Sephardi 'Fiddler on the Roof' Comes to Life in Epic Israeli Novel

Stultifying prejudice, punishing social mores and ethnic chauvinism choke the lives of the family that star in Sarit Yishai-Levi's 'The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.'

A Jerusalem alley
© Ron Zmiri | Dreamstime.com

“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” by Sarit Yishai-Levi (translated by Anthony Berris), Thomas Dunne Books, 374 pp., $25.99

“I, too, dislike it,” Marianne Moore famously said of poetry, even as she practiced it all her life. Her sentiment works just as well as a rallying cry for the self-sabotaging figures of misery — and there are many — in Sarit Yishai-Levi’s epic debut novel, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” a best seller in Israel that was recently released in the United States.

Not poetry, but stultifying prejudice, punishing social mores and a throttling ethnic chauvinism choke the lives of four generations of the Ermosas, a Jerusalem-based Sephardi family, in this look at 20th-century rigidity and its costs by the Tel Aviv-based journalist and author.

First published three years ago, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” reads to an American like a Sephardi version of “Fiddler on the Roof” — only it’s less endearing than the original. Its protagonists echo the famed cri de coeur — “Tradition!” — of Teyve (whom, ironically, they’d refuse as an in-law, because he’s Ashkenazi), even as they follow matchmaking practices that break everyone’s heart, especially their own.

Among the Ermosas, a bitter legacy is at work. “[I]n our family the men marry women they don’t love,” Rosa, an uncherished wife, tells her granddaughter Gabriela, the book’s narrator. Why? Because Spaniols must wed Spaniols, Rosa explains, rather than other Jews — even when they prefer them. 

As with Israeli director Dover Koshashvili’s 2001 film “Late Marriage” — where two ill-matched Georgian emigres push their son to choose a Russian girl, instead of the Moroccan divorcee he loves — we’ve already got a sense of how things will turn out.

Do the Ermosas’ own marriage traditions make them happy? Hardly — yet they’re treated as sacred hand-me-downs, passed from generation to generation, despite being outworn. Like the family’s matriarch, Mercada, most of the Ermosas have been thwarted in love, and they use their misery to justify ruining the happiness of their children. 

When Mercada’s son Gabriel falls for an Ashkenazi girl, she blames him for his father’s death and marries him off to an ugly Sephardi orphan, Rosa. Gabriel, in turn, withholds love from Rosa, but lavishes it on their daughter Luna — the titular beauty queen (who, despite her touted looks, seems more stick figure than fleshed-out character).

Luna weds David, who fought in World War II Italy and renounced his Catholic girlfriend, only to start a family with a Jewish woman he dislikes. His bride goes on to stint their daughter, Gabriela.

The novel is deeply felt. But its characters remain props, designed to advance a story about long-expired perspectives and their toxic toll.

Unique twist

Intergenerational suffering is a common literary theme, but here, Yishai-Levi gives it a unique twist. Unlike many postwar Jewish novels, such as Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” and Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” hers barely nods at the Holocaust, even as much of it takes place both during and after the war. Instead, it treats the pinprick, petty retaliations that follow the Ermosas’ own history of sorrow, starting with their exile from Inquisition-era Spain to Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem, and then continuing onward.

The exodus happens offstage, however, and it’s referenced only once, by Rosa. When an Ermosa family patriarch died, she tells a 10-year-old Gabriela, his son “promised to continue telling the family story from the day they arrived from Toledo after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may their souls burn in hell, expelled the Jews from Spain to Palestine.”

There’s no further mention of the trauma. Instead, we see the Ermosas’ misery unfold mainly from 1914 to 1974, as they endure, in turn, the Turks, the British Mandate, Israel’s War of Independence and even a counterculture disaffection. 

Their external crises, however, are overshadowed by an internal one: a secret — “A sin!” — from the past that Rosa shares with Gabriela, as a slightly forced narrative device. Turns out, Mercada’s own husband was once enamored of an Ashkenazi girl — and that, Rosa says, was “absolutely forbidden.”

Sarit Yishai-Levi
David Bachar

The Ermosas were old Jerusalemites, and the Ashkenazim were the new. “They did everything they could to blend in with the Spaniols,” Rosa says of the later arrivals, “because after all, we were all Jews and we should help one another. But marry? Heaven forbid! Because the Spaniols wanted to keep themselves for themselves and only marry one another, so as not to mix, God help us, with the Ishkenazim and have half-and-half children.”

