1 Searching for Hebrew Beauty: The Queen Esther Competitions, 1926–1929
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|  21  | c h a p t e r 1 Searching for Hebrew Beauty The Queen Esther Competitions, 1926–1929 About one month before the Purim holiday, in the years 1926 through 1929, a beauty competition took place at an evening gala in Tel Aviv. This contest was a key element of the Zionist transformation of Purim, a minor and joyous festival in the traditional Jewish calendar. The winner of the competition was crowned Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story. Yet the creators of the beauty contest also changed the tradition by secularizing it and connecting it more closely to the national project. Although short-lived, the beauty contest played a central role in the renewal of the celebration of Purim in Tel Aviv in these years. The selected queen took on an important symbolic position, for she came to represent the emerging nation. Female beauty was intricately linked with nationalism. The selected queens were not assessed in terms of their physical appearance alone. Instead, they were judged by how well they represented the Yishuv. The Queen Esther competitions encompassed all the major tensions: old versus new, socialist versus bourgeois, East versus West, celebration versus sorrow, and religious versus secular. The beauty competition for Queen Esther represents the quest to define Jewish or Hebrew female beauty and raises questions about conceptions of gender in the developing society and debates about how women should be viewed in the Yishuv. The beauty contest also illuminates competing ideals of different sectors of Yishuv society, including those between socialist and urban Zionists and those between religious and secular Jews. Ultimately the beauty contest was curtailed because of religious objections, thereby setting a precedent 22  |  Chapter 1 that granted rabbinic leaders ultimate authority over the role of Judaism in the public sphere. PuriminTelAviv:OldVersusNew The Zionist Transformation of the Holiday The transformation of Purim in the Yishuv, in keeping with secular Zionist ideology, attempted to both maintain a link to Jewish tradition and create a new and modern celebration. In traditional Judaism Purim celebrates a Jewish victory over those who wished to destroy the Jewish people. The tale, as told in the Scroll of Esther, takes place in the city of Shushan, the capital of Persia. Esther, a young Jewish orphan raised by her uncle Mordecai, is selected as the queen of Persia by winning a beauty contest held by the king, Ahasuerus. The book of Esther describes Esther as “beautiful and lovely” (Esther 2:7). After becoming queen, Esther plays an essential role in saving the Jewish people from their destruction by Haman, the king’s viceroy. Purim stands out as one of the most joyous and secular holidays in the traditional Jewish calendar. Because it is considered a minor holiday, Jews are permitted to work during this festival. In traditional Jewish observance the Scroll of Esther is chanted in the synagogue. Each time the name of Haman, the king’s viceroy and the antagonist in this story, is recited, the congregants yell and make noises with noisemakers (groggers) to symbolically blot out his name. The two primary elements of Purim, according to scholar Monford Harris, are “dis-order and merriment.”1 As a holiday of inversions, where Jews are encouraged and even mandated to act out of the ordinary, on Purim it is customary for Jews to dress up in costumes and masks, to become drunk, and to prepare Purim plays. A rich tradition of these comedies developed in Diaspora communities. Although wearing clothing of the opposite sex is forbidden by Jewish law, on Purim Jewish men may dress as women, and Jewish women as men. As an inherently secular holiday that commemorates Jewish endurance, in the Yishuv Purim was viewed as particularly well suited to secular Zionist goals of transforming Jewish holidays. In fact, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the organization responsible for buying land and constructing the Yishuv’s infrastructure, considered the holiday “most closely related to the present upbuilding of Palestine, inasmuch as the special significance of Purim is . . . bound up with release from oppression and persecution.”2 The new festivities were centered in the city of Tel Aviv. As the first Hebrew metropolis that prided itself on its secular character, Tel Aviv was an ideal fit and was Searching for Hebrew Beauty  |  23 considered the most suitable location to celebrate this holiday of joy and frivolity.3 Moreover, Purim festivities offered an occasion to show off the young city and to revel in the accomplishments of the first...


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