judaization among New Christians, those Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism more than 200 years earlier. Lisbon was at the nexus of international trade and English Protestants were major traders, forming an alliance for their own protection. Both New Christians and Protestants were at peril of being imprisoned by the Inquisition at any time for almost any reason. Continue reading David Liss’ The Day of Atonement – Audiobook review