“Shtisel” Star Michael Aloni On His Upcoming TV Series, Family, Love and History


 I had the wonderful opportunity to be on the set of the upcoming TV series, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” where I spoke to the actors, producers and director of the show for The Jerusalem Post. Here is the article:

Up in the hills of Safed, in a picturesque cobblestone alleyway, actors Michael Aloni and Swell Ariel Or stood together recently and hugged during the filming of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, a TV series based on Sarit Yishai-Levy’s best-selling novel. The story of the multi-generational Ermoza family, set in the early-mid 20th century, actually takes place in Jerusalem, but most of the series was filmed in Safed. The city’s ancient streets — without too many air conditioning units — make the vintage cars and costumes seem authentic. It was a chilly, drizzly day, the 70th day of filming, with 10 more days to go. During a pause between sprinkles of rain, actors who play extras walked up the narrow alley in period costumes, passing the signs plastered on building walls in the old-fashioned font of the time, and a clothing store filled with vintage clothes. The series starts in 1917, at the time of the Ottoman Empire, and continues through Israel’s War of Independence. The day’s shooting was now during the British Mandate and a large British flag fluttered by a shop window.

Or, the series’ leading actress, dressed in her role as Luna Ermoza, (in her breakout role), walked up the street; her father in the series, Gavriel Ermoza, played by Aloni, (of Shtisel fame), ran after her. He showed Or a newspaper article and said, “I didn’t want you to see this when you were alone…” and then put his arms around her for a dramatic moment.“CUT!” yelled the director, Oded Davidoff. WELL, VIEWERS will have to wait in suspense to find out what happens until the series airs in Israel on Yes TV in early summer. There is not yet a release date for countries around the world, but Danna Stern, managing director of Yes Studios, which distributes the series, said she has “no doubt this show will be a success, and I don’t say that often.” Drama Quarterly.com just named Beauty Queen one of the top 20 shows to watch in 2021.On the film set was Dafna Prenner, co-CEO of Artza Productions, the series’ producers. She and her partner, Shai Eines, had their eye on the novel ever since it was published in 2016 and then translated into 11 languages. Prenner said that a book that sells well in Israel might sell 10,000 copies; Levy’s novel sold 300,000, making it one of the best-selling books published in Israel in the past 20 or 30 years. The first two seasons of the series were created by Shlomo Mashiach and Ester Namdar Tamam and written by Mashiach. The series also stars Hila Saada (The Baker and the Beauty), Itzik Cohen (Fauda), and Dov Navon (Cash Register).Prenner said that this period drama has been one of the most expensive to make in Israel. It was originally supposed to be filmed in the Ukraine but when “Corona hit,” she said, “we had to move everything to Israel,” increasing production costs another two million shekels.  

Extras on the set during a filming break PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Bletter

There have been few shows depicting what life was like in the early 1900s, Prenner said, first in what was then Palestine and then the early days of Israel. Vintage clothes were hard to find and sometimes had to be sewn, and the makeup artist had to work hard to make sure everything from hairstyles (including metal clips) to mustaches were just right.THE BEAUTY Queen of Jerusalem is a story about members of a Sephardic family, also known as Spagnuolo Jews, because they made way to Jerusalem after Spain expelled the Jews in 1492. The Ermoza family speaks Spanish-Judeo, a dialect of Ladino, and because they have been in Jerusalem for so many generations, they feel superior to newer immigrants. According to Aloni, whose own family stretches back nine generations in Israel, the specificity of the story is what makes it appeal to international audiences.“When you write something that’s very particular and seems provincial and personal, you can hit the hearts of people,” Aloni said in an exclusive interview between shooting scenes in Safed. When Aloni first started filming Shtisel he didn’t think anyone would even see it. “I never imagined it to be so successful,” he said. “Even the Arab world is watching the show. I know because I get messages from Arab viewers on my social media all the time.”Aloni said that what makes this series so unique is that the politics and complexities of the time were so special. During Turkish rule, Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem worked together as merchants. The tensions started to increase during the British rule, Aloni said, and then the series focuses its tale on “Israel on its way to becoming a country.”The director of the show, Oded Davidoff, “gives us freedom to be totally in character and own every moment,” Aloni said.The show will have 22 episodes and each episode is an hour long. Prenner said that in Israel, the entire series is shot at the same time, unlike in the United States.While the show is based on the novel, the series has its own story lines. Aloni said he feels that the book will work better as a series than a film because there is more opportunity to develop different plots and “add something new.” He said that when he first read the book, he cried for the last 70 pages.During a break in the filming in a clothing shop, Or sat outside with her boyfriend in the series, Israel Ogalbo, better known as a star in Survivor and Big Brother. They said they were going to be sad when the shooting ended; since August, they have been working in the production along with more than 30 production crew members who circled the set offering hot tea and warm crepes on the cold day.Aloni said the essence of the novel, as well as the series, is the story of a family. He cited Leo Tolstoy’s quote from the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”The series follows members of the Ermoza family who, Aloni said, have been cursed to live without love. “Family is family,” Aloni said. “Life is full of choices we make that we have to live with.” He paused for another thoughtful moment and then added, “and we carry our family’s history on our shoulders and in our hearts.”

