Five Jewish women who deserve their star turn

From Hannah Senesh to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Hollywood could make a fortune off the stories of these brave, badass heroines.

A view of the iconic Hollywood sign (photo credit: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/REUTERS)
A view of the iconic Hollywood sign
Israeli director Amos Gitai revealed this week that his next film project features an incredible Jewish woman. Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi dedicated her life to helping Jews flee the Inquisition in the 16th century.
Now, 500 years later, Nasi is getting her due.
But what other badass Jewish ladies deserve the Hollywood treatment? Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was featured in an acclaimed documentary earlier this year, and is the focus of the upcoming drama On the Basis of Sex.
It was announced last month that Gal Gadot is slated to portray Hedy Lamarr, the famous actress with Jewish roots who also was a brilliant scientist who put her brains to work fighting the Nazis.
And Natalie Portman is slated to star in a film about Jewish sisters and dueling advice columnists Pauline Phillips and Eppie Lederer – aka Dear Abby and Ann Landers.
What other incredible Jewish women deserve the Hollywood treatment? Here’s a list of five accomplished and impressive women whose lives would make riveting films:
Hannah SzenesHannah Szenes
The story of Hannah Szenes and her incredible bravery is often taught in Jewish schools. But the general public knows little about the young heroine who gave her life trying to save her fellow Jews. Senesh, born in Hungary, decided to fulfill her Zionist dream and move to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1939 at age 18. In 1943, she joined the British Army fighting against the Nazis and trained as a paratrooper. But Senesh was working with a group of Jewish fighters trying to aid underground partisans in Europe to save as many Jews as possible. In March 1944, Senesh was dropped into Yugoslavia, and in June she crossed into Hungary. But she was almost immediately arrested, imprisoned and tortured. She kept copious diary entries and wrote poems both before and during her time in captivity – some of which have become famous Israeli songs.
Senesh refused to give any information to her Nazi captors, despite months of torture, and in November 1944, at the age 23, she was executed by a firing squad. Her remains were later brought to Israel and buried in Jerusalem.
Bess Myerson was a beauty queen, yes. But she was so much more than just that. Born in 1924 in New York to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Myerson won the Miss New York City pageant at age 21 after her sister secretly entered her. She went on to the Miss America pageant, where she was urged to change her name to sound less Jewish, but she refused.
And in August 1945, just months after the end of the Holocaust, Myerson was crowned the first – and still only – Jewish Miss America. But her rein was marred by antisemitism, as sponsors canceled and country clubs turned her away. Myerson then became a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League, speaking out about prejudice. She later became a TV show staple before beginning a career in politics.
In 1960, she became New York City’s commissioner of consumer affairs, and later served on advisory boards for three different presidents and unsuccessfully ran for Senate. But in the late 1980s, she became embroiled in a scandal involving an affair, campaign finance indiscretions and alleged bribery. She was acquitted of all charges but her reputation had been damaged beyond repair.
Myerson died in 2014 at age 90.
SARAH AARONSOHN with fellow Nili spies Yosef Lishansky (left) and Liova Schneersohn in Cairo, 1917 (Potomac Books)SARAH AARONSOHN with fellow Nili spies Yosef Lishansky (left) and Liova Schneersohn in Cairo, 1917 (Potomac Books)
If there is a story of bravery, courage and heroism, it is that of the Nili spy ring and its central heroine, Sarah Aaronsohn. Aaronsohn was born in 1890 in Zichron Ya’acov to a wealthy and prominent Jewish family. After marrying, she settled in Istanbul in 1914, but returned the next year to help her brother and other friends aid the British against the Ottoman Empire as World War I raged.
The group of young Jews established the Nili spy ring, whose large underground operation intercepted and decoded messages. But in October 1917, she was caught by Turkish authorities, arrested and imprisoned. She was tortured for days but did not release any information.
When Aaronsohn was allowed to briefly enter her home while in custody, she found a gun and shot herself in the mouth, fearing additional torture and transfer to Damascus. But she did not succeed in immediately killing herself, and lay in indescribable pain for four days until her death at age 27.
In 2018, women in high political leadership positions is thankfully nothing new. But in 1947, Ana Pauker became the first ever female foreign minister when she was appointed to the job in Romania. Pauker was born in 1893 into a poor Orthodox family in Bucharest. She became a teacher in a Jewish school and active in the country’s socialist movement. She and her husband were repeatedly arrested for their activities and spent years in exile in the 1920s.
In 1934, she was arrested in Romania and imprisoned for seven years, until she was sent to the Soviet Union in a prisoner swap deal in 1941. There she became an unofficial leader in the Communist Party and volunteered with the Red Army. In 1944, she returned to Romania and in 1947 was appointed foreign minister, a position she held for five years. But Pauker was then criticized – and some say scapegoated – for the party’s harsh activities and subservience to Moscow.
But later discoveries revealed that she tried to be a moderating force within the government, not always successfully. Pauker also worked to facilitate Romanian Jewish immigration to Israel. In 1952, she was forced out of the party, and in 1953, was arrested on charges of “international Zionism.” She was later released and died of cancer in 1960. To this day, she is considered a controversial figure in Romanian history.
Ruth Westheimer (Amazon)Ruth Westheimer (Amazon)
At a sprightly age 90, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is as active as ever. The petite dynamo is best known in the United States as an outspoken sex therapist and media personality. But Westheimer has seen and done a whole lot more in her nine decades on earth.
Born in Germany into a religious Jewish household in 1928, Westheimer was sent to Switzerland on the Kindertransport at age 10. Her parents were murdered in the Holocaust.
At age 16, with no family left, she moved to Palestine and joined the Hagana. Westheimer was trained as a sniper and was wounded in a bombing during the War of Independence. In 1950, she moved to France and several years later to the United States.
Westheimer became a household name after she launched her radio show, Sexually Speaking, in 1980. Her fame led her to many TV appearances, lectures, books and a national platform. She became a symbol of the sexual revolution, and was lauded – and criticized – for her willingness to speak frankly about contraception, orgasms and sexually transmitted diseases.
While several plays have been written about Westheimer’s life and work, it is high time she get the full Hollywood treatment.