Do you love a good family saga? Do you love a book that takes you back to a place you thought you knew and then shows it to you in a new light? Do you love discovering new and international authors? If you answered yes to any of these questions, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi may just be the book you are looking for.
Beginning in the years of the British Mandate in Palestine, and continuing through the 1970s, Yishai-Levi presents the story of four generations of mothers and daughters in a Sephardic Jewish family. Set mostly in Jerusalem, with a few trips to Tel Aviv, London, and Beirut, the city’s neighborhoods and history provide a stunning and complex background to the family’s relationships. In fact, the drama and richness of the setting were in serious competition for my attention with the action of the plot as I read. Having spent significant time in Israel and in the Jerusalem streets and landmarks depicted throughout the book, the highlight for me as a reader was getting lost in the sensual details of Yisha-Levi’s descriptions of the Mahane Yehudah market, and other sites I thought I knew. Similarly thrilling is the feeling of having an intimate look into the insular Spanish Jewish community and culture. The smattering of Spanish dialect and customs provided additional depth and a sense of authenticity to the narrative.
I confess to generally not being a huge fan of family sagas – if the book includes a printed family tree that I need to study or refer back to, I’m often tempted to give up before I begin. For the most part, Yishai-Levi is successful in limiting the number of characters to make it possible to keep track of who’s who. She paints them all just thoroughly enough that the characters come off as genuine and distinct. Unfortunately, the need to get through 4 generations and over fifty years of family life left me feeling as though there were still some missing pieces. While I can see how this fits neatly into one of the themes of the book – do we ever truly know our family’s whole story, or will there always be some mysteries? – there were other themes and characters that seemed to fade into the background and be left unresolved in order to move the action forward. Specifically, the question of Mercada’s healing powers, as well as what seemed like most of the book’s male characters, were left hanging sick and/or inactive. It almost felt as though developing the story of the family’s women forced the sacrifice of the male perspectives and agency.
Originally published in Hebrew in 2013, the 2016 English translation by Anthony Barris is an amazing introduction to a new Israeli female author. Barris overwhelmingly succeeds in preserving the characters’ voices and weaving through the challenges of the settings’ multiple languages. With its focus on complex family relationships, magnificent historical and political backdrop, diverse characters, and well-paced storytelling, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is an exciting example of new Israeli literature. This book is an ideal read for a leisurely solo afternoon at a cafe and has the potential for animated book club discussions. I will be looking forward to future work from Sarit Yishai-Levi.