Purim is approaching; let the merriment begin!
One of the things that makes Purim so appealing is that it's a story built around intrigue within the royal court. What other Jewish holiday centers around kings, queens and palaces? The characters are easily identifiable: Esther is beautiful, Mordecai is noble, and Haman is wicked. And in this story we win, not once but twice.
First, Esther wins the beauty contest that pairs her up with the ruler of 127 lands, from India to Ethiopia. Later, because of his love for Esther, the king decrees that it's the Jews who'll live and our enemies who'll die.
But, in reality, the number of Esthers who save the day is smaller than the number of Hamans who would eradicate us.
In 1945, just as the war was ending, a pivotal beauty contest skyrocketed another Jewish maiden to fame and fortune. Her name was Bess Myerson and she came from the Bronx. She and my mother grew up in the same apartment complex called the Sholom Aleichem Houses. The fact that my mother knew her family made me feel a kinship with this first and only Jewish Miss America.
Myerson won "the crown" soon after graduating from college. She was statuesque, well-spoken, and a gifted flutist and pianist. The Pageant was looking to change its image of Miss America from a bathing beauty to someone well-educated. Myerson was the perfect candidate.
Well, almost perfect. This sheltered New York girl ran into all manner of anti-Semitism. She held her ground, though, even when the Pageant director tried to get her to change her name.
In Susan Dworkin's excellent biography, Miss America, 1945, Myerson remembers her father's words before she went on tour:
" 'Besselah, don't forget who you are out there!' He was not saying: 'Don't forget you're a Myerson.' Not my father. He didn't have that kind of vanity. He was saying, 'Don't forget you're a Jew. Whatever you do will be laid at the feet of your people.' "
Judged by the Public
Prominent Jews, especially in that era, had to be concerned with the way their behavior was perceived by the general (gentile) public. On the other hand, the achievements of those same Jews inspired dos pintele yid/the average, everyday Jew.
Myerson visited countless schools during her reign as Miss America. She recounts in Dworkin's book that there would be several kids who hung back and quietly asked, "Are you Jewish?" When she responded yes, they'd squeal with delight and shout, " 'I knew it! I knew it! Oh, my mother is going to be absolutely just so excited when I tell her it's true. You're really one of us!' "
As Jews, we have come a long way in America. Still, we're only 1.78 percent of the general population.
I remember the pride I felt in knowing that Paul Newman, that blue-eyed icon, was half-Jewish. Every time my father "outed" another Jewish celebrity and revealed his or her birth name, I felt not only pride but a hazy sense of safety. If anything happened, I reckoned that these public figures would be standing right alongside, or speaking out for, my people.
Our generation has seen Jews enter professions previously unheard of. But no matter how prominent Jews may become, let's hope they'll emulate Queen Esther and be willing to put their safety and their hearts on the line for the welfare of our small but cherished tribe.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her at: [email protected] cox.net.