A Journey Back in Time
Writing my novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem took six long years, though the process took me back decades.
Stretching from the end of the 19th century to the mid-1970s, the story is narrated by the Ermosas, a Ladino-speaking family that emigrated from Toledo, Spain, and settled in Jerusalem. The historical events that took place in the Land of Israel during this period are entwined with the lives of the protagonists, beginning with the time of Ottoman control over the Land of Israel, through the British Mandate period, the struggle of the Jewish underground organizations against British rule, the War of Independence, and the first years of the State of Israel.
A novel such as this, laced with historical events, requires precise and in-depth research. Beit Ariella—Tel Aviv’s central library—with its passageways and hushed halls, offered me hospitality for hours on end.
Perhaps because I’m a journalist by profession, I did not head for the books but rather turned to the newspaper archives, for I knew that it was there, in the newspapers, that I’d find life: reports of events, big and small, important or esoteric, human stories, juicy gossip, descriptions of political goings on and matters of state alongside documentation on performances and cultural events, theatre and movies.
Within the pages of the newspapers, I explored fashion, food, humor, private mood and public mood during these fascinating times.
In the culture section, I discovered that the primary pastime in Jerusalem during the 1920s-‘40s was visiting one of the city’s movie theatres, and that the best loved movie and greatest box office success in the 1940s was Gone with the Wind—a blockbuster that was shown on the silver screen in the United States and in the Land of Israel at the same time. I learned that in 1923, the revered Russian-Jewish conductor Mordechai Golinkin conducted Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, staged by the recently established Palestine Opera Company, while the Habima Theatre successfully staged William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in 1936.
What I found in the newspapers enabled me to describe life on the Tel Aviv seashore, with its cafes and laid-back spirit, an attitude I gleaned from a 1929 article defending the custom of Tel Avivians to walk in only their bathing suits on the streets adjacent to the beach—a behavior that persists to this day but had been shocking to some at the time.
I embedded these seemingly minor details into the narrative of my novel in order to build out the setting and transport readers into the Ermosa home.
From the yellowed, crumbling pages of the first Hebrew paper, HaZvi, I learned that for decades, members of the Sephardic community had forbidden their sons and daughters to marry members of the Ashkenazi community. The prohibition was so grave that in 1849, when philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore had offered a prize of one hundred gold napoleons—a fortune at the time—to anyone who would “intermarry,” he failed to find any takers. From within this news item, I wove the forbidden love story of Rochel, a young Ashkenazi woman, and Gabriel Ermosa, a young Sephardi man—the dramatic romance that drives the novel’s plot.
And while I learned of cultural events, trends, and attitudes from these papers, I also read about more serious matters, like the filthy alleyways of the Old City in Jerusalem, where sewage ran freely due to lack of infrastructure. These conditions were responsible for the Cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1910s that decimated thousands in Jerusalem and left dozens of orphaned children to wander the streets, homeless. And it was here that I gained the inspiration to write the story of Rosa, one of the protagonists in my novel.
After reading about the practice of the Jewish Lehi underground organization in the 1940s to shave the heads of women who fraternized with British soldiers, I created the character Matilda Franco, whose relationship with a British officer is met with her community’s great disapproval. At the same time, I also learned about the curfews that the British frequently imposed on inhabitants of the country, about the siege on Jerusalem during the War of Independence—which left the city without food or water—and the ingenious solutions inhabitants of the city devised to survive.
There in the library, I lost myself to dozens of features, articles, and news reports, immersed in another time, and eventually created the Ermosa family. And through the personal and intimate lives of the Ermosas, I guided the reader through the different eras in the history of the Land of Israel.
In the course of the six years in which I wrote The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, I lived two lives: my own life (my work, my family, my children) and the lives of the Ermosa family. In my second life, I was led between the pages of history—large and small moments of life in the beautiful and difficult land where I was born and where my forefathers were born.
I grew wiser. I cried. I hated. I loved. And I hope that, along with the history, this emotion translates through the page to readers.