The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

Thomas Dunne Books  2016

 

In Sarit Yishai-Levi’s newly translated novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, Gabriela feels compelled to understand the conflicts and misunderstandings ever-present in her Sephardic family. Her empty relationship with her mother Luna—the most beautiful woman in Jerusalem—is finally addressed when her grandmother Rosa and aunt Rachel hesitatingly reveal the tragedies, secrets, and betrayals that have molded the Ermosa family’s complex lives.

Much of the novel focuses on the mother-daughter dynamic. The nuances of each woman’s distinct character is revealed through her fraught interactions with other female relatives. Gabriela learns that generations of Ermosa women have been cursed by men who don’t love them; the emotional distance and hostility of their husbands gives these women a desperation that colors all of their relationships. While Gabriela gains empathy for her relatives, she finds her own life conflicted and unsettled. The quick resolution of the family saga seems too abrupt and neatly packaged in contrast to the gradually paced chapters that precede it.

Yishai-Levi provides a compelling and meticulously researched historical backdrop to her story. Twentieth-century history closely informs the plot. Israel’s fight for independence, infancy, and subsequent wars are portrayed in the characters’ involvement with the Haganah, Atzel, and Lehi organizations. Yishai-Levi’s characters also embrace their Sephardic identity. Ladino phrases pepper the dialogue, and interaction with Ashkenazis and other outsiders is avoided. The Ermosas live in an insular community where their cuisine and language are prized, and their customs are followed at all costs. The sights, sounds, and smells of the old marketplace and the Ermosas’ food store are particularly well evoked.

This romantic and engaging novel has been an Israeli bestseller for more than two years. This English translation will make new readers enamored with these women and men of Jerusalem.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books

  1. The Ermosa family passes down names, recipes, and even a curse from generation to generation. What does your family pass down? Do you plan to share it with future generations?

  2. Though related, each character in the novel is unique. Whom do you identify with most and why?

  3. Explore the relationships between Luna, Rachelika, and Becky over the course of their lives. Do you think if their mother Rosa had a sister she might have turned out differently? How so?

  4. What do you make of Luna’s obsession with Hollywood throughout her life? Is it a positive or negative influence? How do you feel it compares with the influence of pop culture today?

  5. As Gabriela reveals, Ephraim’s involvement in Matilda Franco’s death remained a mystery even decades later. Do you think Ephraim murdered Matilda? Why or why not?

  6. Do you understand Rosa’s dependence on the Voice of Fighting Zion radio station, especially given that the British Mandate prohibited the broadcast? How do you cope with hardship or worry in your own life?

  7. While the novel traces the link between generations of women in the Ermosa family, there are also important fatherdaughter relationships at play. Discuss these relationships, in particular those between Gabriel and Luna and David and Gabriela. How do these relationships affect the Ermosas, and how are they different from the female relationships in the novel?

  8. What role do secrets play in the novel? What do the Ermosa family’s secrets tell us about human nature? Are the Ermosa family’s secrets ones you think you could keep silent about?

  9. How do you feel about Luna’s relationship with Gidi? Do you empathize with her? Or do you feel her actions are unjustifiable?

  10. Were you surprised that Gabriela fled to London? How do you think her moving so far away from her family affected her healing process?

  11. By the end of the novel, Gabriela forgives Luna. How has your view of the beauty queen of Jerusalem evolved over the novel? Do you forgive her too?

  12. What do you see in the future for Gabriela and Amnon? Will Gabriela finally be able to open her heart to him for the long term?

  13. Is the curse ultimately a burden to the characters in the novel? Or do you think it’s more complex than that?

  14. What did you learn about Jerusalem’s history and culture from reading the novel? How do you think the city might or might not be different today?


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