Jerusalem itself plays a role, in that it expands in fantasy or contracts in reality, as when Rosa, an illiterate former housemaid, regales Gabriela with the city’s storied past. Once, “she would tell me, ‘Our Jerusalem was like abroad. In Cafe Europa, on Zion Square, an orchestra played and people danced the tango, and at five o’clock on the terrace of the King David Hotel there was tea and a pianist, and they’d drink from delicate porcelain cups, and the Arab waiters, may they be cursed, wore tuxedoes and bow ties.’” 

But Rosa never witnessed any of this. Instead, Gabriela says, “She’d told me what she’d heard from people whose houses she cleaned.”

A pitiable pattern

At length, the novel shows how little the Ermosas’ attachment to history advances their interests. Still, as their narrative unwinds, it forms an understandable — even pitiable — pattern. In the face of their losses, the Ermosas fear losing still more. In defense, they clutch at tired notions of honor and self-spiting rituals of keeping outsiders at bay. 

Consequently, the title of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” — a reference to the red-haired and green-eyed Luna — is rife with irony. Ermosa’s a homonym for the Spanish word for beautiful, yet the thinking of many in the family is anything but.

Still, as readers know, the parochial views of the Ermosas — and, to be fair, of those from a wide range of groups — are challenged by what’s become a dizzying array of Jewish communities in Israel, where Ashkenazim have for decades outstripped Sephardim in holding positions of power.

But Israel’s literary scene, at least, has begun straying from an Eastern European focus. Even as the novel shares the Ermosas’ fight to stay insular, its popularity points to a widening market for books about families that didn’t flee Hitler’s Europe, but instead have Mediterranean or Mizrahi roots.

Publishers abroad are also exploring a diversity in Israeli-born voices – including Ayelet Tsabari, who recently published an award-winning debut collection of short stories, “The Best Place on Earth,” about Yemeni Jews based in Israel and Canada. (Tsabari’s book was released last month in Israel, as a Hebrew translation.)

Counterintuitively, Tsabari's characters are the psychic inheritors of the Ermosas. Their forbears arrived in Israel around 1950 — late, to the old-school Ermosas. Still, these third-generation protagonists reach adulthood in the early ’90s, at the same moment when Gabriela Ermosa’s children would be coming of age. 

Like her, they struggle with issues of inheritance and alienation. But that’s where the dovetailing between the two books ends. Where Tsabari’s prose is contained, Yishai-Levi’s can read like the script of a telenovela. Recurring wails of “Dio santo,” cries of “Wai de mi sola,” and invocations of “Senor del mundo” become verbal tics for Yishai-Levi’s characters — often partnered by thunderous, black-and-white declarations including “Never!” “Always!” and “Hungarian whore.”

Righteous anger isn’t generally meant to be funny, but it can draw a laugh from a reader who doesn’t buy into the family’s skewed sense of honor, especially given its unswerving adherence to practices that have proved destructive — or pointless.

At such points, the dialogue shifts to tragic self-revelation. “Most of all, I was afraid of the evil eye,” Rosa confides to Gabriela, about when she was a young mother. To protect one son who later died in infancy, she says: “I’d even dress [him] in girls’ clothes to deceive Lilith,” a malevolent spirit believed to hate men.

Her superstition may seem trifling. But it helps shine a light on an Israeli story that’s driven neither by the Holocaust, nor the Palestinian conflict — which also barely gets a mention — but instead by entrenched family dynamics and beliefs, followed by individual nature and choice. 

The novel makes clear: Rosa is a product of her time and scant education. But her daughter Luna — to her own daughter, at least— seems willfully pickled in a brine of disappointment. Raised to believe that her looks guaranteed her love, Luna finds herself in a union devoid of it, and her rage erupts in ugly ways. One of them is to forbid Gabriela to go near the primitivos: the Kurdish neighbors, who feed the child treats.

“A street girl!” Luna calls her, when she finds her in their kitchen, with a plate of kubbeh (semolina dumplings). Once, Gabriela knows, her grandfather had a Kurdish business partner who drove him to debt, costing him his store. Still, “I didn’t understand why,” she says, that simply “because some Kurd had screwed my grandfather a million years ago all the Kurds in the world were to blame.”

If Yishai-Levi intended her novel to depict how personal hurts can intertwine with history to divide distinctive groups, then she’s done a fine job. But her bigger triumph perhaps lies in showing Israel’s unique challenge: to assemble its balkanized communities into a coherent whole.

Susan Comninos is a New York-based writer who has covered books and authors for The Atlantic Online, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Jewish Daily Forward, among others.