Life & Culture

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: will it be your next Israeli TV addiction?

Shtisel's soulful star Michael Aloni takes on a very different role in this epic historical drama heading for Netflix later in May


Israel’s television executives are adept at creating global hits from tense action thrillers. But the next Israeli drama to come to our screens is the most ambitious yet: a breath-taking saga which takes in the grand sweep of history.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem tells the story of four generations of strong women against the backdrop of turbulent times in Jerusalem.

From 1917 to 1942, the series takes in the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and the establishment of the Jewish state through the eyes of the Sephardi Ermosa family, who all experience their fair share of romance and violent encounters.

It stars Shtisel’s Michael Aloni, swapping prayer for passion. Forget Shtisel’s soulful Akiva, Aloni’s character, the initially optimistic and handsome Gabriel, becomes a haunted man whose only solace is his beautiful daughter Luna, nicknamed “the beauty queen of Jerusalem”.

Adapted from the international bestselling novel by Israeli journalist, Sarit Yishai-Levi, the series aired in Israel in 2021, and won four Ophirs — Israeli Academy Awards. Now it has been taken up by Netflix and streams here on May 20.

The novel moved Aloni to tears, he tells me. “When I first read the book, I cried all the way through. It was such a page turner. I was crying and reading and crying and reading. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. Sarit Yishai-Levi did an amazing job.”

“Gabriel is starting off full of hope for a passionate love of a woman for life. Because this love is taken away from him, he is finding comfort within the love towards his daughter and not towards the wife he has had to marry. And he gives Luna all the love that was taken from him. He becomes sort of frozen inside. It’s a gift for an actor to play.”

Aloni was always the first choice to play Gabriel, says Dafna Prenner, co-chief executive officer of Artza Productions who took on the monumental task of the bringing the saga to the screen. Indeed, the author herself wanted him; “Michael was supposed to be shooting Shtisel but because of the pandemic everything was pushed back. So suddenly he was available. He was our first choice. Sarit wanted Michael because he reminded her of her father, she was very much for him.”

Bringing the novel to life became something of a passion project for Prenner and her co- CEO, Shai Eines, who is a friend of Yishai-Levi. “The book came out in 2013 in Israel, and within a few years it became a sensation, like the biggest bestseller in the past 30 years! Through Shai we approached Sarit, but she had already signed with another production company. We kept approaching her and eventually the other option ran out of time, and we snapped it up.

“For us it really was a no brainer because we have this great book to start with, a great show runner in Shlomo Mashiach, who had previously created the Israeli hit Your Honor, We pitched to Yes Studios and, based on a three-page pitch, they immediately gave us development money.”

Within a month Mashiach had written the script. The production was all set go, but then the pandemic happened.

“In January 2020 we were in the middle of pre-production,” says Prenner. “We went to Ukraine because Jerusalem does not look the way it did 100 years ago. We chose a team of some local people, and crew and sought out locations.

And then we went back home. About six weeks later the rumours were starting about this pandemic. By March we knew we would not be able to shoot in Ukraine and we were supposed to start in May. Now we are just about to start shooting series two in June, and sadly we most definitely won’t be able to film there now.

“So, we started working on recreating Jerusalem of the 1920s and 30s and we ended up in Safed.”

The Old City of Safed was home to Spanish Jews who settled in the town after the Expulsion in 1492. Its old buildings and atmosphere give an almost mystical backdrop to the drama, fitting, as the original novel is woven with strands of spiritualism and mysticism.

Aloni believes it was the right decision: “I think it’s for the best somehow because the story is so rooted in Israel. In a way, it would be weird shooting this life journey, this epic story that takes you through the birth of Israel, and shooting it somewhere else. We all really felt strongly about shooting it in Israel, and in Safed where, you know, the walls are still fresh with the history in a way.”

For the locals in Safed, it was a lifesaver. The streets and hotels that once teemed with tourists were empty, giving the production a real-life “set”. “We had to do some construction,” says Prenner. “But not a lot. We used local painters, electricians and caterers as well as local people as background artists. We felt it was our duty to do so. One of the greatest things about shooting in Safed is that we could give work to people who had no work because of the pandemic, we worked with Mayor’s office who were very helpful, and the people were very welcoming to us.”

