In the wake of Bess Myerson’s death and all the talk about her rise and fall, it’s worthwhile to remember a moment when her fate turned with ours, and her future really began.
Immediately post World War II, many of our families were just beginning to understand the enormity of the Holocaust. They knew it was bad; but ovens? mass graves? everybody? My mother walked up and down the living room, softly beating her chest, her face drenched with tears as she slowly comprehended that she and her children were remnants of an annihilated people.
Into that living room comes a ray of hope, in the tall gorgeous shape of a beauty queen. People said that Bess Myerson’s victory as Miss America in 1945 pierced the grief of the Jews, rekindled some of their joy, showed them that they were still young and beautiful and alive. Mazal Tov! they yelled as she glided down the runway with her crown and scepter. “Mazal Tov to all of us!” was what they meant.
Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri made headlines this past week — not just for taking the crown on Sunday night, but also because of a racist backlash that occurred after she won. The American-born Indian woman representing New York was accused of being “Miss Al Qaeda,” a terrorist, Arab, Egyptian and everything in between. Davuluri rose above the controversy, embracing her platform issue: “Celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”
But if Miss America is really about embracing diversity, why hold the Pageant during the High Holy Days?
In its 92 years, Miss America has had one Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson. Myerson, who was also Miss New York, was Miss America 1945. New York is known for firsts; it not only had the first Jewish Miss America and the first Indian Miss America but also the first African-American Miss America, Vanessa Williams, in 1983. Clearly the Pageant isn’t opposed to non-Christian contestants (Davuluri is Hindu), or winners for that matter. But the 20/20 special that aired before the live contest showed contestants praying to Jesus for an injured Miss Florida. Meanwhile, recent Miss Americas, like 2011’s Teresa Scanlan, have been outspoken about their evangelical faith.