Review: The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Following the binds and curses that tie four generations of women together, this dazzling novel of mothers and daughters held me practically spell-bound to the pages.

Gabriela’s mother Luna is the most beautiful woman in all of Jerusalem, though her famed beauty and charm seem to be reserved for everyone but her daughter. Ever since Gabriela can remember, she and Luna have struggled to connect. But when tragedy strikes, Gabriela senses there’s more to her mother than painted nails and lips.

Desperate to understand their relationship, Gabriela pieces together the stories of her family’s previous generations—from Great-Grandmother Mercada the renowned healer, to Grandma Rosa who cleaned houses for the English, to Luna who had the nicest legs in Jerusalem. But as she uncovers shocking secrets, forbidden romances, and the family curse that links the women together, Gabriela must face a past and present far more complex than she ever imagined.

After having read The Two-Family House, following an Ashkenazi-Jewish family, I was beyond grateful to have then found The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, which is set around a Sephardi-Jewish family. And it contains practically all that I cherish, from epic family sagas to curses to secret loves, and all things in between. I was practically giddy with feeling all the things the characters were feeling. So this book greatly surpassed my expectations. The women in the Ermosa family were marvellous storytellers, and I was more than willing to sit for hours on end and listen to their tales, as one does.

But let’s circle back to the heart of all the problems in the family:  “The curse of the Ermosa women. My Grandma Rosa told me that the Ermosa women are cursed with men who don’t want them, and vice versa.” And what I found most intriguing was how we get to go back in time and see the exact moment the curse took place and with whom it all started: Gabriela’s great-grandfather Raphael Ermosa.

Seeing the curse traced throughout the generations was beyond gratifying at first. My mind was transfixed with how everything was linked so seamlessly in one way or another. However, once you read about the same failed love story repeated more than a handful of times with each passing generation, you get to the point of exaggeration, which I’d feared going into this book. Speaking of which, another thing I feared was the English translation since so many phrases that I love in the original language translated so weakly and awkwardly once read in the translator’s words. Iconic Hebrew phrases such as “Tfu, may their name be erased” sounded extremely odd to me in English. But I gradually learned to get over it with time, mainly thanks to the addition of Ladino phrases being inserted in the dialogue. Speaking of which, “pishcado y limon” is definitely a favorite:

“Like everyone else in Jerusalem, Mercada believed in the evil eye and was afraid of evil spirits. When she came home from the market at dusk, staggering along with her baskets on the cobblestones of the Ohel Moshe neighborhood, she could swear she heard the sound of footsteps following her, and convinced that at any moment she would encounter an evil spirit, she would walk faster and murmur, ‘Pishcado y limon.’ Like all the other Spaniols she too believed that the combination of the two words fish and lemon would fend off the spirits.”

On that positive note, I remember the exact moment I became enchanted with this story: Gabriel Ermosa falling in love with Rochel and their unrelenting circumstances. Their romance was the only thing to convince me to read on. It was passionate, tender, and unfortunately short-lived. Looking back, nothing else in this story quite compared to those two together.

“The extraordinary love story of Rochel Weinstein, the Ashkenazia from Mea Shearim, and Gabriel Ermosa, the Spaniol from Ohel Moshe, was the talk of the town.”

I kept hoping for more after it was over… but nada, Gabriel was forced to move on while I still kept an inch of hope in my heart. Also, it didn’t help that I’d read this particular part of the book late at night, so my heart felt like it was right in the middle of their conflicting ones. I mean, how could you not be captivated by their liveliness and intensity for another at nearly 12 a.m.?

“Rochel hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the man in the market, his broad, white smile, the dimples creasing his cheeks. She could feel her heart pounding when she thought about him, the blood climbing through her veins and flushing her face. And she, who always preferred sitting on the steps and staring at the sky, she, who refused to help her mother with the washing, cleaning, and taking care of her little brothers, now she jumped to carry her mother’s basket to the market for the Shabbat shopping each week.”

The eagerness and agony and everything that transpired to lead to their ending left me with a wildly beating heart. Needless to say, their story touched my soul the most.

However, this unfortunately lead to the rest of the book paling in comparison for me. Throughout my reading experience of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, I kept looking for that same spark to reignite, but I waited in vain because that fervor never seemed to last too long whenever it did reappeare. Sure, there were a few points here and there to keep my interest (sisterly love, family drama, etc.), but overall this story seemed to have reached a peak with Rochel and Gabriel for me.

That’s not to say that the rest of the characters weren’t fleshed out and lively–because they definitely were. Since each generation was given its respected page-time, I couldn’t have been more grateful to have gotten to know each and every one of them. Their shared moments varied from the gentle and real to the painful and exciting and beautiful. And I felt similar to how the youngest Gabriela felt about her family secrets:

“It was stronger than me, this thirst for the story of the women in my family, for the secrets that would help me understand. I knew I might discover things I’d regret knowing afterward, but since my nona had opened this Pandora’s box, I had to know so I could move forward with my life.”

From all the women in the Ermosa family: Mercada, Rosa, Luna, Rachelika, Becky, Gabriela… to all the men: Raphael, Gabriel, David, Moise, Handsome Eli Cohen… Wai wai wai, I couldn’t have been prouder to have known and read about such a vibrant family. It surpassed my expectations.

4/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

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