The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Novel

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Novel


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The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Novel by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Finalist for the Book Club category of the 2016 National Jewish Book Awards.

The #1 International Best Seller, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a dazzling novel of mothers and daughters, stories told and untold, and the ties that bind four generations of women.

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.

Set against the Golden Age of Hollywood, the dark days of World War II, and the swinging '70s, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem follows generations of unforgettable women as they forge their own paths through times of dramatic change. With great humor and heart, Sarit Yishai-Levi has given us a powerful story of love and forgiveness—and the unexpected and enchanting places we find each.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250078162
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 369,900
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

SARIT YISHAI-LEVI is a renowned Israeli journalist, notable for being the first Israeli to interview Yasser Arafat, and has also interviewed major political and cultural figures like Muhammad Ali, Ariel Sharon, Leah Rubin, Hugh Hefner, and more. She is the author of four non-fiction books and her debut novel, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, which was a #1 bestseller and won the Publishers Association’s Gold and Platinum Prizes and the Steimatzky Prize for bestselling book of the year in Israel. She lives in Tel Aviv.

Read an Excerpt

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem

By Sarit Yishai-Levi, Anthony Berris

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Sarit Yishai-Levi and Modan Publishing House Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9050-3


My mother Luna passed away shortly before my eighteenth birthday. A year earlier, while the whole family was sitting around the table for lunch as usual, and she was serving her famous sofrito with peas and white rice, she sat down on her chair and said, "Dio santo, I can't feel my leg."

Father ignored her and went on reading the paper and eating. My little brother Ronny laughed and shook Mother's leg under the table. "Mother's got a leg like a doll's!"

"It's not funny," my mother said angrily. "I can't feel my foot on the floor."

Father and I continued eating.

"Por Dio, David, I can't stand on my leg," she repeated. "It's not doing what I tell it."

Now she was on the verge of hysteria. Father finally stopped eating and took his head out of the paper.

"Try and stand up," he said. Mother was unsteady on her feet and held on to the corner of the table.

"We should get you to the doctor's," Father said.

But the minute they walked out the door, Mother's leg did as it was told, and she could feel it again as if nothing had happened.

"See? It's nothing," said Father. "You're being dramatic as usual."

"Yes, right. I'm dramatic," Mother replied. "If it had happened to you, people would have heard the ambulance siren from here to Katamon."

The episode passed as if it had never happened. Mother would recount it over and over to Rachelika and Becky and anyone else who was prepared to listen, and Father would lose his temper and say, "Enough! How many times do we have to hear the story about your marionette leg?"

Then the second incident occurred. Mother came home from the grocery, and just as she was about to walk inside, she fell and lost consciousness. This time an ambulance was called and Mother was rushed to Bikur Holim Hospital. She couldn't stand or walk and was diagnosed with cancer. That was when Mother began to stop talking, especially to Father. He'd try to engage her and she just wouldn't answer. Her sisters, Rachelika and Becky, neglected their families so they could sit with her almost around the clock. Despite their pleading, she refused to leave the house, ashamed that people would see her, Luna, the woman who had the most beautiful legs in Jerusalem, in a wheelchair.

As much as I hardened my heart at the time, it was distressing to see Rachelika peeling an orange for Mother, begging her to eat her favorite fruit, and Becky gently painting Mother's nails with red polish, for even then, when she was so sick and weak, she was still meticulous about her manicure and pedicure. Rachelika and Becky both did their utmost to behave naturally, as if nothing terrible was happening, and chattered away, "yackety-yak like a couple of hens," as my grandmother Nona Rosa used to say. Only Luna, the biggest chatterbox of all, remained silent.

At night one of them would stay over to sleep with Mother, who now occupied the living room sofa's pullout bed, encircled with dining chairs to prevent her from falling off. All of Father's pleas that she sleep in their bedroom and he in the living room fell on deaf ears.

"She says she can't breathe in the bedroom," Rachelika told Father. "At least you can get a proper night's sleep so you'll have the strength to look after the children."

