Forget Downton Abbey and the Crawley dynasty. If you want a compound, stirring multi-generational period saga that is full of colour, charm and Sephardi family life, start streaming The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem from May 20th .
Adapted from the international bestseller by Israeli journalist Sarit Yishai-Levi, the Netflix series about the Ermoza clan arrives garlanded in Ophirs (Israeli Academy Awards) and a footnote about it being one of Israel’s priciest productions and the biggest investment for producers Yes TV.
That the entire series cost less than the lunches on the Bridgerton set has been mentioned by TV bods, but this should not deflect from the fact that this historical drama, which spans from 1917 to 1942, is a major achievement as it was shot under Covid restrictions, largely in Safed, where the locals were recruited as extras.
That the production helped to fuel the depleted finances of one of Israel’s holiest cities during the pandemic by occupying a tourist-free hotel for six months was a gift for Safed. And a blessing too for director Oded Davidoff, who loved the empty streets and absence of noisy interlopers with cellphones.
“We were alone in Safed, which looks like Jerusalem in the old days. No lighting, no cars – it was beautiful and because it was empty the entire town was our set. That was our miracle.”
Oded also enjoyed the kibbutz-style living arrangements for the cast and crew as they were in a protected bubble.
“We were all together, which was a bit like being in a Yeshiva and as there are no restaurants in Safed, we had to prepare our own food, which felt a lot like camping. Hard camping.”
Working and living together in such close quarters also resulted in a romance that continues between Tom Hagi who plays Efraim Siton and Eli Steen, cast as his niece Rachelica.. “In the show Rachelica’s character hates her uncle, but in real life…” chuckles Oded, who enjoyed revisiting his Jerusalem roots accompanied by author Sarit Yishai-Levi.
“I went back to all the old neighbourhoods, the streets I walked as a young man. It was emotional. Just as Michael Aloni made up with his moustache for the role of Gabriel was a mirror image of my own father. This was the case for the make-up artist and anyone on the series with relatives who lived through the War of Independence.”
With his mixed Sephardi/Ashkenazi parentage Oded likes the way ‘Beauty’ takes people back to the languages of their heritage as Hebrew, Ladino, Turkish, English and Arabic are spoken throughout along with a dash of Yiddish.
“It reflects the diversity of its setting, “ says Oded, who is in the middle of editing a horror series with a kabala/exorcism theme, which is a very different production, but with a bigger budget. “But you know, the budget is never enough. And for Beauty Queen we had to build and create parts of Jerusalem. It was tough and shooting is like a war.”
At least it’s a war Oded got to win.
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem airs on Netflix from 20 May
The Unexpected Star
With Michael Aloni’s name attached, there would inevitably be global interest in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Obviously it helps that the book on which the series is based was an international bestseller, but with the actor who turned a Chassidic singleton into a pin-up cast in a leading role, it had extra appeal.
But while the Shtisel star has been the marketing focus, another heart throb from the series is edging his way into the spotlight. Putting Israel Ogalbo on the front of JN Life needs no explanation, just a wall on which to pin his image. And that’s what his increasing fanbase have been doing since voting him the winner of Big Brother in 2018. Of course reality stars, irrespective of good looks, seldom move on so swiftly to leading roles such as that of David Franco, a major love interest in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. But Israel Ogalbo is not the average reality star, which became evident from the moment he revealed his backstory on Big Brother.
“I asked myself the question ‘why did I win?’ and I believe it was my history,” he says, after apologising for his broken English. “My life was not what people expected.” This is an understatement, as the sleepy-eyed Adonis on Zoom, who is now a recognised face about town, once wore a black hat and payot as an orthodox boy in Bnei Brak. Born and raised in the Haredi heartland, within a family he describes as lovely, Israel was laying tefillin and listening to sermons by leading rabbis in a city that was home to Israel’s first women-only department store.
“I was Orthodox and my family still are, but at 15 I packed a bag and left to live in Tel Aviv. This is no reflection on my family – it was something I felt I had to do.”
Though he makes the move sound simple, it was anything but, as he was living on the streets as an innocent, and he got targeted by drug dealers and other unsavoury types who lead him astray. Then he met an army recruiter.
“The army saved me,” insists Israel ,who signed up for training and afterwards joined the Golani Brigade, one of the IDF’s most decorated infantry units. “The army became my family and after that I moved to Tel Aviv, where I worked in a bar and did occasional stripping.”
With each bold revelation, the burning question: “Did your parents know?” is on repeat, but as his love for his family remains, it’s unlikely they know everything. “I have communication with them and more with my two brothers, one of whom left the orthodox life, I think because of me, and the younger one is in a Yeshiva and a very smart guy. But we live a different life. So it’s a hello and not much more. That’s how it is. However, Israel is a small country and people talk, so they know what I am doing.”
Without a television his parents won’t have witnessed his Big Brother win, but Israel is convinced they have heard about the lauded Beauty Queen of Jerusalem for which he was an unlikely casting choice, at least initially. With no professional acting training and an agent acquired after Big Brother, Israel was unknown to the series director Oded Davidoff, but he didn’t need much persuading after they met.
“I love the guy. He is amazing. And he was already very famous in Israel because of Big Brother. But when I chose him, everybody said ‘A reality star! Do you know what you’re doing? You don’t know him.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t. But from the moment I saw him perform, I wanted him for the role of David Franco even more.”
Before playing David, the ‘Beauty Queen’s’ spouse, Israel made his debut in the festival movie, Party Like There is No Tomorrow ( Keilu En Machar), in which he appears as a homosexual tattooist who gets caught up in a shooting at Tel Aviv’s Pride Festival.
“I’ve never seen a movie like this,” says its enthusiastic star. “It raises things people don’t want to talk about.”
It seems redundant to ask if his parents know.
Beauty Queen Essentials
With no apology for the smattering of spoilers, this what you need to know about the Ermoza family featured in the first season of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. In the book Gabriella is the narrator of the story and after losing her mother, Luna, she sets out to discover why they struggled to connect and finds a past that is more complex than she ever imagined. The Ermoza women are plagued by a curse: to marry men who do not love them.
Raphael. Gabriella’s great-grandfather marries Mercada, a woman he doesn’t love, as he is still in love with an Askenazi woman. Strangely he still seeks to control his son, who wants to break out of the Sephardic stronghold. Cue the curse.
Mercada. Gabriela’s great-grandmother, is the first to be cursed when she marries Raphael. So Mercada invests her affections on Gabriel, who shakes the Sephardic foundations when he falls for Ashkenazi Rochel. Later, after Raphael’s death, Mercada forces her son to marry someone else as a punishment.
Rosa. Gabriela’s grandmother is Gabriel’s punishment. An illiterate orphan who cared for her younger brother, she quickly realises that her husband is in love with another woman he can’t forget. Earnest and decent, Rosa wants her husband to care for her as she cares for him, but he is lost in the past.
Gabriel. A frozen shell of a man tarnished by his manipulative mother. He only loves his children, and daughter Luna the most, which triggers all kinds of jealousy in Rosa.
Luna aka The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Dubbed so because of her good looks, great legs and charm, she is unhappily married to David, who is still in love with a woman he met in Italy during World War II. Luna too is cursed.
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