The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

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This is about four generations of women living in Jerusalem, from the closing years of Ottoman rule, through the period of the British Mandate, and on into the early decades of Israeli independence.   It’s written in quite a rambling way, and jumps backwards and forwards in time, so it’s not particularly easy to follow; but it’s an interesting portrayal of the life of a family in changing times and under different regimes.  It also makes a change to read a book about a (Sephardi) family who’d been living in Jerusalem for many generations before Ottoman rule ended, rather than an Exodus/One More River type immigration novel.

The women are supposed to be linked by a common thread, which is that they all (except the youngest) marry men who love someone else.   That’s not actually that important to the story, but the context of the different relationships is.  This is a Sephardi family who’ve lived in Jerusalem for many generations, whereas most novels about the British Mandate period feature recent immigrants from either Eastern Europe or Britain or the US.  The first two generations of husbands weren’t allowed to marry the women of their choice because the women were Ashkenazi, and that was an absolutely no-no, no more to be considered than marrying a Muslim woman or a Christian woman.  The third generation husband loved an Italian Catholic woman whom he met whilst serving with the British Army during the Second World War, an interesting reminder of how many men from the “Yishuv”, the Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine, served with the British forces.

The “Beauty Queen” is the third generation woman, badly injured in a bombing during the unrest surrounding the end of the British Mandate, but the book’s no more about her than it is about her daughter, mother or grandmother, and her sisters feature strongly as well.  The family undergoes various financial ups and downs, and it’s always the women who end up having to sort things out.  The book’s about their personal relationships and problems, with the historical events just forming the background, but the historical events are very much there.  The author isn’t very complimentary about the British administration, but I think it has to be accepted that the mandatory periods in the Middle East were not Britain or France’s finest hours.

Much more than being an Israeli book, it’s a Sephardi book.  We see all the traditions, such as naming children after grandparents, and the author’s tried very hard to show how Sephardi women in Mandatory Palestine would have spoken.  She’s actually gone a bit overboard – surely no-one said “may he/she be healthy” after every single name they mentioned – but she deserves marks for effort!  Saying “pishcado y limon” to ward off the evil eye comes up a lot – I’d never heard that before. There are lots of Ladino words thrown in, without being translated: I did GCSE Spanish so I was OK with this, but someone who doesn’t know any Spanish or Ladino might get very confused!

It was quite confusing to read generally, because of the rather rambling narrative, but it was something different and I did enjoy it.