The Beau­ty Queen of Jerusalem

Sar­it Yishai-Levi; Antho­ny Berris, trans.

By – March 31, 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.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Thomas Dunne Books

  • 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?

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

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

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

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

  • 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?