The production team and cast became a “bubble”, allowing them to work through the pandemic. “It was impossible for the cast to keep distance in shooting, we had a lot of love scenes. We were really isolated in Safed though. People only went home every one or two weeks and when they did go home, they stayed home because they wanted to be with their families. We did testing, especially if someone felt ill. We measured temperatures every day. We had someone in charge of Covid protocols. We were lucky that we didn’t have anyone get it during production.”

There was some shooting in Jerusalem. The grand American Colony Hotel doubles as the British Officers Club. “Normally of course it wouldn’t be available but because of Covid, it was empty, and we were able to use it,” says Prenner.

One of the biggest scenes is where Rosa’s brother, Ephraim (Tom Hagi) with a group of independence fighters blow up a club used by British officers in 1937; “In Israel, we don’t have that many people involved in special effects or sci fi. So, we have to wait for them to be available. We did the explosion in the middle of the night. The hotel is surrounded by gardens so hopefully we didn’t make too much noise!” says Prenner.

Luna, the so called ‘beauty queen’ is played by newcomer Swell Ariel Or and the pivotal part of Rosa Ermosa, a woman unloved, illiterate, born into abject poverty, was given to Hila Saada. Despite being better known for romantic comedy in Israel, the star of The Baker and the Beauty was the first choice.

“We did extensive auditions, we had a lot of characters to cast; 19 main characters and about 100 smaller roles” says Prenner. “We wanted someone who could look beautiful and also not so attractive. More than anything we wanted someone who could commit to the role and bring the best because it is a difficult role. We did auditions, and almost immediately it was clear, she was our Rosa. Hila was exceptional. She never gives just 50 or 70 per cent, always 250 per cent. She is so committed. We would laugh on set because when she and Michael were both given their script books, he would flick through, but she would sit down, put stickers, make notes!”

Saada, who was nominated for an Ophir for the role, is thrilled to be playing Rosa. “Wow! I guess until now, it’s the most beautiful character I have played. Before Rosa, I did a lot of comedy.

“I dreamed of playing a character like this, very dramatic and a big part. I felt so lucky about it. It’s such a gift for me as an actress. I play Rosa from when she was 17 years old without parents and taking care of her brother. She becomes a mother of three daughters and marries Gabriel Ermosa, who doesn’t love her. As an actress it was very challenging, she has a difficult life.”

When we meet, Saada is undoubtedly beautiful but on screen as Rosa she looks plain, and careworn; “I’ve always played colourful and glamorous characters. As Rosa ages, they made me look older. At first it was difficult to see myself and looking ugly too. After a couple of weeks though I loved it, I was someone else and I love Rosa. To be honest, it made me explore a lot about myself.”

Aloni felt the same about watching himself age; “It takes a lot of time and meditation in the makeup room to sit down for at least two, three hours to change and you do it maybe once or twice a day. “As an actor you have the chance to time travel with yourself. You find yourself navigating a strong sense of what it means to grow with a character and how we change and what we don’t change. You discover new things about yourself.”

Some would consider it bad luck to be paired on screen with Michael Aloni and not get to kiss him. Saada laughs: “It’s very interesting to sleep with your husband in the bed without touching. We didn’t kiss at all; Michael and I made the decision not to kiss because we felt it would be more realistic.

“He’s a great partner, it’s our first time working together. We have a loveless marriage and are quite sombre on screen.

“The director says ‘cut’ and then Michael is so funny, in between the scenes I’d say to him ‘OK Michael, do you love me now?’ He would say ‘of course’. So cool and so funny, such a great partner for me.”

Ten episodes, all directed by Oded Davidoff, will stream on Netflix. There are hopes that it will be as big a hit as other Israeli dramas Shtisel and Fauda. “I’m sure it’s going to be a huge, huge international success. In Israel, they’re already crazy about it,” says Aloni.
Prenner is hoping for something else too: “We try to portray some of the historical events to the best of our ability, but it is a TV drama, so we don’t want to lecture. We hope, though, it will bring an understanding of Israel’s history.

“We tried to show no one is really good and no one is really bad. The British weren’t really welcome here but we show them with misgivings, with disappointments and there were some great Brits. Essentially though, it’s a great family drama and love story. History is its background.”

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is on Netflix from May 20

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive