At first blush, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem could be a classic multigenerational family drama of the Jane Austen–type genre — at least if the women of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem weren’t Sephardim in Jerusalem and the backdrop weren’t Ottoman Palestine, the British Mandate and Israel’s War of Independence.
But Sarit Yishai-Levi’s debut novel about a passionately opinionated family is ultimately too intricate and lush with eccentrics, forbidden loves, exotic customs and compelling curses to be British. Think Gabriel García Márquez . . . in Hebrew and Ladino.
The tangle Yishai-Levi weaves is exquisite in its complexity: A famed beauty, a daughter who dismisses her mother as little more than painted charm, the great-grandmother with mysterious healing powers and the grandmother who keeps the family secrets, even as Lehi plants bombs, the Haganah fights to oust the British and the nascent Israel bursts into glory.
Just as the TV version of The Beauty Queen is released in Israel — starring Shtisel’s Michael Aloni — Sarit Yishai-Levi joins us to talk about growing up in a 7th-generation Jerusalem family, her transformation from journalist to novelist and watching her characters come to life in an eagerly anticipated drama.
In conversation with award-winning journalist and author Sandee Brawarsky.
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