September 18, 2013

Just when you think that the United States is evolving into a kinder, gentler, post-racial nation (you do think that sometimes, don’t you?), something comes along and kind of knocks the air out of you.

I am referring to the recent bigoted attacks on the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, a 24 year old aspiring physician of Indian heritage. In the competition, Nina Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance, bringing her Indian heritage front and center into the American public eye.

It’s truly amazing, and frightening – people making hateful remarks (which I will not repeat here), attacking the appropriateness of an Indian-American becoming Miss America. Some even linked her victory to terrorism and 9/11.  Because, well, you know, they’re not really American, are they?

We are free to debate the contemporary relevance and appropriateness of the whole Miss America thing. It feels like a throwback to another time. (By the way, Bert Parks was Jewish).  But, having said that, let’s celebrate the racial diversity that has marked the Miss America pageant in recent years. There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001.

To coin a phrase, this is another “small step” for the Indian-American community, who are already supplying far more than their fair share of scientists and high achievers, including politicians (think governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindhal, to name just a few) and actors (Dev Patel and Mindy Kaling, to name just a few). This is a community that might look different from us, but whose experience in climbing up the American ladder of meritocracy feels very similar to ours.  In fact, in many school districts, the whispered ”secret” (because it is hardly a secret) is that “Indian kids are the new Jews,”  occupying the upper rungs of the academic  ladder in those places where Jewish students used to be. 

So, maybe we should call Nina Davuluri the Indian-American Bess Myerson?

Now, there’s a name from the past. Many people will remember Bess Myerson, now close to ninety years old, as being New York City’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, and then later serving as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Ed Koch, who was her frequent public  companion. Factoid: she was the first to introduce freshness dating on food, which became the standard practice all over the country.

True enough. But Bess Myerson was also, and most famously, the first (and so far, only) Jewish Miss America.

It was almost exactly sixty-eight years ago – on September 2, 1945, to be exact. The amazing thing is that Bess Myerson was not an assimilated Jewish woman. She had been advised to change her name to something “less Jewish.” She refused. Bert Parks (“Here she comes, Miss America….) however, was born Bertram Jacobson. Name changing was big in those days.

Not Bess Myerson. She knew her roots. She came from the Bronx. She was from a working-class sociaiist family who spoke Yiddish at home. They lived in the Sholom Aleichem Cooperative Houses – inhabited by radical Jewish families.

Bess Myerson had been studying music. Her father was a painter and could not afford a piano. One of her sisters convinced her to enter the competition in the hopes of her winning enough to purchase one.

Why was this such a big deal for American Jews (and not just for American Jews; there was rejoicing in the refugee camps of Europe as well)?

Bess Myerson’s victory came only four months after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Over there, Jews had died, and were continuing to die in displaced persons camps.

Here, we were not displaced. This was our place.

Bess Myerson’s victory symbolized that the Jews had arrived. Her victory symbolized that America was starting the process of widening its gaze beyond the WASP ideal of beauty.

Incredible: a Jew had been named the most beautiful woman in America — at a time when her European Jewish counterparts were emaciated and in rags.

And, to be sure, even after she won the title, there were barriers. “I didn't pose with Ford cars or in Catalina bathing suits,” she reminisced. Those companies didn't want a Jew representing them. Not American enough, apparently.

Back to Ms. Davuluri. Her winning the Miss America title symbolizes the further expansion of the American beauty ideal. It turns out that she, and various other Misses America, are the true rainbow coalition. 

But more than that. The pushback against her victory, and the ugly remarks that accompanied it, reveal the dark underbelly of American identity politics. Put simply: there are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t interested in expanding the canon of what it means to be a “real” American. Racial profiling, the immigration debate, surveillance of American Muslims, the birther controversy – it is all part of the same malignant stew.

And it has been used against the Jews. And in Europe, it still is.

Hebrew buffs, take note: The Hebrew word for India, Hodu, is the same as the word for turkey (!) – and for “giving thanks.”

Let’s “give thanks” that America has changed.

Even if a bunch of hate-filled turkeys don’t quite get it.

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