The Esther Aesthetic and Jewish Beauty Queens in Early Twentieth-Century America
Dr. Shaina Trapedo
After a six-month nationwide search, doe-eyed and dark haired nineteen-year-old beauty Katherine Spector was crowned “Prettiest US Jewess” in front of a crowd of 22,000 people in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden on Purim day, March 11, 1933, at the annual “Queen Esther” contest sponsored by the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance. As “Queen,” Spector won a trip to Palestine and was expected to make several public appearances like her predecessors of former years. However, the New Jersey native’s reign was short-lived. A gossip column published in the Daily News asserted that Spector was not actually a “girl” as the contest rules stipulated. She was accused of being a fraud who was “secretly married,” which resulted in Spector, and the “Queen Esther” contest, being shrouded in scandal for years to follow.
Female beauty contests can be traced back to ancient myths and legendary tales – from Paris’ judgment that sparked the Trojan War to Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights to Cinderella folklore – and seem to have always invited scandal and censure. In addition to hosting a variety of obvious social ills including objectifying women and indulging the male gaze, relegating a woman’s worth to looks over intellect or character, and perpetuating unrealistic and non-diverse standards of beauty, pageants also problematize notions of race, ethnicity, and nationhood in claiming that a single female body can represent the ideals of an entire people or community.
The story of Esther, crypto-Jew turned Persian queen, is intricately bound up with questions of appearance versus authenticity, the construction of female subjects, and the formation of national identity. Set during the Babylonian exile when the Jews were living under the control of King Ahasuerus, also identified as Xerxes I, who ruled the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 BCE, the so-called beauty contest in the second chapter of the megilla provides the means for Jewish salvation against the threat of genocide. Following Queen Vashti’s dismissal on account of her disobedience, a nationwide search is launched:
Let there be sought for the King beautiful young maidens; and let the King appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather together every beautiful young maiden to Shushan the capital to the harem…and let their cosmetics be given them. Then, let the girl who pleases the King be queen instead of Vashti. (2:2 – 4)
Mordecai is quick to call Esther’s attention to pageant politics when he warns her not to reveal “her people or her kindred” (2:10). In order to not arouse prevailing antisemitic sentiments, Esther is advised to conceal her Jewish heritage. While it is possible for Esther to have practiced Judaism in private and make no outward show of observance, what about physical markers of her identity? Did Esther “look Jewish”? To what extent does Jewish identity conform to notions of race and ethnicity? As we come to learn, the success of the heroine – and her people – rested on the verisimilitude of her outward appearance as a Persian (pageant) queen.
And yet, it could not be clearer that Esther was a reluctant contestant. Twice the megilla tells us that Esther was “taken,” implying she was brought to the capital against her will. The Midrash takes this redundancy to signify that Esther initially went into hiding when the edict was first announced and forcibly brought to the harem. During the ensuing twelve-month preparation period, Esther did not indulge in the cosmetics, apparel, and treatments offered like the other women, and was again coerced into appearing before the king when it was her turn to do so. Nevertheless, King Ahasuerus “set the royal crown upon her head” (2:17). For many scholars and modern readers, Esther’s selection is cause for mourning, not celebration – a personal tragedy for a young Jewish woman compelled to martyr her modesty to a pagan despot. Yet Mordecai reads her appointment as divine providence: “And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position?” (4:14), prompting biblical commentators to unpack Esther’s exceptional allure as a virtue that granted her access and influence she would never have had otherwise.
The story of Esther, crypto-Jew turned Persian queen, is intricately bound up with questions of appearance versus authenticity, the construction of female subjects, and the formation of national identity.
Being placed on a pedestal feels like the last thing the biblical heroine would have wanted; nevertheless, the deployment of Esther as a paragon of Jewish female beauty became widely popular in Jewish communities around the world in the 1920s and ’30s. “Esther pageants” in the early twentieth century grew into a diasporic phenomenon that can be traced from Palestine into Europe and South and North America. During the period historians have called the Age of Mass Migration (1850 – 1914), America absorbed more than 30 million immigrants, including nearly 2 million European Jews. The estimated number of Jews in New York went from 60,000 in 1880 to 1.3 million by 1914, when World War I impacted US border policy. The megilla, which captures the Jews’ struggle to preserve tradition within the framework of “modern” life under Persian rule, must have resonated loudly with American Jewry. Like during the time period of the Babylonian exile, Jewish immigrants were confronted with the challenge of ensuring the continued existence of a nation with no territory, appointed leader, or central place of worship. Would ethnic survival be dependent on maintaining insularity or was there a successful way to integrate into civic life and avoid the hazards of assimilation? How does one prioritize familial, religious, and national obligations when they compete with each other?
Such concerns were even more complicated for American Jewish women at the turn of the century as suffragists gained momentum and the influx of women into the workforce granted unprecedented financial independence. As social historian Kathy Peiss argues in Hope in a Jar, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the puritanical associations of cosmetics with the “painted faces of actresses and prostitutes” were being replaced by the modern sensibility that makeup was a medium of self-realization and expression while the melting pot of America further destabilized the belief that the ideal face was “defined by pale skin and blushing cheeks.” Just like the Italian, Irish, Greek, and Slavic immigrants who arrived in the US between 1880 and the Immigration Act of 1924, Eastern European Jews who came ashore were also not considered white. For Jewish women seeking agency and belonging, the possibility that one’s identity could be altered with lipstick, mascara, and powder was as compelling as it was contested.
