The Author of 'The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem' Brings Us a Moving Tale of Motherhood and Self-Discovery – Kveller
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The Author of ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’ Brings Us a Moving Tale of Motherhood and Self-Discovery

"The Woman Beyond the Sea" is a must-read for Jewish women.

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In the middle of my interview with Sarit Yishai-Levi, the author of the bestselling book “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” she gets a call from her adult son. Her face, still youthful at 75, softens into a smile. “I’m on a phone call with America,” she tells him. “I’ll be done late.”

“For you, I’m up at any hour,” I hear him tell his mom.

It’s a sweet, small moment of a mother reaping the seeds of her love and labor — the kind of moment that, for the mothers and children in Yishai-Levi’s novels, are hard to come by.

Motherhood is at the center of both the Israeli writer’s novels, including the aforementioned “Beauty Queen” which became a hit Netflix show of the same name starring a tantalizing Hila Saada and Michael Aloni. Yishai-Levi was well into motherhood when she published the book in her 60s in 2013, after a prolific career as a journalist and TV anchor. It sold a record number of books in Israel and made it to multiple bestseller lists where it stayed for weeks. 

Now, U.S. readers can finally snag a copy of her second, excellent book, “The Woman Beyond the Sea,” which came out in English this year, seamlessly and lyrically translated by Gilah Kahn-Hoffman. The book, which came out in Hebrew in 2019, tells the story of two women unmoored: Eliya, a young woman jilted by her successful writer husband, and her mother, Lily, scarred by an early experience of motherhood and even more by her own mother abandoning her in infancy at a Jerusalem convent. Lily and Eliya go on a journey together — one that takes them across the ocean, but also back in time and into themselves.

While “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” and “The Woman Beyond the Sea” are very different creatures, we do find a somewhat central character to the plot of that first book in the pages of the second, making it, in a very loose way, a sequel taking place mostly in the 1970s, when the story of “Beauty Queen” ends.

The success of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” TV series and the many translations of Yishai-Levi’s books have proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that her words and worlds have a global appeal, and yet she still gets asked (yes, including by me) if readers struggle with the kind of Israeli specificities in her work.

“I always say I don’t understand this question, because don’t we read Italian writers? Japanese?” Yishai-Levi wonders aloud. “We enjoy it because you travel with a book to another life — to other people’s lives. The book takes you to different places that you’ve never been before. I read it like a tourist — I see everything and I smell everything and I feel everything.”

Reading “The Woman Beyond the Sea” certainly transports you to Tel Aviv, a city whose streets are teeming with dreamers. Yishai-Levi’s writing is both precise and evocative, and as someone who grew up in central Israel, I enjoyed walking once again along the streets of the beautiful, Mediterranean city, with the music, people and bustling bars so vividly drawn.

“I was determined to write the book about Tel Aviv because I started to be tagged as a Jerusalem-ian kind of writer,” Yishai-Levi says. Born in Jerusalem, she has lived in Tel Aviv for over 50 years.

Growing up in the city of gold, she used to tell her mother, “One day I’m going to live in Tel Aviv.” It was not a common move then for a “good Jersualem-ian girl” to move to the more secular metropolis, but that’s exactly what she did. Still, even in her new novel, suffused in Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean breeze, Yishai-Levi couldn’t stop her character from occasionally ending back in Jerusalem.

“My mother used to tell me always: You can leave Jerusalem but Jerusalem will never leave you. The roots are tangled,” she concedes. 

I ask Yishai-Levi about the hit Yes Studios and Netflix show based on her first novel, whose second season finished airing in Israel. “It’s not a copy paste of the book. It’s different in many, many ways, but I think the actors are fantastic,” she says, and I agree. There’s something plebeian about saying that the book is better than the movie of the TV show, but I will say this — if you loved “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” on Netflix, you must read the book.

Yishai-Levi, whose early adult years were spent on the theater stage as an actress, is absolutely in awe of the performances in the show, saying that, “Hila Saada [is] such a good Rosa — she even learned Ladino to give the character depth.”

One thing both the show and Yishai-Levi does well is make time travelers out of its audience. “I’m very, very curious about history, how one event influenced the other event,” she professes. “Some people call me vintage because I love old things. Whenever I go somewhere, I like to imagine how people lived years ago.”

When she was researching her books, she didn’t go to history books — but to the newspaper archives, where “you can find everything.” She read old copies of HaTzvi, the newspaper started by the inventor of the modern Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehudah.

“I furnished the houses of Lily and Saul from the newspaper — what kind of refrigerator, what kind of radio,” she says about the house of Eliya’s parents in Tel Aviv.

One of those Israeli specificities is the constant proximity to family you find in Yishai-Levi’s books — distance, physical and emotional, from our parents is sometimes hard to come by. “We see the family all of the time, not like in America, where children are leaving the home and [just] coming home for the holidays. It’s not like this here,” Yishai-Levi says. “I have [Israeli] friends who have children in America; they suffer a lot.”There is much suffering found between mothers and daughters in “The Woman Beyond the Sea,” too. 

“Eliya doesn’t love her mother and her mother doesn’t love her. Lily’s mother doesn’t love her and she hates her mother — she hates the woman who left her behind,” Yishai-Levi says of the two female protagonists. “What heals them at the end is the love and the forgiveness — when they forgive each other.”

“I’m dealing with it in my books and in my life, too,” she says about complicated mother-daughter relationships. “I have a daughter and we have a very good relationship. She’s amazing. But we also fight a lot and we have arguments. It’s not a party — it’s work.”

“My relationship with my boys is completely different than my relationship with my daughter,” she adds. “I love them. I adore them. But I can tell my daughter things that I cannot tell my sons because they will not understand.”

Yishai-Levi believes in “a thin line that goes from our ancestors, from our great-grandmother to our grandmother to our mother’s hand to us.” 

Traveling between the psyches of her two characters, who Yishai-Levi brings to life in their vulnerability, we get to see a glimpse of that thin line. There is the self-image Lily projects to her daughter — rigid, strong-willed, critical, cold and unloving — and the insecurities and traumas that inform that image. The more Eliya learns of her mother, the more that rigid image blurs and re-aligns until the two can finally see each other.

It’s a lesson that Yishai-Levi had to learn for herself. “I’m a very tempestuous person, and when I get angry, I get angry, I really do,” she says, that Mediterranean fieriness brimming through her voice. And yet, she adds, “the book changed me. The way that it led me to forgive and then love changed a lot inside of me. Sometimes it took me years to forgive someone. Many things happened to me during my writing.”

“Slicha,” the Hebrew word for sorry, “is really the hardest word and it’s the most important word,” Yishai-Levi tells me. “Sorry is like love. ‘I forgive you’ and ‘I love you’ is the same thing to me; you can’t love without forgiving.” She hopes people who read this book will see that “it’s never too late to forgive.”

“The Woman Beyond the Sea” is available on Amazon and

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