September 2020 -- Elul 5780-Tishri 5781,  Volume 26, Issue 9

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“The One and Only Jewish Miss America”

On September 8, 1945, just months after Germany’s surrender and the liberation of Nazi death camps ending the Holocaust, an unlikely and unexpected winner was crowned Miss America in Atlantic City, NJ. It was Bess Myerson, tall, talented, beautiful – and Jewish. In spite of antisemitism and threatening calls to pageant judges warning them against selecting a Jew, Bess took the title home to her family’s tiny apartment in the Shalom Aleichem housing project in the Bronx.

 

A concert pianist, Bess Myerson tied for first in the talent contest, won first place in the swimsuit competition, impressed the judges in personal interviews, and, as the only college graduate among 42 contestants, represented a new kind of post-war poise, intelligence, and feminism. It was a victory not just for Bess, the middle daughter of struggling immigrants from Russia, but also an all-American validation for Jewish-Americans and immigrants all over the country.

 

New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage is premiering “The One and Only Jewish Miss America” on September 8, 2020, 75 years after Bess Myerson’s historic win – and 99 years to the day after the pageant was founded as a bathing beauty contest. At 7:00 p.m. EDT, filmmaker David Arond will conduct an online panel discussion with those featured in the film: Barra Grant, Bess Myerson’s daughter and an accomplished actor and screenwriter, and two international authorities on antisemitism: Abraham Foxman, a friend of Bess’s and director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, and Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and criminal justice professor, California State University, San Bernardino.

 

“The documentary follows Bess’s life from childhood, when she thought she was ugly and gangly,” says Arond, “through her entry into the Miss New York City pageant, which her older sister arranged without her knowledge.” The story continues after the Miss America pageant, when sponsors withdrew their support of a Jewish winner. Bess Myerson never received the promised $5,000 scholarship (which she hoped to use at the Julliard School for a master’s degree in music) and the new car from Ford Motor Co.

 

Her Miss America pageant tour also ended in disappointment, when she faced antisemitism and restricted hotels and concert venues that prohibited Jews from entering. Instead of giving up, she started a new tour, with the support of the Anti-Defamation League: a 15-city educational tour to promote respect for all people, regardless of race or religion. “Bess Myerson symbolizes the spirit of standing up to prejudice of all kinds,” Arond adds. “Her tour of tolerance led to her work in media, politics and social justice.”

 

The 51-minute documentary has won more than two dozen best documentary feature awards and will be screened at film festivals around the world. To watch the trailer and learn more, go to  www.jewishmissamerica.com. To view the film and register for the online September 8 panel discussion or to view the panel discussion after the event{ see their blog},  visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage at www.mjhnyc.org .