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Monday, April 4, 2016

Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Sephardic Perspective on Israeli History

I've been busy trying to finish my final project for library school so I can get my degree.  This is why I haven't posted for a long while.  I will soon have an MLIS degree.  Please be patient with me.  I am trying to catch up on the books that I've committed to review.

The publisher of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi contacted me about reviewing this book for Book Babe. I am now doing a longer version including more topics and research links for this blog. I have to say that the title didn't exactly attract me.  I was disinclined to read a book about a beauty queen, but the author is Israeli so I looked beyond the title.  I discovered that it's a family saga that partly deals with the period before Israel was a state.   My grandmother, who was born in what was then the Ottoman Empire in 1905, spent her childhood in Jerusalem.  So I'm always interested in learning more about the history of Jews in what would later be known as Israel. I agreed to review it and received an ARC via Net Galley in return for this honest review.


I have to admit that Luna, the title character, was unsympathetic. I found her self-absorbed and superficial.  She  always wanted to be the center of attention.  Her sister Rachelika thought that love redeemed Luna.  I disagree since she spent so much of her life acting like a spoiled brat.   I thought that Luna's mother, Rosa, was the strongest woman in this book.  This is by no means a feminist narrative.  Rosa was married into the Hermosa family without her consent as was typical during that period.  Marriages were usually arranged then. The reason why I call Rosa strong is because she survived the loss of her parents at a young age and always did what needed to be done under challenging circumstances.  Luna didn't respect her mother because she cleaned the homes of British occupiers for a living before she married.  Luna's attitude toward her mother definitely didn't endear her to me.   I thought Rosa was doing the best she could to keep herself and her younger brother alive without assistance from anyone else.

The Hermosa family, which is at the center of the narrative, originally came to Palestine from Spain when the Jews were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.  This community of Jews are known as Sephardim because they came from Sepharad which is the Hebrew word for Spain.  They spoke Ladino which is a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew. (Ladino is still spoken, but it's an endangered language.  Recently Israeli singer Sarah Aroeste released an album for children called Ora de Despertar  in an effort to preserve Ladino, according to the Times of Israel.) The Sephardim who had been in Palestine since the 15th century were proud of their roots in the land, and their ability to co-exist with Arabs.  Later settlers in Palestine came from Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish and were known as Ashkenazis. Yiddish is a mixture of German and Hebrew written in the Hebrew alphabet.  I am descended from Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews.

As a result of further research on the languages that Jews spoke in the Middle East, I discovered  Haketia which is a dialect of Ladino mixed with Arabic which was spoken by Spanish Jews who settled in Morocco.  I had thought that the language of the Jews who settled in Arabic speaking nations would have been Judeo-Arabic.  Maimonides was a Spanish Jew who eventually settled in Egypt.  His language was Judeo-Arabic.  Judeo-Arabic is a dialect of Arabic with a slight admixture of Hebrew which was written in the Hebrew alphabet with some modifications for the sounds in Arabic that don't exist in Hebrew.  Maimonides must not have identified with Spain or the Spanish language even though he was born in Spain. The harshness of being forced to leave the land of your birth can change your cultural identification. Someone who maintains a connection with Spain through their language is Spanish identified-- like the Ladino speaking Sephardic community shown in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. 

I was interested in reading about the customs of the Sephardic Jews as described in this novel. There were some that seemed alien to me.  This is especially true of  the idea of selling your infant children to a neighbor and even calling them "slaves" in order to fool the demon Lilith who was supposed to kidnap children.  Lilith was imported from Zoroastrianism during the Jewish exile to Babylon.  The ancient Persians believed in a type of demon called the Lilitu.   Feminist Jews have a different version of Lilith as a truly admirable figure. The feminist  version is derived from a Jewish folkloric tale in which Lilith was Adam's first wife who refused to be dominated by him.  I would think that the feminist version of Lilith would want to free children who'd been sold as slaves.   Although the children were bought back by their families of origin a few weeks later, I find this practice extremely repulsive.

I was fascinated by the description of how Mercada, Gabriel Hermosa's mother, did divination with molten lead.  I learned from Wikipedia that it's called molybdomancy  and that it's a Turkish custom for assisting those who have been afflicted by the evil eye. Divination can be done with anything.  I have seen divination by reading the patterns of scattered chick peas. 

Apparently naming a child after a living relative was not only acceptable in this Sephardic community, but expected.  I actually found this somewhat shocking because I was brought up with the Ashkenazi belief that naming a child after a living relative was a curse on that relative who would then die because the child would be considered a replacement.  Based on this idea, you could never name a child after a parent until that parent was already dead.  So children in my Jewish milieu were often named after grandparents or even great-grandparents if the grandparents were still alive. 

The theme of conflict between Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews was important to this book.   I thought that if there was a curse on the Hermosa family as Luna thought, then the curse was prejudice against Ashkenazim.  Yet as Ashkenazim became more powerful, they began to discriminate against Sephardim.  This pattern of Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardi Jews continued in modern Israel. 

I was also interested in the portrayal of terrorism in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, and the way terrorists are perceived by the characters.

One point I wanted to bring up is that over the course of the novel I learned that the terrorist organization called the Etzel is the same as the Irgun, the name I know for that particular group.  Their full name in Hebrew is phonetically Irgun  Tzvaee Leumee in English.  The Hebrew acronym for that name is phonetically Etzel in English.

 It's often said that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.  I tend to draw the line at the victimizing of innocent civilians.  So did Gabriel, Luna's father.  He had no interest in supporting terrorists even if the terrorists were Jews.  There is a character in this book who joined a terrorist organization engaged in actions against the British occupiers.  There were other characters who were sympathetic to such actions.   Terrorists and their supporters tend to believe that the ends justify the means.   Even if I am sympathetic toward the goals of terrorists, I believe that innocent blood on their hands will taint their cause, and that Gandhi's non-violent approach is a better model for freedom fighters.  Yet I am glad that the author of this novel portrayed a spectrum of viewpoints on this issue.

I have to say that the characters I really loved in this novel were Gabriel and Luna's husband, David.  They weren't saints, but they were men who were committed to doing the best they could for their families.  I appreciated their sense of responsibility, just as I respected Rosa's endurance.  Rosa, Gabriel and David gave The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem stature and pathos.


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