Looking at the director’s screen during an emotional scene of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” with Michael Aloni. PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Bletter
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Yom Kippur – Finding a Way Toward Forgiveness

I wanted to share my short story that was just published in the latest edition of Jewish Fiction. It is timely for Yom Kippur. Thinking about forgiveness, forgetting. You can find it here.

I revised the above story many times and watched it get rejected many times. And now it’s finally found a home. 

And posting my non-fiction piece on my quirky Jewish mother that appeared in Kveller.com here.


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First Place Winner in Moment Magazine’s Fiction Contest (Me!)

I’m honored to announce that my story, “What If I’ve Changed My Mind?” won First Place in Moment Magazine’s Fiction Contest, judged by Max Brooks, author of World War Z and many  other  books  and  articles.

This reminds me, once again, not to give up. I keep doing the work each day. Over the past years, I’ve gotten 12,397 rejections, but who’s counting? I never, ever thought I would win this contest. Best of all, I’ve got my imagination. I can travel anywhere while sitting in my chair.

Details for entering Moment’s Fiction Contest this year can be found here. I encourage you to send in your work. The deadline is September 1, 2020.

Fiction | What If I’ve Changed My Mind?

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Coronavirus and My Husband’s Shoelaces

Here’s my latest blog at Times of Israel on the Coronavirus and my husband’s shoelaces.


You can read it on the Times of Israel site or here:

The other day, hours before Israel imposed a countrywide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I rode my moped to a grocery store in the nearby town of Nahariya, and then took a few moments to search for a pair of shoelaces for my husband, Jonny. I always go to an old-fashioned shoe repair shop in a small side street. The repairman has worked magic on my four-inch high heels, and refashioned my orthotic inserts for my sneakers. Surely, he’d have shoelaces. But the government deemed his shop non-essential so it was shuttered, along with almost every other store except supermarkets and pharmacies.

At home, I scrounged up an old shoelace, convincing Jonny that he was now a fashionista in his work boots with one purple shoelace and one gray one. At least my husband has a job. For today. He works in the 200-acre avocado groves of our village, Shavei Zion, about 75 miles north of Tel Aviv and if you keep going for  twelve more miles, you’ll reach Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

I’m a transplanted New Yorker; by now I’m familiar with traumatic events in Israel. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, about 300 Katyusha rockets rained down all around our village; miraculously, nobody was injured. Seven years later, we watched the Iron Dome defense system take out four Grad rockets fired from Lebanon — right above our heads. Against this viral foe, however, military might seems as helpful as a fly swatter.

The coronavirus is worldwide but it has shrunk my outlook from global to local, if not tribal. More than ever, I’m relieved I moved to Israel in 1991, a place I feel cared for — and wanted — in two crucial ways.

The first is Israel’s national health care system which covers all its citizens, no matter our race or religion. I’ve always appreciated seeing our topnotch family doctor, who happens to be a Muslim Arab, free-of-charge, and taking my kids to the emergency room for various calamities, including centipede bites and sports injuries, without having to consider the cost. If I now wind up in a hospital, I won’t pay a shekel.

