It’s summer reading time, which can be an opportunity for busy people to reacquaint themselves with the pleasures of reading novels. One of the values of fiction can be to help us relate differently to the past, as we see how characters’ lives are deeply affected by historical events and circumstances. This is particularly so with women’s experiences, which often are underrepresented. Such is the case with two debut novels that set family relationships against the backdrop of different worlds.
Journalist Sarit Yishai-Levi’s first novel, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” was Israel’s best-selling book of 2014. Newly released in English translation, it is a multigenerational saga that follows the tribulations of a Sephardic family in Jerusalem through much of the 20th century.
The book comes through the perspective of rebellious twenty-something Gabriela, who, several years after the death of her mother, Luna (the beauty queen of the title), desires to learn more about her ancestors’ history and to break a notorious curse that condemns family members to enter loveless marriages. For the Ermosa family, love seems to exist only in forbidden or illicit relationships.
The family stories emerge largely in recollections Gabriela gathers from her aunt and grandmother, although there are occasional shifts, without explanation, to an omniscient narration. If I found the book a bit lacking as a work of literature, I found it very valuable as a portrait of a disappearing culture — I’m not aware of another work of fiction that paints such a vivid picture of the traditions, folklore and language of Jerusalem’s very significant Sephardic community.
For centuries, a majority of Jerusalem’s Jews descended from Spanish exiles. This community, which spoke Ladino (also known also as Judezmo or Judeo-Spanish) as its primary language, was a proud one. Yishai-Levi reminds us that in the mid-19th century, in the interest of fostering Jewish unity, Sir Moses Montefiore went so far as to offer a monetary incentive for Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews to intermarry with the growing number of Ashkenazi Jews settling in the city, whom the Sephardim generally looked down upon. The reward went unclaimed. In the novel we see this phenomenon played out in the story of Gabriela’s grandfather, Gabriel, who falls deeply in love with an Ashkenazi woman, only to have his parents break up their relationship and marry him off to the uneducated and unpleasant Rosa.
The novel also offers a compelling history of Jerusalem in the 20th century as experienced by the people most affected by its twists and turns. The tragedies that beset the Ermosas reflect the difficulties brought on by war, forced induction into the Turkish army, starvation, cholera, terror and oppression by both Turkish and British rulers.
An example of how the family is affected by history occurs when, in the 1940s, Rosa’s brother Ephraim goes underground with Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang), the extremist organization focused on terrorist acts targeting the British. When Ephraim is suspected of having executed a young woman in their close-knit Sephardic community for being involved with a British soldier, the shame that falls upon Gabriel’s and Rosa’s family is such that they must leave their home in the historic Ohel Moshe neighborhood in which the family has lived for decades to relocate elsewhere in the city.
Jennifer S. Brown’s “Modern Girls” follows a mother and daughter — 42-year old Rose and 19-year old Dottie — in New York’s Lower East Side during the Depression. They share an unusual circumstance: Each is in the beginning stages of an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, and each is attempting to keep this fact a secret.
Rose, an immigrant from Russia with a passion for social change, has already given birth to five children, and fears that having another child will thwart her desire to devote her time and energy to activism and to the children she already has.
Dottie’s ambitions are threatened to a greater extent by her pregnancy. She has just been promoted to head bookkeeper at her Midtown workplace, and she has a long-term boyfriend, Abe, whom she intends to marry. However, the pregnancy is courtesy not of Abe, but of wealthy and worldly Willie Stein, with whom Dottie enjoyed an alcohol-abetted one-night stand at a rural Jewish retreat.
Dottie’s initial plan is to seduce Abe, so that he will believe that the forthcoming baby is his own progeny. But her effort fails, as Abe insists on waiting until marriage before engaging in sexual activity, and further insists that they should not wed until they are on better financial footing. As her body changes, Dottie’s options quickly narrow.
In short chapters alternating between Dottie’s and Rose’s voices, Brown depicts the difficulties faced by each woman. It is an interesting opportunity to contemplate how similar circumstances affect women of different generations, as well as to consider how much has changed (and not changed) in the last 80 years. Interestingly, Brown informs us in an afterword that the project stemmed from learning that her own great-grandmother had experienced an illegal “botched” abortion.
And, as with “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” historical events are never distant. With Rose’s brother’s family trapped in Europe while awaiting a visa, what the Nazis are doing across the Atlantic figures into both Rose’s and Dottie’s decision making.
“Modern Girls” by Jennifer S. Brown (384 pages, New American Library)
“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” by Sarit Yishai-Levi (384 pages, Thomas Dunne Books)
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.