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

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Review: The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

“Love is always forgiving.”

The main reasons I felt compelled to give The Two-Family House a try was thanks to the promise of Jewish families, friendships between women, pregnancy, and so much more being the center in this family saga.

Brooklyn, 1947: In the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born, minutes apart. The mothers are sisters by marriage: dutiful, quiet Rose, who wants nothing more than to please her difficult husband; and warm, generous Helen, the exhausted mother of four rambunctious boys who seem to need her less and less each day. Raising their families side by side, supporting one another, Rose and Helen share an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic winter night.

Following the Berman family in the two-family house in Brooklyn from 1947 to 1970, we get to hear from six main point of views: Rose, Helen, Mort, Abe, Judith and Natalie. And the author succeeded greatly in giving each of them a distinctly singular voice.

I do have to admit, though, that I had some trouble getting into the book at first because there were quite a lot of chapters at first from the husband’s pov, which I didn’t really care for. But when we reached that terrifying night when both mothers had to give birth minutes apart, the story picked up immensely for me. I quickly realized I began enjoying myself when I wasn’t paying attention to the page number; I was just reading and immersing myself in the book and the lives of the Berman family. (P.S. bonus points for their last name because I used to live on a street called the same.)

Speaking of, I have so many thoughts and feelings when it comes to this book that I think it’s for the best to compile a list (which will contain *spoilers *):

  • I’ll never grow tired of books mentioning superstitions and the like:

“What’s so funny?”
“You never met my grandmother; she died before I met Abe. Anyway, she was from the old country, very stubborn, very superstitious. You couldn’t put a hat on the bed, you couldn’t eat only one olive—she believed all that stuff. She used to say that if a pregnant woman wanted a girl, she should never eat the end of the bread, only the middle. And if she wanted a boy, she should only eat the end.”

Since both Rose and Helen are due in January (1948), they get to go through this pregnancy process together. And so they did till the very last ghastly day when they’re to give birth at home at the same time in a damn blizzard with only one midwife available to attend to them both… seems to be one of the most terrifying things.

“When Judith tried to recall specific details, she felt like she was looking at a distant scene through the glass of a snow globe. Their house and all the people in it were tucked safely inside. But she couldn’t see anything clearly because the flakes were in constant motion, covering the house and refusing to settle to the bottom. No matter what angle she approached from, she could never get an unobstructed view.”

Now, I have to mention that the whip-smart writing, as you can read in the above paragraph, completely enchanted me. Loigman has a real way with words and extremely vivid imagery, to borrow her own phrasing.

  • Circling back to that night of horrors, that moment when the mothers decided, without any previous discussion, to switch babies was a pivotal experience.

“Judith took one of the babies from her mother and rocked it in her arms. “Oh my gosh, I completely forgot!” Judith said. “Which is which? I mean, which one is my cousin and which is my…?” Her aunt and mother looked at each other for what seemed like a very long time. Her mother answered first. “You’re holding your cousin Natalie.” Then her mother gestured toward the baby she was holding and spoke very softly. “This is your brother, Theodore.”

But it was fascinating how we got to read the most important scene in  the book through the eyes of Rose’s twelve-year-old daughter, Judith. It made the whole experience seem murkier, like it was both distant and close-by.

Also, shout out to the author for naming one of the babies Natalie (guaranteed to make me like a character even just a tiny bit more).

  • After that night we get to see the families grow and expand while trying to deal with everything thrown their way. From Judith getting into college (“Her name was on a list, and whether the list meant rejection or acceptance, in the moments before she opened the envelopes she was overcome with relief that she existed somewhere outside the boundaries of her everyday life and that her name and person were as indisputably real as anyone else’s.”) to Natalie and Teddy growing up together while their mothers are growing apart. It seemed to me that I loved nearly everything in this part, especially Judith’s coming of age and Natalie’s supportiveness as a friend to her cousin and best friend, Teddy. “She never lets Teddy figure out she knows more than he does.” She was so good for him.
  • But on a less positive note, I had trouble reconciling with Rose’s character development. I could wholeheartedly get behind the idea that she was done acting a certain way to please her judgemental husband (more on him in a bit) and even when she was made out to be the antihero in the story, I could get the viewpoint. But then Rose gets dropped out of the storyline towards the end because of the way she was acting and that was what left me bewildered. I had grown a lot with her character ever since that blizzard night in 1947. And the toll that dark day took on Rose was a lot to take in. “Even the most skillful tailor couldn’t hide a seam once a cloth was torn in two.”
    In a lot of ways, the irreversible nature of whatever had occurred between the two women was like getting to watch a bewitching character study, and not only with the two, but the way it affected the whole family. So when Rose decided to move away from everyone, and we didn’t get to see her anymore save for one brief moment at the very end, I was visually disappointed. It was like the author said best when describing another character: “After that, she had faded into the background, her personality hazy and her role in the family vague.”
  • Rose’s husband, Mort, it turns out, is kind of the root of the problem where that night in 1947 is concerned. Rose was so stressed to deliver a baby boy because she knew Mort wouldn’t accept anything else after having three girls (which is just a whole new level of messed up). It’s at this part that I was reminded of the year this story is set in. Funnily enough, I kept forgetting this was supposed to be historical fiction until gender roles and sexism were inserted… mostly from Rose’s morbid husband, Mort. Which was when Rose realized something too little too late concerning her husband: “Mort would never be happy. There was no test she could pass that would change him.” He was the epitome of nearly everything I can detest in a person. And though I’m appreciative that he changed his ways with the years, thanks to Natalie, I never could quite get behind supporting him because this passage from Rose would always remain at the back of my mind:

“She hadn’t known what it was until it wasn’t there. The daily dread of being judged, of being measured and found lacking in some way, no matter how small, was a burden she carried, compact and profound. It was a too-heavy purse, worn and comfortable on her shoulder, which she did not know the weight of until she set it down.”