The second way is how the Israeli Government has scrambled to airlift Israelis home from around the world. Israelis are wandering Jews in every way — even when we have a country to call our own, and since early March, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has engaged in high-level diplomacy with officials in entirely-sealed countries. With Passover drawing near on April 8, Moses’ plea, “Let my people go,” took on urgent new meaning. Israel even arranged a free flight for more than seventy Ethiopian immigrants to come to Israel on March 24, just hours before the Ethiopian borders shut.

My oldest daughter, Amalia, could have been one of those stranded Israelis unable to get home. She had been trekking in Chile and planned to continue to Tulum, Mexico, thinking she could wait out the virus, relaxing and doing yoga on the beach.

While Jonny and I usually go along with our six children’s roaming spirits, this time, we persuaded her to come home immediately. What would happen if she got to Mexico, changed her mind, and wouldn’t be able to leave? She thought we were exaggerating the problem but reluctantly agreed to make travel arrangements. She boarded one of the last flights out of Santiago on March 16.

Amalia’s friend, 27-year-old Lina Thompson, a nurse from Ontario, Canada, had been on a four-day trek in Peru, and had not even heard the “C-word” until she returned to Cusco on March 15. With the country set to lock down, she managed to buy an airplane ticket for March 18. When the military imposed a sudden closure on March 16, it was too late. Thompson, now shut up in an apartment with an Irish woman and two other Canadians, keeps appealing to the Canadian government to help her, but she said “nobody’s stepping in.” When she heard how Israel sent four airplanes to pick up a thousand Israelis in Peru and fly them back to Israel last week, she said, “I want to learn Hebrew so that the Israeli Government adopts me.”

Meanwhile, my niece, Ruby, from New York, had been studying at EMIS, Eastern Mediterranean International School, a high school boarding program in HaKfar Yarok, central Israel, for the past three years. She and eighty other high school seniors hailed from more than forty countries around the world, including Armenia, Gambia, and China, as well as Israeli and Palestinian students who forged connections that transcended borders. But the virus won out, and the school shut down on March 25. Ruby flew back to New York; the other students went winging home to their native countries. Suddenly, the world that these idealistic students envisioned uniting has become splintered and small. And something small, like a pair of shoelaces, suddenly seems so huge.



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Waiting 75 Years for Liberation from Auschwitz

I was honored to be a part of the ritual in our hevra kadisha, the village burial circle, to prepare my neighbor, Suzy, a survivor of Auschwitz, for her burial, on the very day that Auschwitz was liberated. Then I wrote about it for The Forward.

ou can go to the link here. https://forward.com/life/438978/preparing-an-auschwitz-survivor-for-her-final-resting-place/


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In Israel: Signs of Hope, Signs of War

At the same time that I was writing about Christian, Druze, Jewish, and Muslim women getting together in the mixed city of Akko, Israel on November 15, 2019 for a “Fridays with Women” event,  I was also writing about the dire lack of bomb shelters and protected rooms in kindergartens, nursing homes, clinics, and schools here in the Western Galilee, where I live, along the northern border of Israel and Lebanon. Two realities happening simultaneously.

The above photo is of Nafisa Shtawey, left, and Naama Burstein at the Friday Women Event in Akko.

The message for me is to hold onto the slightest glimmer of hope no matter what is going on around me. Here are the two articles, one in Lilith Magazine (see the blog post on the bottom left) and the other in the Jerusalem Post.

For more information on the exciting things that are happening in Akko, see my article about an educators’ kibbutz in the heart of the city here.

Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s count our blessings.

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At a Time Like This, It’s Important to Read About a Muslim-Jewish Friendship like Theirs.

Motke & MohammedAfter the hate-shooting in San Diego, California, in which Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed on April 27, I’m re-posting my article from The Times of Israel about these two 83-year-old friends, one Muslim and one Jewish, who still meet every Monday morning at a coffee shop in the Western Galilee.

It’s important to remind ourselves that there are people who respect one another’s beliefs and rise above religious differences. People who practice tolerance and acceptance.

Their friendship is also a reminder of the daily reality within Israel, where people live in peace and relative harmony. In spite of everything that goes on around us.

May Lori Gilbert Kaye’s act of bravery – she stood up to save the rabbi – continue to inspire us and give us the courage we need to act in these difficult times.