But my little brother Ronny and I didn't need Father to look after us. We both took advantage of the fact that everyone was preoccupied with Mother and gave ourselves the freedom to roam. Ronny preferred the company of boys his age and spent whole days in their houses, and many nights as well, while I spent my time with Amnon, my boyfriend. Amnon's parents had a bookshop at the center of town and his sister was married, so their big house on Hamaalot Street was ours for the taking. Had my father known what we were up to, he would have beaten Amnon to a pulp and sent me to live on a kibbutz.

After her diagnosis, Mother no longer called me a "street girl" or threatened to tell my father when I got home late. She wouldn't even look at me, but just sat in her wheelchair staring into space or whispering with one of her sisters. Father would make dinner, and he too wouldn't ask me any questions or show interest in what I was doing. It seemed they all preferred that I spend as little time as possible at home so I wouldn't annoy Mother, God forbid, who even when in her wheelchair didn't get good behavior from me.

One afternoon when I was about to leave the house to meet Amnon, Rachelika stopped me.

"I have to stop home," she said, "so stay with your mother until Becky gets here."

"But I have a test! I have to go to my friend's to study."

"Ask your friend to come here."

"No!" My mother's voice, hardly ever heard in those days, made us jump. "You're not asking anyone to come here. If you want to go, go. I don't need you to stay here and look after me."

"Luna," said Rachelika, "you can't stay here on your own."

"I don't need Gabriela to hold my hand. I don't need her to look after me or you to look after me or Becky to look after me or the devil to look after me. I don't need anything, just leave me be!"

"Don't get angry, Luna. It's been two days since I saw Moise and the children. I have to go check in."

"Go wherever you want," my mother replied and withdrew into herself again.

"God forgive us," Rachelika said, wringing her hands. I'd never seen my aunt in such despair, but she quickly regained her composure. "You're staying here with your mother!" she ordered me. "I'm going home for a few minutes and I'll be right back. And don't you dare leave her for one second."

She turned and went, leaving me alone with my mother. You could have cut the air with a knife. My mother sitting in her wheelchair, her face sour and angry, and me standing in the middle of the living room like an idiot. At that moment I would have done anything just not to be alone with her.

"I'm going to my room to study," I said. "I'll leave the door open. Call me if you need anything."

"Sit down," my mother said.

I paused, caught off guard by her request.

"I want to ask you for something."

I tensed. My mother never asked me for anything. She only ever told me what to do.

"I want to ask you not to bring your friends here. I don't want any strangers in the house until I die."

"Until you die?" I was so alarmed that the only way I could deflect what she'd said was to respond with words that even I couldn't believe. "You'll bury us all."

"Don't worry, Gabriela. It will be you who buries me," she said quietly.

The room felt too small for the both of us.

"Mother, you should be thanking God. There are people who get cancer and die right away. God loves you. You can talk, you can see, you're alive."

"You call this living?" My mother snorted. "My enemies should live like this. It's a living death."

"You're the one who's choosing to live like this," I retorted. "If you wanted to, you could get dressed, put on makeup, and go out."

"Yes, right," she said. "Go out in a wheelchair."

"Your friend the redhead, the one who was in the hospital with you during the war, he was in a wheelchair, and I don't remember him not leaving the house, and I remember he was always smiling."

My mother looked at me incredulously. "You remember him?" she asked softly.

"Of course I do. He used to sit me on his knee and spin us in his wheelchair like the bumper cars at the Luna Park."

"The Luna Park," Mother murmured. "The ghost train." She suddenly burst into tears and with her hand signaled that I should go.

I took to my heels. The almost intimate conversation we'd had was too much for me to take. It was the closest we'd come to having a mother-daughter talk, and it too ended in tears.

My mother wept in waves that rose and fell, and in my room I shut my ears with my hands. I couldn't bear the sound of her despair. Years later I'd regret that moment. Instead of my heart opening, it closed up tight. Instead of taking her in my arms and comforting her, I lay on the cold floor of my room, hands over my ears, and uttered a silent cry to God: Shut her up, God. Please shut her up.

And God foolishly heard me and shut her up. That night the ambulance siren wailed and its brakes screeched outside our house. Four brawny men climbed the fifty-four stairs to the top floor of our apartment building, laid my mother on a stretcher, and rushed her to the hospital. On the operating table the surgeons discovered to their horror that my mother's body was completely ravaged inside.

"It's all over," my father told me. "There's nothing the doctors can do. Your mother's going to die."

