(photo credit: Cole Krawitz)
New York City's Jewish community crowned the winners of a new, avant-garde beauty pageant during the Third Annual Jewbilation festival last week, naming Ariel Woah and Noam Dolgin the debut winners of the Mr. and Ms. JewSA contest. The competition drew an energetic crowd, mostly of Jews in their 20s and 30s, who were eager to redefine beauty according to rules other than those in force at more traditional pageants.
Inspired by what organizers called the "tradition of edgy Jewish entertainment," the tongue-in-cheek competition featured nine contestants modeling an array of fashions, taking part in the obligatory onstage interviews and showcasing talents that ranged from burlesque dancing to cartoon animation. Scotty the Blue Bunny, who described himself as a gay "New York nightlife fixture," dressed in a blue lycra bunny suit and stiletto heels to serve as the event's emcee, and commented that the pageant was for Jews who might feel left out at other pageants - and at Jewish events with a more traditional take on Judaism and Jewish identity.
"The pageant is a way to participate in an event that is fun, kitschy and has substance," said Alyssa Abrahamson, Director of Arts, Jewish Culture and Adult Education at the 14th Street Y, the organization sponsoring the contest.
The judges, who joined the contestants in appearing in costumes, included Israeli fashion designer Apollo Braun, actress and theater founder Jenny Romaine and Jewish/African-American ballroom dancer Danielle Abrams.
Brian Shuman, a contestant originally from North Carolina, said he agreed to compete in the pageant because it represented a new take on Jewish identity for young people who might not otherwise have a connection to Judaism, particularly synagogue-based Judaism. He said that events for young Jewish singles were often created by older members of the community to discourage intermarriage, but frequently ended up alienating younger Jews. The beauty pageant, he said, gave audience members a sense of identity they could celebrate, rather than the sense of obligation he feels at other events. "Much of the older leadership in the Jewish community is concerned with intermarriage, and tries to finance [events] that make Judaism look cool," he said. "But it's like a dog knowing he's going to be taken to the vet," he said, implying that some younger people instinctively
react against such efforts, regardless of what benefits they may ultimately offer.
The pageant's talent competition featured an entertaining and diverse array of performances, including a slideshow of contestant Leila Feuer's impressionist paintings of men from JDate, the online Jewish dating service. Woah, Ms. JewSA's eventual winner, won the judges over in pink fishnet stockings, gold stiletto heels and a necklace of bagels she detached and threw to the panelists while twirling a flag and tap dancing. Dilgin, who won the Mr. JewSA title, wooed the judges with samples of a tofu dish he pretended to cook onstage.
The proceedings were, in short, clearly at odds with more traditional beauty pageants. Describing the contest as a pageant where "looks aren't everything," organizers focused instead on social justice and the diversity and changing nature of identity among 20- and 30-something American Jews. "The pageant is a venue where I can express what it means to be Jewish, and to me that's tikkun olam [the concept of repairing the world]," said contestant Rick Barinbaum. "Fighting against poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia - I think it's important that Jews are vocal in doing that work."
Yolanda Shoshana, a performance artist based in Harlem, said she took part in the contest to challenge audience members' expectations about what a Ms. JewSA might look like. "As an African-American Jew, I think I do this just with my appearance," said Shoshana, who added that she is often the only Jew of color at local Jewish events. "One of the judges is African-American, which is great, and I think that alone will make people go, 'Wow there's not just one [Jewish look].'"
Michelle Kay, the pageant's third runner-up, sported aqua tights, thigh-high sparkle boots, a white fringed dress and a heavy southern "twang" from her Virginia childhood. Addressing the judges as "The Rabbinical Court," Kay combined singing and comedy in her talent routine, earning laughs by asking, "Hashem, are you excited? Do you like my boots?"
The performer dedicated her performances to "to all you mensches, to your [souls], because it's difficult to do what is just in this world."
Feuer, the impressionist artist inspired by the Jewish dating service, may have summed up the spirit of the show best during the interview portion of the contest. Responding to a question about the connections she sees between Dadaist art and her Jewish identity, she said, "Judaism is nonsensical at times, like Dadaism ... Beauty and the interpretation of Dada are dependent entirely on the viewer, [and] so is Judaism - it's all about how you engage with it."