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Big Up Yourself: It’s About Time You Like Being You

BigUpYourselfCoverBig Up Yourself: It’s About Time You Like Being You gives you the easiest, smartest, and fastest tools to help you big up yourself. What does that mean? To like who you are. Right here and right now. You’ll learn about your four primary elements and how to take care of them in a simple, new way, for ten minutes each day. That is all it takes to learn how to big up yourself.
You’ll learn important rules to pull you along. How to dream big but to start small. How to go by the 99% Rule, (Even if you’re 99% right, you are a better person for apologizing about that 1% wrong). How to thank the people who annoy you (they’re your best teachers, you know). And how to discover who you are instead of waiting for the world to discover you.
“You can travel all over the world but you will never find someone who deserves your love as much as you do.” There is no truer statement yet you might not know where to begin. If you commit to devoting ten minutes of your day to nurturing your four elements, you will discover a new inner peace and strength. That is self-care, and it grows into self-love. You will also discover that if you approach life as a series of spiritual lessons, you will reach understanding and acceptance during difficult moments. Then you can transform pain into wisdom, fear into trust, and self-doubt into inner power. All this for only $2.99! You can order it here and here.

Life is too short to waste it feeling like you’re not good enough. Time to BIG UP YOURSELF. Enjoy what you’ve got.


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The New President and My Old Marching Shoes

Hello, everyone, in case you were wondering where I was, I have been busy revising my latest novel. I want to stay focused but don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, my faithful reader. Meanwhile, I wrote the following for The Huffington Post which I wanted to share.   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ent…/5880bed6e4b0fb40bf6c46f7…
Diana at march.jpg

I went to my first protest march when I was twelve. It was 1969, and I walked down Great Neck’s main street in favor of a proposal to bus children from a low-income area to Great Neck schools. Wearing plaid bell bottoms, I carried my own handwritten sign, “They won’t hurt you, why should you hurt them? Give them a chance, too!” (There were even smiley faces in the letter O’s.)

As demonstrators march for and against President-Elect Donald Trump, I’m reminded of all the marches I’ve attended since that first protest. Moreover, I value demonstrations which don’t incite hatred or violence because they are hallmarks of a healthy democracy.

My mother, a first-generation American, instilled in me the belief that if I thought something was wrong, it was my obligation to speak out against it. In between long drags on her cigarette, she shared the Jewish adage: if you save one life, you save an entire world. Her interpretation? With your one life, try to do something.

She didn’t mind when I skipped school to attend demonstrations. To her, engaging in political activism was the best kind of education. I traveled to New York City to protest the Vietnam War, and also ventured to Washington D.C. for demonstrations in favor of women’s reproductive rights.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I attended a reproductive rights rally in New York. It was about the time that I’d become more religiously observant, so I carried a clothes hanger (to represent what women sometimes used for illegal abortions) and another handwritten sign reading, “Orthodox Jews for the Right to Choose.” A woman approached me, saying she wanted to join my organization; I admitted that I’d just started it and I was the only one in it. Afterwards, I went home on the subway. It was crowded and I squeezed my way out the car. I now apologize to that passenger, whoever she is, who discovered that I accidentally left my hanger hanging off her sweater.

Before the Iron Curtain fell, I marched at the United Nations on behalf of Jews trying to leave the Soviet Union. In 2000, when I was living in Westhampton, I again marched in Washington, D.C., this time in the first Million Mom March. My friend, Liz Liggon, and I took the Long Island Railroad into New York City and from there to the nation’s capital. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Liz, who is African-American, I felt a sense of strength and unity.

Sometimes, I admit, I’ve been misguided. At Cornell in the late Seventies, I joined Iranian students in their protest against the Shah of Iran. Then history unfolded. I am painfully aware that those students returned to an extremist Iran, where the revolution turned against them.

During the Israel-Lebanese War in 1982, I attended an anti-war protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in New York. A decade later, I found myself living in a small beach village in northern Israel, only twelve miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. I came to understand that certainty comes easier when you’re not living in the war zone.

Making my home in northern Israel, I am involved with a peace group — Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze women — and last October, we went to the Women Wage Peace March, on the Israel-Jordanian border. We walked along a snaking dirt path under a cloudless sky to reach a holy place near the Dead Sea, one of the lowest points on earth. It’s a baptismal site for Christians, with an Arabic name, Qasr al-Yahud, or the Jews’ palace, making it a convergence of all three faiths. Thousands of women gathered that day: Palestinian women in galabiyahs and hejabs walked arm and arm with Israeli Jewish women in tank tops and shorts, demanding that our leaders reach a peace agreement. Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who helped end the Liberian civil war, told us, “History will write this day.”

