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.