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Why ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’ matters

Come for the story. Stay for the strong women characters.

Courtesy Netflix

(RNS) — Are you looking for a way to mark this week of Yom Yerushalayim, the commemoration of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967?

You could do a lot worse than starting a binge fest of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” playing on Netflix.

“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” is a multi-generational saga of the Ermoza family, a Sephardic clan in Jerusalem. Starring Michael Aloni, of “Shtisel,” the story jumps back and forth from the 1920s to the late 1930s.

Most of the characters are troubled and troubling.

  • Gabriel, played by Michael Aloni, often goes into flights of irresponsibility, if not outright immaturity and ill-advised, illicit erotic interludes. His story is one of longing for an almost ghostly Ashkenazic woman, Rochele, who still occupies his psyche and his dreams. He is a romantic dreamer, whose dreams take him away from his family.
  • Gabriel’s wife, Rosa, is prone to crippling depression. Given Gabriel’s behaviors and emotional and physical distancing, it is easy to see why, especially when she fails to produce a male child. Only in the final episode of the series do we understand the real, horrific source of her depression.
  • Gabriel’s mother, Mercada, is an over-functioning, hyper-managerial, manipulative woman who has no moral compunctions about venturing into the land of deceit. (Am I being judgmental here? So is she.)
  • Gabriel’s brother-in law, Ephraim, is a hot-headed radical, a killer of both Jews and British, a member of the Irgun. I hated him throughout the series. Only in the final episode did I come to understand him and even empathize with him.

Yes, interesting characters. But also, an interesting view of Jewish history during the Mandatory Period in pre-state Israel. The series portrays the sociological tensions between the Sephardim (and I love the show’s free-wheeling mixture of Hebrew and Ladino, sometimes in the same sentence) and the Ashkenazim.

So, too, the tensions between Uncle Ephraim’s Irgun, the militant revisionists, who had been led by Menachem Begin, and the socialists, who would become the Labor Party that would dominate Israeli politics for decades (think: Ben Gurion, and every Israeli prime minister through Golda Meir, and then, Yitzchak Rabin).

So, too, the reality of the 1929 Arab riots in Jerusalem, with the cries of “slaughter the Jews!” — which might be the first time that the media-consuming public would have learned of such horrors. In point of historical fact, there were anti-Jewish riots in Hebron the next day, which claimed nearly 70 Jewish lives, as well as in Safed during the same month.

The history is flawed, though. The series portrays the British occupiers as suave, urbane and likable. They freely fraternize with Jewish women; this actually did happen at the Casino De Paris in Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem, which has since reopened. 

I admit that I found the Brits in the series to be sympathetic — yes, tough, but engaged in a thankless task, existing in a triangular space with the Jews and the Arabs.

But, in point of historical fact, the British contributed to the problems as well, with contradictory promises and commitments to both Jews and Arabs, and their refusal to allow refugee ships to enter the ports of Palestine and thus save Jewish lives.

Which points to yet another area of inaccuracy in “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” A large part of the story takes place in the late 1930s in the land of Israel, though the flashbacks can easily keep the viewer in a perpetually dizzy space.

It is odd that there is almost no mention whatsoever of the gathering storm clouds in Europe — with the mild exception of the Irgun being involved in smuggling in refugees, the origins of whom are unnamed. Previous to that point in the story, you would have thought the sole preoccupation of the Irgun was in killing British officers and the Jewish women they loved.

I quibble.

We approach the festival of Shavuot, which features the reading of the biblical Book of Ruth. The strongest characters in the Book of Ruth are the women of the story: Naomi, Orpah and certainly Ruth herself. Their strength is in their self-definition, devotion and acts of kindness that define the story, and Judaism itself.

So, too, with “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” Forget, if you will, almost everything else about the series. Watch it for the scenes in Jerusalem (some of which are presented, cutely, as diorama models; I admit the child in me liked that part), plus some good romance and some (albeit flawed) history.

But, you will stay with it because of the women.

Mercada, Gabriel’s mother, is tough. Often cringe worthy. She is that type of Jewish matriarch who emerges straight out of the pages of our own family histories. You had a grandmother, or a great aunt, or a second cousin like her. I surely did. If you are not Jewish, she existed in your family as well. At the time, you probably disliked and/or feared her intensely. As you grew older, you realized why she did what she did.

Victoria Franco, the next door neighbor, is equally tough, though in a softer way. A poor woman, she endures loss with dignity and with love. Pay attention to the late-in-the-series plot twist with her.

But, the Ermoza daughters win the prize for strength. The eponymous Luna, the beauty queen, overflows with charisma. She is a born entrepreneur. She has immeasurable inner strength. Her sister, Raquel, finds herself in an ideological struggle and walks through that struggle with a true sense of spiritual elegance. They are both very cool women and a joy to watch on the screen.

While I think of cool, strong, Jewish women, I must stand up and applaud my colleague, Rabbi Sally Priesand, on the 50th anniversary of her ordination as a rabbi.

There are many things I have admired about Sally over the years, but what tops them all has been her quiet dignity and devotion to Torah, and my marveling at the inner strength it took to change the Jewish world, though she might not have known it back then.

Many of the women who walked in her path are my friends, and they are among the coolest people I know.

In short, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” is a pleasant diversion.

And, it taught me a lesson.

Many of the characters are presented as, frankly, unattractive and deeply problematic people. It is only as the story unfolds, with its annoying and necessary flashbacks and flash-forwards, that we come to understand the source of their problematic, even ugly, characteristics.

This is not a bad way to live, honestly — seeking to understand why people sometimes behave badly and trying to see their lives as part of a larger story.

Hag sameach — a joyous, revelatory Shavuot to everyone.