Sheldon Kirshner

The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem

A meandering but satisfying melange of drama, romance, sex, politics, intrigue and violence, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is set in Turkish and British Mandate Palestine from 1917 to 1942. Now available on the Netflix streaming platform, this 20-part Israeli series is based on a novel by Sarit Yishai Levi. It gets off to a slow and sluggish start, but accelerates in tempo and becomes increasingly compelling as its characters are fully established and developed.

The Ermosas, a traditional and pious Sephardi family from western Jerusalem, are at its core. Gabriel (Michael Aloni), the central figure, works in his mother’s thriving delicatessen. She, Mercada (Irit Kaplan), a domineering person, forces him into a loveless marriage following the untimely death of her husband.

Gabriel yearns to marry Rochl (Yuval Scharf), a poor Ashkenazi who’s the love of his life, but Mercada objects and sets up an arranged marriage for him with Rosa (Hila Saada), an impoverished and uneducated Sephardi.

Unfolding in Hebrew, Ladino, Arabic, English and Turkish, the series flits back and forth in terms of chronology. And while this technique seems disjointed and is initially annoying, it is less irksome by about the midpoint.

While Gabriel, Rosa and Mercada are often at the center of attention, Luna (Swell Ariel Or), Gabriel’s oldest child and favorite daughter, is close behind as a recurring character. Attractive and rebellious, she incurs her father’s disappointment by skipping classes at school and frequenting a British officers’ club.

As per custom, Mercada lives under one roof and shares all meals with Gabriel and his growing family, which eventually includes two more daughters, Rachelita (Eli Steen) and Becky. Mercada expects Rosa to give birth to a boy, but this is a tall order. Gabriel’s sexual encounters with Rosa are painfully mechanical, and he invariably thinks of Rochl during sex with his wife.

The most volatile character is Rosa’s ne’er-do-well younger brother, Ephraim (Tom Hagi), a member of a right-wing Zionist militia bent on driving the British out of Palestine and subjugating local Palestinian Arabs. He dearly loves Rosa, but is contemptuous of Gabriel, a socialist who frowns on Ephraim’s radical views and quick resort to fisticuffs or firearms to settle disputes. Ephraim’s comrade-in-arms, Itamar Ben-Moshe (Tamir Ginsburg), takes a shine to Luna, who falls in love with him.

Although outsiders regard Gabriel as an exemplary family man, he breaks his vows by having a torrid extra-marital affair with Rochl. After Mercada accidentally witnesses one of their trysts, she engineers Rochl’s departure from Palestine and her resettlement in New York City.

Since Gabriel is unfulfilled by his marriage and regards Rosa as a housekeeper rather than a wife/partner, he cheats on her during buying trips in Beirut. Like his late father, he pays for sexual favors at a bordello. He and Aisha (Luna Mansour), the Arab prostitute who pleasures him, establish friendly relations.

In separate subplots, Rachelika starts dating an unscrupulous  young man, while Ephraim forms a romantic relationship with Victoria (Mali Levi), a widow who lives next to the Ermosas.

With Arab-Jewish tensions boiling over, two Arab intruders break into the Ermosa household while Gabriel is away in Lebanon and wreak devastation.

Jews in Palestine feel the effects of World War II as Italian aircraft bomb Tel Aviv, killing almost 100 civilians, and as a Hebrew-language newspaper carries a report of Nazi massacres of Ukrainian Jews.

Meanwhile, Luna begins working in a dress boutique owned by a refined middle-aged German Jew whose stranded parents in Nazi Germany have been sent to their probable deaths in Poland. Luna is wooed by Victoria’s son, David Franco (Israel Ogalbo), and Yehoram Ben-Shabbat (Gal Popular), the pampered and spoiled son of a wealthy businessman.

As the series winds down, Gabriel and Rosa distance themselves from Mercada, while Gabriel makes one bad business decision after another and incurs a mountain of debt, driving him to the brink of bankruptcy and despair and into the hands of a violent loanshark. Gabriel is certainly a weak and often foolish person.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an attractive period piece, holds the interest of viewers thanks to a credible plot and an accomplished cast. It takes us back to an era when the Ottoman Turks and Britain successively ruled the Middle East and Jews in Palestine were under the yoke of colonialism and dreamed of statehood.


About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,