miss america.jpg

Bess Myerson, the “One and Only Jewish Miss America.” 

After a year of dedication, local filmmaker David Arond completed a “jigsaw puzzle” of a documentary. Titled “The One and Only Jewish Miss America,” the film was released on Sept. 8, the 75th anniversary of Bess Myerson’s win of the Miss America beauty pageant. While Myerson is an important figure in American history, she also holds a special significance to Arond’s family. 

Arond’s film depicts Myerson’s drive and determination to inspire change in the anti-Semitic parts of America following World War II. The first and only Jewish woman to ever win the Miss America pageant, Myerson was a classically trained pianist and flutist, as well as the only college-educated contestant in the 1945 pageant. At just 22, she became a beacon of hope for the Jewish community. 

The documentary has earned the accolades of critics and viewers alike. To date, “The One and Only Jewish Miss America,” has received 27 awards. It is currently playing at film festivals across the country, and Arond hopes his documentary will be on PBS in the spring, and later available on streaming services like Netflix.

Myerson won the admiration of many, but also faced more discrimination than she ever expected. The pageant judges were warned not to vote for Myerson, even receiving death threats, but, according to Arond, she was the obvious winner.

“Growing up, I always heard about anti-Semitism and discrimination, and my mother always shared that she didn’t feel validated as a Jewish young woman,” Arond said. “There were jokes about Jews’ Semitic features—big noses, not being beautiful. And when my mother was 15 in 1945, Ms. Myerson won and it was a major coup for Jewish people, the validation not just of beauty and being able to win the contest, but also the fact that it’s suddenly becoming part of America. It was a great story and it was embedded in my consciousness.”

Arond compares the laborious yet rewarding filmmaking process to assembling a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. He compiled photos, newsreel, and quotes over the course of a year. According to Arond, his film is authentic, in part because it also incorporates music from the era.

Following her crowning as Miss America, Myerson traveled the country, advocating for Jews and speaking out against racism and bigotry. She even joined forces with the Anti-Defamation League.

Myerson’s daughter, Barra Grant, said her mother was an eloquent speaker and a hero to American Jews. Grant said her mother was also a fierce advocate for the creation of Israel as a homeland for Jewish people.

“She believed that the problem in World War II when Jews were trying to escape from Germany and Poland and Czechoslovakia, was that there was nowhere for them to go,” Grant said. “They didn’t have a homeland, and if America turned a boat away that was filled with Jews who wanted to escape, where was that boat going to go? No one wanted to allow the Jews into their countries.”

According to Grant, mothers of American soldiers didn’t want Myerson to visit hospitals. They blamed Jews for their sons’ injuries and deaths. Arond and Grant hope the film sheds light on anti-Semitism in post-World War II America. They said the extent of the hatred for Jews in the United States is largely unknown to newer generations. Still, Myerson persevered and dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice and equality for Jews.

“The lesson is that, at a time of great darkness and great suffering, it’s possible to pull yourself up and refuse to be beaten down,” Grant said. “Refuse to accept intolerance and you can prevail. And also, if you’re courageous enough to speak out against people who are against you, you might make a difference in the world.”

 

Madison McCormick is a University of Arizona journalism student. 

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