  • In addition to the main storyline of motherhood, we have a lot of underlying themes concerning grief, resentment, strength, love, anxiety, and family. And I cherished getting to see each and every one develop.

“Some things we just have to accept,” he told her. Judith followed her father’s gaze across the room to where her mother was sitting alone, looking as grim as possible. He turned back to Judith and finished his thought out loud. “So we can save our strength for other problems.”

  • I ended up discussing the plot of Rose and Helen switching babies with my mom, who brought up an interesting parallel: The Judgment of Solomon. Which was all I could think about when similar things seemed to lead to the same argument of both claiming to be the mother of a child. And I was only more secure in this parallel when I read this next passage from Helen’s husband:

“He was dreaming that he was back at the hotel, in the hallway outside the coatroom. Helen and Rose were arguing, something about Natalie. Rose didn’t like what Natalie was wearing. She didn’t like her own dress either. Helen said there was nothing she could do about it. “But you took my dress,” Rose yelled. “Give it back to me!” “It’s mine,” Helen told her. “You can’t have it.” Rose wouldn’t let it go, and the screaming became louder. “You have two dresses and I have none. You were supposed to give one of them to me. But you never let that happen!” After that, Abe woke up.”

  • Which leads me to Natalie, who was one of the most fascinating characters for me to read since we get to see her growth from a newborn baby to an independent twenty-year-old mathematics scholar. And I just couldn’t have been prouder of her. She was caring and daring and brave, and I’m all tears for everything she carried on her shoulders.

“We always think our own grief is the worst—worse than everybody else’s. But the truth is, we never know for sure what the people around us are feeling. I have had some bad things happen, but then a lot of wonderful things happened to me, too. An awful thing happened to you yesterday. But you mustn’t let it ruin the happiness that lies ahead for you, dear.”

  • In the end I’m just beyond grateful to have found a character-driven book centered around a Jewish family that focuses heavily on the family bonds with little to no romantic aspects thrown in. And I’m more than ready for any future works by the author!!

The Two-Family House is the first read in awhile where I stayed up late into the night reading, seemingly unable to stop. It not only changed my outlook on so many things, but it also brought me sheer joy just from watching the Berman family grow and develop. My feelings were at times so intense that I was brought to actual tears.

Also, I listened to this song on repeat during those parts, and what’s so amazing about it is that it manages to capture and enhance the atmosphere of each heartbreaking scene that more:

5/5 stars

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

Review: The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

This has been on my wishlist for ages because the promise of representing practicing Jewish characters in the graphic novel format (by an #ownvoices author!!!) sounded just like my kind of thing.

Set in Algeria in the 1930s, a cat belonging to a widowed rabbi and his beautiful daughter, Zlabya, eats the family parrot and gains the ability to speak. To his master’s consternation, the cat immediately begins to tell lies (the first being that he didn’t eat the parrot). The rabbi vows to educate him in the ways of the Torah, while the cat insists on studying the kabbalah and having a Bar Mitzvah. They consult the rabbi’s rabbi, who maintains that a cat can’t be Jewish — but the cat, as always, knows better.

Zlabya falls in love with a dashing young rabbi from Paris, and soon master and cat, having overcome their shared self-pity and jealousy, are accompanying the newlyweds to France to meet Zlabya’s cosmopolitan in-laws. Full of drama and adventure, their trip invites countless opportunities for the rabbi and his cat to grapple with all the important — and trivial — details of life.

There’s so much I crave to discuss, so let’s start at the beginning:

The Rabbi's Cat 2-- bookspoilsThese topics are ones I see and talk about in my daily life, but unfortunately rarely in the books I read… So I’ll never stop thanking Joann Sfar for giving Jews this major platform. The Rabbi's Cat 4-- bookspoilsAnd I loved the concept of the cat wanting to study the Kabbalah, since I recently got myself a book on the same topic.The Rabbi's Cat 1-- bookspoils

The Rabbi's Cat 5-- bookspoilsI was expecting this book to focus heavily on Zlabya and the cat (since they’re on the book cover), but that wasn’t the case. The Rabbi’s Cat, like the title suggest, is more about the bickering between the Rabbi and his cat, which I gradually grew fond of.The Rabbi's Cat 8-- bookspoilsOn that note, I laughed uncontrollably a number of times at some of the more crude remarks made by the cat, such as:

The Rabbi's Cat 6-- bookspoils

The Rabbi's Cat 7-- bookspoilsI still feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to see these kinds of conversations in a book!!!The Rabbi's Cat 9-- bookspoilsHa! Family is everything…

But with all that I loved, once the family traveled to Paris – to meet with the family of Zlabya’s husband – the narrative became a bit unclear. Plus, the emphasis on Jewish traditions being slowly dropped to make place for Western culture made the graphic novel deteriorate in quality for me. I cherished The Rabbi’s Cat for solely focusing on Jews in Algeria and their customs and traditions. So when halfway through the storyline shifted to make space for Western culture, I was let down. The author had such a great opportunity to educate and enlighten people on Sephardi Jews – which he did greatly for the first half – but then in the last part decides to give the spotlight once again to the Westerns…
The Rabbi's Cat 12-- bookspoilsI wish this moment would’ve been expanded to talk more about how messed up some white people are…

The Rabbi's Cat 13-- bookspoils

All in all: The Rabbi’s Cat is something I’ll cherish for a long time to come; it’s not everyday that you find something so close to home. And thankfully there’s a movie adaptation that I plan on watching next!

4.5/5 stars

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