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.
Hi Sarit! Thanks for being here today!
What is your inspiration behind The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem? How did you come up with the novel's title?
This may sound strange, but the inspiration for The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem came from within me. I did not set out to write an epic novel, but having started, it felt like someone was sitting at my shoulder, whispering in my ear and leading me through the story, through its twists and turns. That experience had been my life for the 6.5 years it took me to write this book.
I don’t remember exactly when I picked the title The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, but when the character Rosa mockingly calls her daughter Luna “the beauty queen of Jerusalem,” I knew instantly that this should be the book’s title. My Israeli editor wasn’t very happy with the title, but I insisted.
You're a well-known Israeli journalist. How is writing a novel different from the work you do on a day-to-day basis?
There is a world of difference between writing a column or other journalistic story and writing a novel. In journalism it is necessary to be matter-of-fact, even lean, and to narrow down the story handed to you by the subject. The person who is interviewed is the center, and the journalist is merely a vessel to channel their message to readers. The words are theirs, as well as the drama and the story. When writing a novel you have all the time in the world to tell your story. It is you who put words in the characters’ mouths and thus create the drama, the highs and the lows. You build a whole world, and it is a very exciting and rewarding experience.
How has the success of the novel changed your life, personally and professionally? What is it like to have your novel published in multiple languages and countries?
The publication of the book changed my life completely. Its phenomenal success in Israel made me instantly famous. I did many interviews, TV spots, and talks. Before the book came out I was Sarit Yishai-Levi, the journalist. Now, I am author and journalist, and for me it is an absolute dream come true.
The moment I held the Italian edition of the book (Italy is where the novel was first published outside of Israel) was very emotional. The fact that people in another country had read my story moved me to tears. When I went to Italy for the book launch, I visited the famous Rizzoli bookstore in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Seeing my book featured on the main table there was overwhelming. Since then the book has been translated to other languages, and I am very excited each time I hold a new edition of it. I am especially looking forward to the book’s upcoming release in English. I truly hope it will move American readers as it did Israeli readers.
Who are your favorite novelists? Were there any writers or books that inspired you?
My favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand, Paul Auster, Paullina Simons, Victoria Hislop, Maria Duenas, and the Israeli authors Amos Oz, Meir Shalev, David Grossman, and Zeruya Shalev. Books that have inspired me: A Pigeon and A Boy by Meir Shalev, The Island by Maria Hislop, and The Time In Between by Maria Duenas. My all-time favorite novels are Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
One should be able to forgive others before one is able to forgive oneself. In order to love another, one should love oneself. Love conquers all. In addition, I hope readers will embrace the story of the Ladino-speaking community that has resided in Israel for generations as the story of Israel and an important part of its culture and history.
What's up next for you?
I am now finishing a new book, scheduled for release in early 2017 in Hebrew by Modan Publishing House. Filming for the movie adaptation of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is scheduled to begin at the end of 2016 in Israel.
Praise for The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem:
"Moving back and forth through time and points of view, Yishai-Levi paints a sympathetic and compelling portrait of the complex relationship between mother and daughter. Add to this the fascinating backdrop of Jerusalem during the first half of the 20th century and readers are gifted with a meticulously researched history of the city’s Sephardic community."– Romantic Times
"The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a wonderful read—full of fascinating characters and spanning four generations of Israeli women. As their country struggles through its birth pangs, they struggle through wars, economic and social upheavals, and many losses—both physical and emotional. Compelling and satisfying." –B.A. Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of The Muralist and The Art Forger
“Passion and the grand sweep of history permeate this dazzling, you-cannot-put-it-down novel about four generations of astonishing women--and the men in their family who just might be cursed by love. So rich and vibrant that every page seems to virtually breathe.” –Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
"A breathtaking saga, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem will haunt and uplift you all at once, staying in your heart long after you've turned the last page." –Nicole Dweck, bestselling author of The Debt of Tamar
"Yishai-Levi has captured both the unbroken thread running through generations of a Sephardi family and the intricacies of everyday life unspooling against the backdrop of Jerusalem. As sensuously infused with sights, sounds and smells as a Jerusalem market, and as finely detailed and colorful as a Levantine tapestry, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a thrilling exploration of a daughter coming to terms with a mother." –Talia Carner, author of Hotel Moscow and Jerusalem Maiden
"Engrossing and original... The Sephardi version of Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness." –Nana 10 (Israel)
"An enchanting, rich, and moving book... The characters stayed with me, as if they were still living in Jerusalem and walking its streets." –Haaretz
"The events are permeated with powerful emotion… Only someone with abundant and generous heart could write such a book." –Marmelada (Israel)
About the Author:
SARIT YISHAI-LEVI is an English-speaking journalist and author. She has been a correspondent for Israeli newspapers and magazines and has hosted Hebrew TV and radio programs in Los Angeles. She is the author of four non-fiction books and the bestselling and award-winning novel, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. She lives in Israel.