Beliefs Culture

Why Bess Myerson still matters (COMMENTARY)

Bess Myerson in 1957.

(RNS) Young Bess Myerson wanted a piano.

Bess Myerson in 1957.

Photo courtesy of [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bess Myerson in 1957.

But her father, a house painter, could not afford to buy her one. The Myersons were that species of Jew that is becoming increasingly rare in New York these days — working-class, Yiddish-speaking, socialist-leaning, living in the Sholem Aleichem co-ops in the Bronx.

And so, blessed with beauty and charm, Bess of the Bronx entered the Miss New York City pageant. She figured that if she won the pageant, she would use the $5,000 prize to purchase the piano and to study music. She won the pageant, and then she went on to Atlantic City to enter the Miss America pageant, which she also won. And the rest, as they say, is history — American Jewish history. Bess Myerson would be the first, and to date, the only Jewish woman to become Miss America.

This week, the world learned that Bess Myerson had died on Dec. 14, at the age of 90. She died in relative obscurity, having lived through public service, political ambitions and various disappointments. I suspect that not a few people were surprised that she had still been alive.

Bess Myerson: old news, right?

Wrong.

Her life still matters. Because it is about American Judaism.

Remember the date that Ms. Myerson was crowned Miss America — Sept. 8, 1945. It was only a few days after Japan surrendered, bringing World War II to a close. The concentration camps had just been liberated. Anne Frank, the other iconic young Jewish woman of that time, died in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945. In September 1945, emaciated Jewish survivors were just beginning to shed their striped concentration camp uniforms.

And yet, in Atlantic City, Bess Myerson was parading in a swimsuit. In Europe, there was Jewish death. In America — Jewish life. Bess Myerson represented the resurrection of the Jewish body — the journey from degradation to beauty.

Remember that piano that Bess had originally wanted? How did the piano become the must-have piece of American Jewish parlor furniture? Pianos not only represented the Jewish longing for high culture. They represented permanence. They were heavy and cumbersome, difficult to move.

And that was their appeal. American Jews may have been on the move, from the Bronx to Westchester, say, but they were not fleeing. Back in Russia, if there was a pogrom you could grab your violin and run. America was different.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

How different? American Jews should gaze over the Atlantic and see what’s going on with their cousins in France, who are encountering unprecedented waves of anti-Semitism.

Right about now, many French Jews are trying to figure out: How do we move those pianos?

America was different, and is different. Bess Myerson helped make that possible. And that is why she still matters.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham, published by Jewish Publication Society.)

YS/MG END SALKIN

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

6 Comments

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  • What a beautiful woman she was way back then! I am thinking of the Bible book of Esther and how she helped to save the nation in her young days!!

  • She still matters to Jewish women. When I was growing up Jewish woman were just not considered beautiful. The standard of beauty was blond and WASP looking. I have heard Black women talk about this, but it isn’t as well known that Jewish women were affect by the same beauty standards too.

    The image of the Jewish woman was the stereotypical Jewish mother, the Jewish American Princess or fat unattractive woman. Bess Meyerson gave Jewish women other options.

  • Her life still matters. Because it is about American Judaism.

    There is no indication from the capsule biographies about her that she was religiously observant at all and the smart money contemplating survey research on American Jews would wager she was not. Her life does not say much about American Judaism, unless you take it somewhat uncharitably as an example of how little Judaism matters to ethnic Jews. The surnames of both of her husbands suggest she inter-married, and did so at times (1946 and 1962) when it was atypical for American Jews to do so. She had just one child (who inter-married) and appears to have died without a single grandchild.

    She had certain talents. She was a capable pianist, one who did play professionally for a time. She was a television personality of the ilk of Arlene Francis or Bill Cullen. There’s nothing wrong with that, but these do not constitute grand achievements or employments which provide a reflective glow on your community. She was well-connected, able to land patronage positions in city hall under John Lindsay and Ed Koch. She was a good sport, willing to help her friend Koch out by posing as his girlfriend. She was beautiful enough in her fifties to poach the husband of a woman a half-generation her junior. Loose morals, divorce-and-remarriage, and adultery do not make a contribution to Judaism, American or otherwise.

    She had an interesting but misspent life. Light a candle for her. Do not laud her. If you’re like most of us, your grandmother did more with less.

  • By the way, Rabbi Salkin, Midge Decter is 87, and still working part time and seasonally. She’s been devotedly married for 58 years, bore 4 children (three of whom did not intermarry), and has 11 grandchildren; among them is a daughter who made aliya (and gave the world four children). Midge Decter has also been a capable producer of sensible social criticism and spent the better part of a generation midwifing literature as an editor at Basic Books. Midge Decter could never have won a Miss America contest, and only one of her four children is above-the-median handsome. However, she’s given the American Jewish community about as much as one woman could. I’m looking forward to your respectful obituary of her.

  • When I was growing up Jewish woman were just not considered beautiful.

    When I was growing up, the suburban Jewish beauty was a recognizable type. Dark hair, brown eyes, slightly swarthy. I’m past fifty. And, no, I do not think the heritable traits which made for such beauty just appeared out of nowhere in 1945 or were not noticed before then.

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