Many years after her death, when I found room in my heart for my mother, my Aunt Rachelika told me the secret of her suffering, the never-receding pain. But by then it was already too late to fix what had been broken between us.

* * *

I'm a woman of autumn, of yellowed falling leaves. I was born at its back door, two steps before winter.

As a child I'd eagerly await the first rain and the blossoming of the squills. I'd run to the fields, roll in the damp grass, press my face to the soil, and inhale the smell of rain. I'd collect tortoises and stroke their hard shells with my slender fingers, save wagtails' nests that had fallen from trees, pick autumn saffron and crocuses, and follow the snails that populated the fields.

I'd disappear for hours, and Mother, who was sure I was at Nono and Nona's, never came looking for me. When I'd get home with damp soil stuck to my clothes and a frightened tortoise in my hands, she'd glare at me with her green eyes and say in a whisper that felt as harsh as a slap, "So different from everyone else. How? How did I have a child like you?"

I too didn't know how she'd had a child like me. She was so thin and fragile, always dressed in well-cut suits that showed off her slim waist, with high heels like those in the magazines at the seamstress, who'd make all my mother's clothes according to Hollywood fashion.

There was a time when Mother would sew identical dresses for herself and me, from the same cloth and in the same cut. She'd dress me, warn me over and over not to get dirty, tie a matching ribbon in my red curls, clean my patent leather shoes with spit, and hand in hand we'd go to Café Atara near our house on Ben-Yehuda Street. But after I dirtied the dresses time after time, didn't show them the proper respect, she stopped.

"What kind of a girl are you? A horani, a primitive. You'll never be a lady. Sometimes I think you were born in the Kurdish neighborhood!" she'd say, and that was the most terrible thing she could have said, because my mother despised the Kurds.

I could never understand why Mother hated the Kurds. Even Nona Rosa didn't hate them, certainly not in the way she hated the English. I never heard her say, "May the name of the Kurds be erased." But whenever there was mention of the English who were in Israel before I was born, she'd always add, "May the name of the Ingelish be erased." It was well known that Nona Rosa hated the English from the time of the Mandate, ever since her little brother Ephraim disappeared and went in hiding for years as a member of the Lehi underground organization. My mother, on the other hand, had nothing against the English. On the contrary, on numerous occasions I heard her say it was a pity they'd left the country: "If the English had stayed, then maybe the Kurds wouldn't have come."

I actually liked the Kurds a lot, especially the Barazani family who lived in the other half of Nono and Nona's house after our family's financial situation forced my grandparents to move into the Kurd neighborhood. The two yards were separated only by a thin fence, and once a week Mrs. Barazani would light a fire in the yard and bake a tasty pastry with bubbling cheese inside it. And before the day my mother, with threats of a beating, forbade me to go anywhere near the Barazanis' side, I'd wait for the moment when "the Kurdia," as Nona called her, invited me to sit on the floor by the tabun and enjoy the heavenly pastry.

Mr. Barazani would wear a big dress — "like the Arabs in the Old City," my mother would say — and a rolled-up kerchief on his head, sitting me on his knee as he laughed with his toothless mouth and talked to me in a language I didn't understand.

"Papukata, where did your mother buy you, the Mahane Yehuda Market?" Mrs. Barazani would laugh. "Because it's impossible that you and she are related."

It was only years later that my Aunt Becky told me that our family had a long score to settle with the Kurds.

My Aunt Becky was Nono and Nona Ermosa's youngest daughter, and she loved me as if I were her little sister. She looked after me and spent far more time with me than my mother did. I was also her alibi when she went to meet her boyfriend, Handsome Eli Cohen, who was as good-looking as Alain Delon. Every afternoon Handsome Eli Cohen would pull up on his shiny black motorbike and whistle. Aunt Becky would go out into the yard, dragging me after her, and shout to Nona Rosa, "I'm taking Gabriela to the playground." And before Nona had a chance to answer, we'd already be on the bike, me pressed between Becky and Handsome Eli Cohen. We'd drive along Agrippas Street to King George Street, and as we passed the modest building opposite the Tzilla perfumery, where my mother bought perfume and lipstick, Becky would always say, "There's our Knesset." Once we even saw Ben- Gurion leave our Knesset and walk toward Hillel Street, and Handsome Eli Cohen drove after him on his motorbike until we saw him enter the Eden Hotel. "There," Becky told me, "is where he sleeps when he's in our Knesset, in our Jerusalem."