During this era of Jewish relocation and reinvention, how are we to understand the popularity of “Queen Esther” beauty contests across America? Were they civic displays of Jewish pride honoring Esther’s legacy or acts of assimilation designed to parallel icons like the Miss America pageant inaugurated in Atlantic City in 1921?
I suggest that it is precisely at this moment of Jewish national instability in the early twentieth century that the Esther text was perceived to be of critical importance for American Jewry, and I believe it continues to bear relevance in discussions of countenance, character, and American identity today. Unlike any other biblical narrative, the Book of Esther offers a model of a people who do not have the luxury of relying on God’s presumed favor and instead shape their own destiny based on merit, ingenuity, and self-reliance consistent with the American dream.
As Sarah Banet-Weiser argues, national beauty contests “offer a glimpse at the constantly changing and always complicated stories about the nation itself: Who counts as part of the nation? What does it mean to be a specifically feminine representative of a nation? How are social concerns – such as racism, multiculturalism, and ‘family values’ – mediated in and through women’s bodies on a public stage?” I believe these questions were just as present and perhaps even more politically charged when Esther was chosen as queen of Persia in the fourth century BCE. The establishment of “Queen Esther” beauty contests for young Jewish women abroad and in America at the turn of the century seems contrary to the biblical heroine’s ethos; Esther was an unwilling participant who concealed her Jewish identity, while the young women participating in these events donned their Jewishness as well as their evening attire.
The establishment of “Queen Esther” beauty contests for young Jewish women abroad and in America at the turn of the century seems contrary to the biblical heroine’s ethos.
In surveying historical records, Philip Goodman finds that the Purim Association of the City of New York organized yearly philanthropic balls that often included the presentation of a “Queen Esther” beginning in the late 1880s. The Jewish Education Association of Indianapolis sponsored its first annual Queen Esther contest in 1912, which continued to run for over twenty years. While records are limited, contests within the Jewish community of the greater New York area scaled up as pageant culture in America steadily grew. Starting in 1929, the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance hosted its first Queen Esther Pageant timed to coincide with the festival of Purim, which sought to find “the most beautiful of the Jewish girls of the Country.” Photographs were received over a period of several months and popular vote deter- mined which girls would travel to New York to appear before a panel of twelve judges. Fannie Rachel Moses of Brooklyn was chosen as “Queen Esther” and runner-up Esther Manischewitz of Cincinnati received the title “Lady-in-Waiting.” The geographical distance represented by the winners contributed to the notion of a dispersed yet unified American Jewish community, while the prize – a free trip to Palestine – further underscored the contest’s nationalistic objectives. The following year, the same event was held at Madison Square Garden and featured a performance by star-of-the-Yiddish-stage Stella Adler supported by a company of acclaimed Jewish actors and twenty ballet dancers, much like the pomp and circumstance that had come to embellish contests like the Miss America pageant. In terms of their similar social agendas, the Queen Esther pageants likewise used this platform to show that the Jewish community also produced beautiful, service-oriented citizens, as typified by their chosen “queen.”
By the time Katherine Spector was crowned “Queen Esther” in 1933, beauty contests worldwide had become increasingly contested spaces. Once seen as opportunities for women who had recently become consumers of fashion and cosmetics to participate in a new form of physical self-realization and social freedom (in many ways consistent with the ideals of the suffragist movement and the first wave of feminism), this pop culture trend drew outrage from all sides. From within the Jewish community, religious dissenters saw the practice of displaying and judging female bodies as an abomination of Jewish values and a debasement of Esther’s character. In January 1930, Rabbi Kook sent a letter to Mayor Dizengoff urging him to cancel the “monster of the selection of a beauty queen from among Eretz Israeli Judaism” which had been part of the annual Tel Aviv Purim festivities since 1926. Feminist critics were less concerned with modesty and more outraged by the commodification of the female body that pageants allowed and the social control men exercised over women by perpetuating restrictive beauty ideals. While a few “Queen Esther” pageant fundraisers unaffiliated with Jewish institutions continued into the late 1930s, opposition from women’s groups, combined with the financial difficulties of the Great Depression, impeded all beauty contest organizers throughout America for the next several years.
It is possible to read the short-lived Queen Esther pageants coordinated by American Jews during this period not as acts of assimilation, but as acts of self-preservation and aspiration: like the biblical ingénue who successfully negotiated living in different realms of presentation, perhaps Jewish immigrants could script a similar “ending” for themselves as foreign inhabitants who not only gain protection from their host country, but achieve acceptance and prominence. At the same time, hosting contests designed to parallel an American cultural practice yet restrict participation to Jewish women allowed communities to outwardly validate their claims of national inclusion on the basis of beauty without forfeiting the security of insularity. While the risks and affordances of that representation are constantly shifting, Esther’s legacy pushes us to keep asking ourselves where, how, and why we seek belonging.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.