Frustrating ‘Beauty Queen’ Still Hooks You In

Netflix’s “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

Netflix’s “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” which debuted on May 21, can be seen as a lot of things: a portrayal of Spanish Sephardic Jews, of Jerusalem before it was Jewish again or of the evil eye and its implications, among other possibilities.

But really, it’s a whole lot more Jewish than all of that. For “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” at its core, is about a character straight out of a Philip Roth novel: a man, Gabriel Ermoza, played by Michael Aloni, who cannot seem to overcome his domineering mother, Merkada Ermoza, played by Irit Kaplan.

And over the first two episodes, his inability to do so takes on the entertainment quality of a car wreck or a meltdown on reality television: You just can’t look away.

Throughout these early episodes of the series, which is based on a novel by Sarit Yishai Levy, you root for this handsome and capable dude to take control of his own life. As I leaned forward on the edge of my couch, I found myself shouting in my mind.

Take control of your father’s shop!

Go marry the Ashkenazi girl you really love!

Leave this constricting little village environment, and all of its small-minded biases and pressures, for the land of the free in America!

Just go, man! Go!

But Gabriel Ermoza does not go. He stays; he listens to mother; he remains a good boy.

And you hate him for it.

Yet you also empathize.

Does a man not have a responsibility to his mother, family and community? Would it not have made him even less of a man if he had just upped and left?

You even sympathize, too.

Merkada has the audacity to blame her son for the death of her husband/his father, who died the morning after he learned that Gabriel was cavorting with his Ashkenazi lover. Then she pushes him to marry the family’s lowly shop cleaner, who is Sephardic like them, because she claims that Gabriel’s father told her to do that in a dream.

The son considers leaving for the United States, but is told by another member of the community that, if his father wished for him to marry this woman, he would have sons that would grow strong. What would you do in that situation? Would you defy all the people in your community who are telling you to listen to your dead father?

Gabriel is a victim, in a sense, though not one without agency.

It is he who decides to listen to his mother’s kooky and manipulative logic. It is he who chooses the comfort of his own world over the frontier spirit of America. It is he who tries to make a deal with the devil, by marrying the shop cleaner Rosa, played by Hila Saada, a woman who he does not love, in exchange for strong sons.

It is Gabriel who fails to transcend his mother, the arbitrary responsibilities of his world and, ultimately, his cursed fate. God put him in a situation and gave him a chance to decide, as God does in the Jewish faith. Yet Gabriel chose to let others decide for him.

The show makes a point of lingering on the tragic elements of the character’s cursed existence. During the births of his first two children, Gabriel is shown running around and praying toward the sky for a “male heir.” But as the series makes clear with flash forwards to the character’s middle-aged life, his prayers are never answered.

In those flash-forward scenes, the son seems doomed to repeat his fate from generation to generation.

When Rosa is not satisfied with Gabriel’s punishment of their daughter Luna, played by Swell Ariel Or, for staying out late, Rosa forces Gabriel to inflict a stricter punishment. The husband listens, taking his daughter into her bedroom to be whipped by a belt. Yet once in there, he allows his daughter to take control, pretending to whip her by hitting the bed as she cries out in contrived agony.

It is, of course, not a problem that Gabriel listens to his women. It is a problem that, in the case of his mother and wife, he listens to people who want to override his agency.

The most frustrating part of the Gabe experience is that he seems capable of so much more. As a young man, he’s handsome enough to attract two different women. As a middle-aged man, he’s successful enough to buy his daughters a hot new record player.

But at every crossroads moment of his life, he gets out of his car and switches seats with the passenger.

The cycle is frustrating enough to make you want to watch the last eight episodes. JE

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