At the city park, they'd send me off to play on the swings or slide and they'd kiss until it was almost dark. Only then, when the park emptied of children and mothers and I was the only one left in the sandbox, Handsome Eli Cohen would drive us back to Nono and Nona Ermosa's. Mother, who'd come to collect me, would yell at Aunt Becky, "Where the hell have you been with the child? I've been looking for you all over Jerusalem!" And Becky would reply, "If you'd take her to the playground yourself instead of sitting in Café Atara all day, then maybe I'd be able to study for the exam I have tomorrow, so you're welcome!"

My mother would smooth her sleek skirt, pass a hand over her perfect hairdo, examine her red-polished nails, and murmur, "Go to hell," through clenched lips before taking my hand and leading me home.

Eventually Aunt Becky got engaged to Handsome Eli Cohen at Café Armon. It was a lovely party with tables of food and a singer who sang Yisrael Yitzhaki songs. Aunt Becky looked as beautiful as Gina Lollobrigida. When the family had our photograph taken with the engaged couple, Nono Gabriel sat in the middle surrounded by the whole family, and I sat perched on my father's shoulders and looked down at everyone. That was the last photograph taken of Nono Gabriel, because five days later he died.

Only after he died, during the shiva, the seven-day mourning period, when my mother fainted all the time from crying so much and they had to pour water over her so she'd wake up, and Nona Rosa kept saying, "Basta, Luna! Pull yourself together so we don't have another tragedy in the family!" and Tia Allegra, Nono Gabriel's sister, said, "May he rest in peace, Gabriel. Not only isn't she crying for him, she won't even let her daughter faint over him" — it was just then that Becky found the right time to announce her wedding date. They all congratulated her but said she had to wait a year out of respect for Nono Gabriel, and Becky said there was no way she'd wait that long, because by then she'd be too old to have children. And Tia Allegra said, "Gabriel, God forgive your sins. What kind of girls did you raise that they won't even give you the respect of a year?"

My mother, who had come around from her faint, whispered, "Thank God she's finally getting married. I was worried she might die an old maid." A fight broke out and Aunt Becky ran after my mother with her sapatos, her slippers, and threatened to murder her if she ever dared call her an old maid again, and my mother told her, "What's to be done, querida. It's a fact. At your age I was already a mother." At that Aunt Becky darted out of the house and I after her down the steps of Agrippas Street until we reached the Wallach hospital graveyard. She sat down on the wall and sat me next to her and suddenly burst into tears.

"Oy, Papo, Papo, why have you gone, why have you left us, Papo? What will we do without you?" Eventually she stopped crying, hugged me tight, and said, "You know, Gabriela, they all say that Nono Gabriel loved your mother Luna more than any of us, but I never felt that he loved me less. Nono Gabriel had a heart of gold and that's why everybody took advantage of him. And you, my lovely, never let anyone take advantage of you, you hear? You'll find yourself a boy like my Eli and marry him and be happy. Isn't that right, my good girl? Don't search right or left. When you meet a boy like Eli, you'll feel the love here." She took my hand and laid it between her breasts. "Right here, Gabriela, between your belly and your breasts, you'll feel the love, and when you feel it you'll know you've found your Eli and you'll marry him. Now let's go back home before Nono Gabriel gets angry with me for running away from his shiva."


Excerpted from The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi, Anthony Berris. Copyright © 2013 Sarit Yishai-Levi and Modan Publishing House Ltd. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The stunning cover definitely attracted me to this novel. This emotion-evoking, multi-generational story is set in Jerusalem. It's about a troubled mother and daughter relationship. Lush prose against the turbulence of life in Jerusalem made for a vividly sensual tale. There is plenty to laud - secrets, unrequited love, ambition, aspiration, and love and death grace each page. The story is serious, made for contemplation and reflection, while describing a beautiful culture in a difficult decade. I highly recommend this novel for book clubs as it will spur wonderful discussions. Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for visiting my blog,, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit