This day, sixty one years ago, Bess Myerson was the first (and so far, only) Jewish woman, to be crowned Miss America.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Bess Myerson was a talented musician. She attended the High School of Music and Art, studying piano and flute, and later graduated from Hunter College in 1945 with a degree in music. That same year, with dreams of becoming a conductor brushed aside because it was not a proper woman's role, Bess went on to win the title of Miss America. Bess faced anti-Semitism before, during, and after the pageant--judges refused to vote for her because of her faith, and afterwards, three of the five sponsoring companies withdrew support for her post-pageant tour.
I wonder how it must have felt for Bess to win this title and to miss out on the glory of the prize because of her faith. Instead of sulking at what she was missing, she took action. Bess lectured with the Anti-Defamation League, speaking out against prejudice across the country. She went on to pursue a career in public service, serving as New York's commissioner of consumer affairs and commissioner of cultural affairs.
This week in New York, young Jewish women and men will compete in a very different type of pageant than the one Bess won in 1945. In fact, this pageant, Mr. and Ms. JewSA, hosted by New York City's 14th Street Y, required a 500 word essay on Jewish identity to enter. How would you answer what being Jewish means to you and how you express your Judaism?
The contestants are NYC Jewish artists, performers, and community leaders who will be judged on interview, style, and talent rather than a gown or bathing suit. The judges are far different from the ones who would not vote for Bess--they include an Israeli fashion designer, a Yiddish artist, and a Black Jewish Ballroom Dancing Butch Performance Artist. If you were a judge, what would you look for in a Mr. and Ms. JewSA?