I hope so. Yet even if all the protests I’ve attended have not made a difference in the world, they have made a difference in me. How lucky I am to be able to publicly voice my opinion. Even when I disagree with other demonstrators, I still respect their right to be heard. That is a priceless gift of freedom. This is something I learned when I was twelve and this is how I’ve lived my life.

I just turned sixty and I’m still wearing my marching shoes.
In the photo is Jennifer Charm, Robert Raynor and I am holding the sign.
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Leah Kaminsky, Author of The Waiting Room, on the Past and Future

leah-kaminskyI’m delighted to welcome Leah Kaminsky, author of the debut novel THE WAITING ROOM (Harper Perennial 2016). Although this story is set in Haifa, Israel, during 2001, the story straddles three continents and a time span of seventy years. It took Kaminsky ten years to write the novel and she told me, “every word and sentence has been a labour of love, rewritten countless times” until she was satisfied she could do no better. For Kaminsky, “the craft of writing is of the utmost importance.”

Here is Leah Kaminsky’s guest post on stumbling onto the past, and what we take into the future:

“Recently, while visiting Berkeley for the first time as part of my North American book tour, I passed an old stamp shop. A handwritten note told potential customers to knock loudly, so I did. After a minute or so, a tall man with a shock of grey hair shuffled towards the door, which creaked as it opened. He gruffly told me he was busy dispatching some orders and left me alone to wonder around the store. I was instantly transported back to my childhood, dizzy with the thousands of stamps from around the globe staring down at me, pinned to the walls like zoological specimens in a museum. I watched the owner as he lovingly affixed a collage of stamps to the front of a package he was preparing to ship. We started chatted about my old passion for stamp collecting, a hobby that is rapidly becoming part of a lost world. I became quite teary, as if I had entered a lush forest on the verge of extinction.

I feel the same whenever I wonder around antique shops, or stumble across old haberdashery stores that are still lovingly kept open by their elderly owners after several decades in business. In THE WAITING ROOM, I have written an entire chapter set inside an old shoemaker’s cave in downtown Haifa:

‘The shoemaker’s workshop lies hidden at the edge of the shuk, down a crooked laneway that reeks of cat piss. The metal door rests slightly ajar and a bell tinkles as Dina pushes it open. She enters a dimly lit cave in the wall, its interior redolent of a tiny shtetl in Europe, pungent with leather and blacking.’

The old shoemaker fascinates her, and she is drawn into his workshop like Alice into Wonderland:

Dina could stare at the shoemaker all day. With his knobbly white knuckles and brown leather apron that hugs his rotund belly, he looks like a character that stepped straight out of a fairytale.’

But he also carries wisdom along with his expertise:

‘He is busy gluing the sole of an old boot. On a shelf behind him, a small fan pivots to-and-fro, blowing wafts of glue into Dina’s face. She places her broken shoe onto the workbench.

“One shoe does not walk alone,” he says in a quiet steady, voice, without looking up at her.’

These elderly craftsmen, whose lives have been dedicated to refining their ancient skills, are on the verge of disappearing – and along with them the magical world of my own childhood will vanish. Their stories are a portal to another time and place, where good craftsmanship and integrity were deeply valued and respected, so different to the disposable consumer culture of today, with its emphasis on cheap mass-manufacturing. My father was a tailor and I vividly remember the care he took in fussing over each client’s measurement, jotting down secret numbers in a sacred notebook he kept hidden in his shirt pocket. He drafted bespoke patterns, which he laid out on the finest material, carefully cutting pieces he would later sew together by hand.

The stamp collector I met in Berkeley, the shoemaker in THE WAITING ROOM and my diminutive father in his tailor’s workshop, are my connection to both the beauty and the hardships of the past. THE WAITING ROOM warns us that if we don’t bear witness to history and what we have inherited from the past, we are more likely to hurtle blindly into a tenuous and shaky future.”

Thank you, Leah Kaminsky.

THE WAITING ROOM is available wherever books are sold, including this link:


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