beauty pageant
Israel’s beauty queen contest in 2009. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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On the morning of December 28, 1952, broadsides were plastered on information boards all over Jerusalem: "We are about to imitate the worst customs of all nations," they said. "To break through the boundaries of lewdness and insert the daughters of Israel into the swamp of pollution and [sexual] abandon."

The posters were signed by Ashkenazi rabbis from Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community and featured a severe warning: "All daughters of Israel who vie for the title of 'queen of ugliness' will be ostracized by the power of the sacred Torah, and their name disgraced among the people of Israel."

The warnings were in reference to Israel's third annual beauty queen contest, held in 1952, and the subject of much debate among the people of Israel.

The first such contest was held in 1950; contestant Miriam Yaron was crowned queen, and Carmela Parachi and Yaffa Spitzer were runners-up. The juries included sculptors, painters, doctors, makeup experts and representatives of the weekly L'Isha, which had initiated the competition. Miss Europe and Miss Switzerland graced the event with their presence.

The candidates, who paraded through the Ramat Gan amphitheater, included "natives of various countries and [belonged] to different communities and classes of the population," Haaretz reported. "Among them are clerks, nursery school teachers, nurses, dancers and soldiers."

The jury examined not only the contestants' facial features, Haaretz said, but also "their general appearance, figures, gait and movement and the way they take care of their exterior as a whole."

Haaretz reported that "the procession of candidates" created "a pleasant picture of refreshing youth," and the reporter offered a few interesting insights into what it takes to be crowned queen. "For the first time an attempt is being made to determine 'Miss Israel' as the typical young Jewish woman in the eyes of the world and at the same time present our young women with the new demands of beauty care and body culture," the reporter said. "On the other hand, our girls fall down when it comes to the shape of their legs, and the way they walk and move, which is proof that only a few of our girls are [wise] to body culture and exercise and everything they involve."

"Someone who believed he would find a definitive Jewish type here, or to be more exact what is thought to be 'the Jewish type,' came to the conclusion that theory and practice are not identical," the Haaretz reporter added. Most of the young women who participated in the contest were auburn-haired, and although they "represented various types," all of them had "fine facial features" and "to the same extent could have represented any other country in Europe." He also suggested that "the international [minimum] height rule of 162 centimeters took the Mizrahi model out of the running, since she is usually shorter than this."

In 1954, when Ora Jamili (who changed her name to Ora Vered ) of Tel Aviv's Yemenite Kerem Temanim neighborhood took the crown, the newspaper report appeared more cynical. Reporter Shabtai Tevet described the beauty pageant as one whose sole purpose was to make money for L'Isha and its editor Hemda Nofeh Moses. The weekly, Tevet wrote, excites young women "with horrifying facts from the world of science," such as information about the loss of skin oil beginning at the age of 25. L'Isha advised readers "in a tone of friendly patronization to 'oil' their skin with various creams while it is still smooth. Which creams? The magazine is filled to the brim with commercial announcements dispensing this information."

The relationship between commerce and beauty was evident in the ceremony as well when the new queen was called to the stage. She thanked not only her parents, but also her seamstress and hairdresser.

The economic utility of the pageant continued all year, and this time most of the benefit was poured into the state's coffers. Michal Harel, the beautiful and cultivated queen of 1951, toured the United States for the United Jewish Fund collecting money for Israel.

"People from the fund say that their success with the public stems from the fact that it had tired somewhat of government ministers and Israeli businessmen," Haaretz reported, "and was glad to see that there were 'some ordinary people' and also beautiful girls in the country. (Lital Levin)