Life & Culture

Meet Sarit Yishai-Levi, the bestselling queen of Jerusalem

The former journalist talks about her glittering career and the hit book that changed her life


Long before her first novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem became an international bestseller, and a major series on Netflix, Sarit Yishai-Levi was one of Israel’s leading journalists. In 1982, she became the first Israeli and the first woman to interview the then leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat.

“My heart was beating,” she recalls.“After a few minutes Yasser Arafat came in. My heart jumped out of my body! He was the most hated person in Israel, the vicious enemy and he was standing in front of me. Right away he came to hug me. I crossed my hands on my chest, it was instinctive, I didn’t want him to touch me.”

It’s hard to imagine Yishai-Levi being cowed by anything or anyone. Now 75, she’s glamorous and feisty, speaks her mind and has a steely core of determination that has fuelled her incredible career. She was 65 when she first published Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Her next novel — another multi-generational epic tale, The Woman Beyond The Sea — will be published worldwide in March.

Back in 1982, she was a young mother to her daughter Maya and senior reporter for an influential news weekly Ha’Olam Ha’zeh. She was reporting on the fighting in Beirut with her editor Uri Avnery and photographer Anat Saragusti. Sitting on the rooftop of the Alexandre Hotel in East Beirut, the three watched bombs and missiles rain down on the west of the city.

Avnery, also a politician, had contacts and had arranged for the three to travel to Beirut to report from there. “It was very dangerous. Uri said, ‘Look, you don’t have to go, I know you have a child.’ I remember thinking what would happen, I thought about it all night. ‘If I am shot and die, my daughter will grow up with no mother. If I miss this chance, I’ll regret it all my life.’ So I decided not to miss it.

“All of a sudden, we were surrounded by Palestinian soldiers, commandos actually. We were taken immediately into a car. We didn’t know what was happening. They took us to an apartment and that was when Arafat came in. We had no idea he would be there.”

The interview went well. “He was small in stature, with a small black and grey beard, dressed in a military-style uniform and wearing a cap on his head. He was very nice, very polite and answered my questions. Towards the end of the interview, in a way of being polite, he said,

‘What else can I do for you?’”

So Yishai-Levi, with characteristic chutzpah, said, “Can we meet Aharon Achiaz?” A pilot, Achiaz was the highest-ranking prisoner of war in the Lebanon War.
“Everyone was shocked, and the room went quite silent, Uri kicked me under the table. All his advisers said, ‘No, no, no’. He looked at me and said, ‘Why not?’”

The interview enabled Aschiaz to send letters to his family and on his release he and Yishai-Levi became good friends until his death in 1998.
Yishai-Levi’s journalistic career took her all over the world, at one point spending two years in Los Angeles as a correspondent. It was a huge leap from interviewing one of the most notorious leaders of all time to being taught boxing by Muhammad Ali and spending a day with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion.

“It was a great time! I had lots of contacts and if I wanted to interview someone, it was usually arranged. First, I interviewed Jane Fonda, I had a connection who made it happen.

"Then I had a great interview with Muhammad Ali, he taught me how to box. He was fabulous.”

Yishai-Levi possesses a dry wit, apparent when she describes her day at the Playboy Mansion. “I spent the day with Hefner.

"He was with his girlfriend. I don’t know which one because they all looked the same! He invited me back to dinner; I took a girlfriend.

"We were a bit disappointed, there was no proper crockery, just paper plates and plastic cutlery. We had a look round the mansion, you could tell nobody read books in those rooms.

“It was amazing. We were all invited to the movie theatre to watch a film. Slowly, slowly, everyone disappeared. We were the only ones left. It was an experience. I called it a Hollywood Amusement Park.”

Yishai-Levi is a rare individual, an eighth-generation Sabra. She was born in November 1947 on the cusp of Israel being declared an independent state. Growing up in Jerusalem in a Sephardi family, her childhood and family reminiscences were the inspiration for Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.

“My father, Mordechai, was a police officer and my mother, Levana, was an accountant in the post office bank. Nice people. I have two brothers; one of them is a kibbutznik and the other is in Jerusalem. It was a very beautiful childhood. Jerusalem was very small, very polite, very friendly.

