“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” is great drama and great history

What is your favorite Israeli export?

For many people, it was Jaffa oranges. Then, it was Teva shoes and hummus. And, of course, in recent years, it became various high-tech and medical miracles, emanating from “start up nation.”

Those are all great.

As for me — give me one of the best known, yet least heralded, Israeli products — television.

Yes, of course — “Fauda” on Netflix. But, also, Israeli shows that were adapted for American television — HBO’s “In Treatment” (which started as “Betipul”) and a show that became my singular obsession — Showtime’s “Your Honor,” starring Bryan Cranston as a morally-conflicted judge, which was adapted from the Israeli series “Kvodo.”

Which brings me to my latest binge-fest — “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” now appearing in Season 2 on Netflix. It is a family drama — as was the popular “Shtisel,” about hareidi Jews in Jerusalem (which shares a star, Michael Aloni, with “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem”). In some ways, the beautiful, underrated “Srugim,” was about a family of friends — a group of religious Zionist singles in Jerusalem.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” spans the 1920s to the 1940s. It is the story of the Ermoza family, a Sephardic clan in Jerusalem that owns a “delicatess” — their struggles, triumphs, and despair.

The current season focuses on the professional and personal struggles and aspirations of Luna, the eponymous beauty queen, who is well on her way to becoming a fashion designer.

Why do you need to watch this series?

Warning: spoiler alerts to follow.

First, this is a story about desire. It is hard to think of another television series that contains as many desires: fulfilled, unfulfilled, unrequited, healthy, and forbidden; lust, love, longing, ambition, anger, and revenge. (OK, maybe another family drama — “Succession”).

Second, this a story about gender.  It focuses on strong women. The mother, Roza, suffers silently — or, so it only appears. Luna becomes a smart businesswoman. Stephanie, the Mandatory British officer’s wife, starts as obnoxious, and becomes loving and protective. Luna’s sister, Rachelika, invents takeout.

One woman character stands out, and that is Mercada, the matriarch.

In the first season, she is over-functioning, hyper-managerial, and manipulative.

In this season, she grows and changes, and reveals herself to be a “lioness of Judah,” with only one goal — to protect her family. I “know” her, from my own family of origin. With every episode, my admiration and even affection for her grew.

By contrast, the men are weak and broken. Their desires and passions have proven to be problematic; in Gabriel’s case, we see the results of his tender, unrequited love. 

Their historical situation plays havoc with their inner lives. Ephraim Siton, Roza’s brother, is a member of the militant Irgun. He is hot-headed, immature, and unrooted. David Franco, Luna’s deeply troubled husband, carries an inner turmoil that leads to horror and tragedy.

Consider, too, Mr. Zachs, the owner of the dress shop on Agrippas Street in Machaneh Yehudah where Luna works. When Mr. Zachs rebuffs Mercada’s romantic advances, he reveals that he is not, contrary to appearances, alone, but that he has a partner. His statement is powerful and chilling: “In Germany I would have been killed twice — once, as a Jew; a second time, as a homosexual.”

Third, this is a story about how Jewish history is still present. The current season unfolds during the period of the British Mandate (1917-1948), when Palestine was occupied by the British, who existed in a triangular relationship with the Jewish and Arab communities, as Palestine was partitioned and the Jewish State was declared. 

In “The Beauty Queen,” the British are — mostly — a benign, or even a begrudging, presence. There was proximity, and there was fraternization. The snobbery of Colonel Charlie Parker and his wife Stephanie ultimately evolves into affection and protection for Luna.

Perhaps the series creators were making a statement — not about the period of the British Mandate, but about the current occupation, and its own moral and political complexities.

Consider the role of the Irgun. The pre-State militant group attacked both the Arabs and the British (though, to be historically fair, mostly the British, as with the bombing of the King David Hotel ). But, the show also depicts, horrifically, attacks on Jews as well. Roza screams at her brother, Ephraim: “You have Jewish blood on your hands!”

That is the message for our time. “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” provides a back story for the current coalition in Israel.

For, in “The Beauty Queen,” we find part of the back story of this coalition. The story of Israel’s right wing leads from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism; to his secretary, the historian Benzion Netanyahu; to his son, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and to Netanyahu’s predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who had been the leader of another militant group — Lechi, also known as the Stern Gang.

There are nuanced, even sympathetic readings of Jabotinsky’s writings. Already, there have been kinder assessments of Begin’s career.

Such re-evaluations are harder to justify for the even more radical elements of the Jewish right wing. Consider the demonic presence of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. That is the ideology that produced Itamar Ben Gvir. It is the ideology that threatens Israel, and the creators of the show would have noted that if you are looking for an origin story of Ben Gvir, you would need to go straight to Uncle Ephraim.

Fourth, this is also a story Israeli Orthodoxy. Spoiler alert: a heartbreaking subtext is the possible mamzer status of Shlomo, the son of Rochel and Gabriel.

A mamzer is a person who has been born of a forbidden relationship. “No one misbegotten, i.e., a mamzer, shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD.” (Deut. 3:3). The status of mamzer is one of the most vexing, and most tragic, problems of Jewish law. It is simply unjust. The rabbis should have annulled this status centuries, if not millennia, ago.

Here is the real problem of the mamzer. A mamzer cannot marry a “normal,” “untainted” Jew. The status is hereditary, “even in the tenth generation.” Shlomo wants to marry, and a rabbi must investigate Rochel, his mother, to determine his status. The investigating (haredi, of course) rabbi is bloodless, harsh, and abusive. 

This is nothing less than an indictment of the rabbanut — of state-sanctioned Israeli Orthodoxy.

In one of the final dialogues in the series, Stephanie encourages Luna to come with her to London to advance her career as a fashion designer.

In her most elitist and imperialistic Anglo tones, she says: “You’ve got to get away as far as possible from this s-hole called Palestine with all these Arabs and Jews killing each other constantly.”

Luna responds: “It’s not better in Europe.”

“True,” Stephanie says. “But, the war there will end there eventually.

“Here, I’m not so sure.”

We can only hope, and pray, and work for that day.

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