“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem”: A tale of love and war in pre-state Israel


Every now and then, a multi-generational novel such as  “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunn Books/St. Martin’s Press) comes along, so rich with potent curses, outlandish customs, eccentric characters, and forbidden loves, readers might find the story somewhat incredible and hard to connect to.  But to this reader, who happens to be part of a community with similar mores, every detail rings true and immensely pleasurable to relive on the page.

Luna Ermosa, the “beauty queen” of the title, is the most sought-after woman in Jerusalem.  But she is unlucky in love.  As are the Ermoza men, who are doomed to marry women they do not love and never forget the ones they do.  But this is Jerusalem before the independence of Israel, when marriage between the Sephardic Ermozas, immigrants from Toledo, to Ashkenazim is unacceptable and shameful—forget about dating a despised Turk or “Engelish … tfu on them.” It is a time when the word of a parent is sacrosanct and children are expected to marry whomever their parents choose for them.  As is the case with Gabriel, Luna’s beloved father, and grandfather of the rebellious Gabriela, who is unable to open her heart to her mother, Luna, even when she is on her deathbed.  

Decades rush by unmarked and it is often left to the reader to connect dates with historical details woven into the story of the Ermoza family.  In this, her first novel, Yishai-Levi, an award winning journalist, expertly depicts the harrowing hardships of life during the British Mandate—the bombings, shootings, curfews, fights between Arabs and Jews.  And the endless struggles of different underground factions, the Haganah, Lehi and Etzel, to drive the British out of Palestine and create a Jewish state.

In the process, Gabriela, aided by her grandmother and aunts, Rachelika and Becky, tries to snap pieces of her family’s puzzle together in an attempt to discover why her handsome grandfather was forced to marry an unattractive orphan he does not love.  Why her obstinate great grandmother, Mercada, cursed her son before moving to Tel Aviv and refusing to visit him in Jerusalem.  Unless it is to drive away his demons, which she successfully does, despite her failure to forgive him.

Most significantly, perhaps, is Gabriela’s need to uncover her mother’s secret.  What sin has Luna committed in her lifetime that even Rachelika, the saint of the family, refuses to share with her beloved niece, Gabriela?  And will the discovery free Gabriela from the abusive relationship she is embroiled in and allow her to open her heart to love?

Fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will find much to love in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.”  The narrative is lush and rife with scandalous secrets of a passionately opinionated family that might find it easier to free themselves from the clutches of war, than from the Ermoza curse inflicted upon them.

Dora Levy Mossanen is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Her latest novel is “Scent of Butterflies.”