You are here

Beauty Contests and the Bible Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, October 11, 2013

I don’t watch much tv and not being a fan of beauty contests, I wasn’t really up on September’s Miss America contest, but my classmate and colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote an article about it. (You might recognize his name from his popular book about Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Putting God on the Guest List.)

Reading the article that I learned that this year’s winner was an Indian-American, Nina Davuluri. One might expect that the ethnicity of the winner would not matter in 2013. After all it has been 30 years since Vanessa Williams was the first African-American winner of the Miss America contest and a woman of Philippine heritage won in 2001.

Unfortunately Ms Davuluri’s victory brought out the worst in some people. Twitter was full of comments- she’s a terrorist, Miss 7-11, Miss Al-Queda, and the confused, “an Arab wins Miss America”. Another contestant, Miss Kansas, who is Caucasian and a member of the US military, was held up by some as being “more American.”

As it happens Ms Davuluri graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in cognitive science and hopes to become a physician like her father.

She responded to the negative comments by saying: “I have viewed Miss America as the girl next door and the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves.”

For my mother and her generation, the choice of an ethnically atypical contestant brought back memories of the 1945 Miss America contest, the only year the contest was won by a Jewish woman. Bess Meyerson came from an immigrant family that spoke Yiddish and lived in the Sholom Aleichem apartments run by Jewish Socialists. She was studying music and entered the contest in the hopes of being able to earn enough money to buy a piano. Bess had been advised to change her name in order to improve her chances of winning. After all the longtime host of the pageant Bert Parks, had actually been born Betram Jacobson, a name he shed to advance his career. But Bess was not interested in hiding who she was.

For the American Jewish community at the time, Bess Meyerson’s victory was a tremendous shot in the arm. She writes about the event, “At the moment I won I looked out at the crowd in the Warner Theater and saw all the Jewish people hugging each other, congratulating each other, as though they had won.” Hitler had been defeated just four months before.

While the television newsreels were filled with photographs of emaciated Jewish survivors and refugees, here she was, a Jewish woman, proclaimed the most beautiful woman in America.

Israel has its own Miss Israel contest, established 63 years ago. This year’s winner Yityish Aynaw, was born in Ethiopia. Her victory follows a pattern of recognizing new immigrants within the Israeli community. In 1952 the new Mizrachi immigrants to Israel received recognition when Ora Vered, a Yeminite woman won the contest. In 1993 at the time of a major influx of Jews from the Soviet Union, it was a Russian woman and in 1999, at the height of the hopes of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, Rena Raslan, an Arab-Israeli was named Miss Israel. You might have seen a picture of this year’s winner at a dinner with President Obama during the president’s visit to Israel this past spring. Yityish is a symbol of hope for the 120,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel, who while making great strides, still experience prejudice.

This week’s Torah portion introduces Abraham and Sarah- and both the Torah text itself and the Midrash make much of Sarah’s beauty. I can’t say I’ve ever imagined her competing in a bathing suit competition or as it is called now “physical fitness in a swimsuit” but it is interesting that past generations had no problem imagining a Jewish woman, even an older woman, as beautiful.

Not just once but twice, Abraham gets in trouble because other men desire Sarah. According to the Midrash she was so beautiful that Abraham felt it was necessary to hide her in a box when bringing her down to Egypt. At the border they asked him what was in the box, he said barley and proceeded to pay the tariff. They got suspicious. He must have wheat, they said. So he paid the tariff on wheat. Perhaps it’s pepper. So he paid the tariff on pepper. Or silks, or gold, or precious stones. Eventually they opened the box, and we are told that all of Egypt was illuminated by the radiance of Sarah’s beauty.

When Sarah dies, we are told that she was as beautiful at 100 as she had been at 20.

We live in a country which spends billions of dollars on diets, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. While Jewish law is divided on the question of whether one can risk one’s life in surgery without real medical necessity, Jews have historically been significant consumers of cosmetic surgery. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that “cosmetic surgeons have typically been sought by patients wishing to alter features thought to separate them from the American mainstream.” Interestingly nose jobs, once almost a rite of passage in some segments of the Jewish community, have declined 37% over the last decade. Anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner attributes that to increased ethnic pride and a decreased desire to stop looking Jewish. There is greater self-acceptance of the Jewish body, or at least the Jewish nose. Perhaps too as the mainstream has become more diverse, Jews no longer feel like the odd one out.

I don’t like to think of our matriarch Sarah being remembered only for her physical appearance, but perhaps in a world where Asha Rangappa, associate dean of Yale Law School , complains that India itself has never chosen a winner of the Miss India contest who looked Indian, having a Biblical heroine known for her beauty as a Jewish woman isn’t such a bad thing.

Website developed by Jvillage Network. Powered by Jmanage.