Queen Esther Approach­ing the Palace of Aha­suerus, 1658, Claude Lor­rain (Claude Gellée)

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of ArtPur­chase, The Annen­berg Foun­da­tion Gift, 1997

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.