The news that an Israeli organization hosted a beauty pageant for Holocaust survivors definitely got my attention. My primary association with beauty pageants comes from the horrifying yet entertaining show toddlers and tiaras. I would definitely never enter my
admittedly adorable daughter into one of these “glitz” pageants, where the parents teach their children to base their self-worth on beauty scores rating their fake tan, hair, teeth, and nails. I worried that the organizers of this pageant in Israel were objectifying elderly survivors just as these glitz pageants objectify young girls.
But after learning more about the Holocaust Survivor pageant, I no longer equate it with the shallow and narcissistic world of toddlers and tiaras. 300 contestants ages 74-97 vied for a spot among the 14 finalists who enjoyed makeovers and media attention. This event incorporated the value of shmirat haguf, emphasizing the beauty of older women that comes with life experiences, wisdom and confidence, that our youth-obsessed culture often ignores or disparages.
The contestants shared their life stories and glowed under the spotlight. The judges based 90% of their scores on the presentation of the contestants’ life experiences. 74 year-old runner-up Esther Libber remarked, “I have the privilege to show the world that Hitler wanted to exterminate us and we are alive. We are also enjoying life. Thank God it’s that way.” Libber had fled her home as a child when the Nazis arrived and ran into the forest, where she was rescued by a Polish woman. She lost her entire family.
Would the contestants and the memory of the 6 million be better served by a rally protesting genocide in our time, or a forum for the survivors to share their stories without the gimmick of a beauty pageant? Probably, but then it sure wouldn’t have gotten as much attention as this pageant did. It isn’t often we hear about the Holocaust or its survivors in the daily news, and this pageant reminded the world they deserve and demand our continual respect and attention.
Rose Kowel Durbin is the rabbi of Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville, NY. Her husband Matthew is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Glens Falls, NY, where they live with a toddler (13 month old Eliana Rae), and two cats (Gracie and Mamash). Rose is currently biding time until the third season of “Downton Abbey” and the sixth season of “Mad Men” with “Food Network Star” and “The Glee Project.”