"My parents were very Sabra! They were very Israeli, not newcomers. The most important holiday was Israel Independence Day. All the family used to gather in our house to watch the guard changing the flag. We’d go down to Zion Square and dance the hora.”

Her father was the centre of her research for the novel. “My father was a fantastic storyteller, he had such a gift. I listened to his stories all through my childhood. For example, he was in the Jewish Brigade in the British Army, and he spent time in Italy after the war. The first time I went to Italy, I saw my father everywhere. The story of David in my book is the story of my father.”

During her research she used to meet her father once a week in a local coffee shop.“For him it brought back lots of memories and, for me, I could just enjoy it with the excuse of writing the book.

“I asked questions that a daughter perhaps doesn’t ask her father and I learned a lot about him.

“It was such a delightful time between the two of us.

“He told me so much about the way young people lived in Jerusalem in the Thirties, during the Mandate. He told which cafes and restaurants they went to, where they used to dance, where they went for a treat. The style of the fashion, he was very stylish.” She shows a photo of him looking like a young Errol Flynn. Sadly, he died just a few months before the novel was published.

Her Aunt Miriam helped with Ladino: “A beautiful language but I don’t speak it. Like Yiddish is for Ashkenazi, Ladino is for Sephardi. I remembered words, phrases but my aunt was fluent.”

Yishai-Levi’s own reminiscences are the stuff off history too. Growing up she could never visit the Kotel in the then divided Jerusalem.

She used to listen to stories from her family from the times when they used be allowed to go.

Still a soldier when the Six Day War ended in 1967, on her first evening off she rushed home.

“With just one thing in mind, to go to the Kotel. I shall never forget the occasion. My whole family set out, my father in his policeman’s uniform, my mother in her best dress and my little brothers dressed like barmitzvah boys. I was in my sergeant’s uniform. When we got there, my parents were crying when they kissed the wall.”

The Netflix TV series, starring Michael Aloni and Hila Saada, is, it’s fair to say, hugely different from the novel and a large extent of dramatic licence has been deployed. How does she feel about that?

“Hmm, well I was surprised at first and shocked. But you know, if you read Gone With The Wind, the film is nothing like the book. I understand these things have to be done. It is an excellent TV series and Dafna Prenner, the producer, is a very talented lady and a good friend.”

She laughs and adds: “And look, I’ve made a lot of money from it, because the show has provoked worldwide interest in the book and its sales have shot up, which isn’t bad for a ten-year-old novel.”

Having had such a successful journalistic career, you wonder why it took her so long to write a novel. “I never dared, it seemed to me be very presumptuous and I was afraid of failure. I don’t like to fail.

"When I started to write the book, the publisher signed me so quickly. I asked her to look at my first 30 pages to see if I had any talent and if the story was any good. She signed me straight away and then I had to write the book.”

The publication of the book changed her life completely, she says. “Its phenomenal success in Israel made me instantly famous. I did many interviews, TV shows and talks. Before the book came out, I was Sarit Yishai-Levi the journalist. Now I’m ‘author and journalist, it’s an absolute dream come true.”

Yishai-Levi lives alone in Tel Aviv, twice married and divorced. “I’m not married now. I was married to a very well-known journalist, Gideon Levy, a very left-wing kind of guy. My first husband was a film producer. I had two boyfriends who were very famous singers.” Then she adds, almost wistfully: “A long time ago.”

She has three children, Maya, Dan and Uri, and three grandchildren. “Grandchildren are fantastic. As for the rest… I’m very happily single, I’m very happy with my life.”
She looks considerably younger than her 75 years. Her hair is well-coiffed, she wears stylish glasses and has terrific bone structure.

“I work very hard on it to look young. I’m constantly on a diet and I work out.”

Age shall certainly not wither her. “Age is not a barrier. If you have dreams and have the energy to do it, fulfil them. Age is not an obstacle to fulfilling my dreams. I still have many, many dreams.” Those dreams will no doubt be fulfilled, if her past record is anything to go by.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is published in English by Thomas Dunne Books and the TV series is streaming now on Netflix.

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