Who is the fairest in the land? A look back at Montreal’s Queen Esther beauty contests

Advertising for the Queen Esther Ball, 1933 (Canadian Jewish Chronicle)

Jewish communities across Canada will come together this week to celebrate Purim by hearing Megillat Esther and participating in various festivities. Perhaps some will opt for costume contests; others carnivals and Purim shpiels.

Yet, if we were to flip the calendar back almost a century, the flagship event of Canadian Jewry’s Purim celebrations looked a little different. In 1931, an extravagant and widely publicized new event hit the scene in Montreal: the first annual Queen Esther Ball and Beauty Contest.

Though undoubtedly inspired by the events of the source text where Esther wins a ‘competition’ to be crowned queen of the Persian Empire, this contest was of a different flavour. For one, the women chose to participate and proudly displayed their Jewishness.

While similar events had already been held in New York and Tel Aviv, this would be the first major event of its kind in Canada. Sponsored by Poale Zion-Ziere Zion, the first contest was held at the Palais D’Or, and the Jewish papers enthusiastically ran pictures of the candidates in anticipation of the grand event.

What was the primary aim of the contest? To promote raising funds for the Zionist cause? To celebrate some idea of Jewish beauty? To foster a sense of closeness with the Holy Land? The answer to this question, I’m sure, is complex, and I leave it in the hands of historians to analyze. One thing is clear, though: this was certainly an event not to be missed on the social calendar.

In the inaugural year, the prize for the winning ‘Queen’ and the runner-up ‘Princess’ was a trip to New York, where they could compete against other cities’ crowned champions for a free voyage to Mandatory Palestine.

The competition was fierce. Several candidates reportedly hired campaign managers to secure as many votes as possible. When it came down to it, one Bee Belson was crowned Queen, who went off to the Big Apple with her princess Fanny Gordon.

The event was invariably a success. Not only was it held the following year, but the stakes and profile were raised. Organizers selected a panel of judges representing a who’s-who of the Canadian Jewish community including philanthropist Lillian Freiman, painter Louis Muhlstock, and vaudeville star Sophie Tucker. The venue was upgraded to the Mount Royal Hotel, and the grand prize was upgraded to a free return trip to Palestine by steamship, no second competition needed. As a result, even more women entered the competition. Deborah Kofsky was the lucky winner, with Lily Vorsof and Ida Kramer as her ladies-in-waiting.

As the contest gained more attention each year, it also became more glamorous. By 1933, the evening included a Purim shpiel featuring a cast of 50, and the contest was divided into two categories: the main beauty contest and a popularity contest. The winner of the latter received a four-week vacation to “Unzer Camp” in the Laurentians. The following year, both the Queen of Beauty and the Princess of Popularity would receive the coveted voyage to Palestine, three runners-up would receive the camp vacation, and over a thousand members of the Jewish community were in attendance.

Canadian Jewish Chronicle, 1933

It was not merely the Jewish newspapers that reported on this event; it received extensive coverage in Montreal’s non-Jewish papers too, which expressed amazement at the grandeur of the event and at its impressive prize.

Winners of the Queen Esther Ball, 1935

In 1935, the Queen Esther Ball and Beauty Contest was at its most extravagant. A new category for ‘Honorary Gentleman’ was added, bringing the number of trips to Palestine rewarded to three. A cast of 35 players performed a pageant depicting the life of Jews at the time of the Megillah, including “a scene of a Persian market place and the palace of King Ahashveruth”.  Miss Libby Jaffe was that year’s Queen.

And then, in 1936, the papers report… nothing. The hotly-anticipated event that the previous year welcomed over 1,200 attendees seemingly evaporated. How could this be?

Perhaps we need not look further than the same newspapers which excitedly reported on the balls to begin with. For in the same issues which report on the festivities, they are surrounded by headlines of an increasingly dire situation for the Jews of Germany and Europe.

In January 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. On March 5 of the same year, the Nazi Party gained a majority of the Reichstag. In the Canadian Jewish Chronicle five days later, the day before Purim, an editorial declared: “As far as we Jews are concerned, it is no exaggeration to say that never in modern history have we been faced with a situation so grave and foreboding as the one which confronts our co-religionists in Germany.”

Indeed, at the 1935 Queen Esther Ball, one of the new features was a parade of “Hamans,” among them Julius Streicher (publisher of Der Stürmer) and Adolph Hitler, reflecting an increasing tendency to interpret the ongoing persecution of Jews in Europe through the lens of the Purim narrative.

In 1936, the Montreal Star reported that Tel Aviv had cancelled its annual three-day Purim carnival, “deciding the Jewish position in many lands was ‘too gloomy’ at the present time.” They felt it inappropriate to hold the usual festivities while so many Jews were “undergoing great persecution.” Perhaps, we in Canada felt the same.

Of course, Purim celebrations continued, but this was the end of events on such a scale. Queen Esther beauty contests would return, but hardly as elaborate. (One particularly amusing one was held by the Service Men’s Centre in 1943, won by AC2 Joseph Slane of Winnipeg whose prize included “a loving cup, and a bouquet of vegetables, which he threw to the throng from a staircase.”)

The Queen Esther beauty contests of the 1930s are a fascinating, though short, chapter in Canadian Jewish history. Like Queen Esther herself, they appear to have gone into a kind of hiding, and their end had an ash-and-sackcloth quality of mourning. How can we rejoice when there is so much pain in the Jewish world, facing destruction of massive proportion?

Of course, today the notion of pitting women against one another for the likes of beauty is generally seen as an idea best left in the past.  Yet perhaps there is something in these events that we can admire: a jubilant celebration of Jewish pride and the connection of Jewish communities in the Diaspora and in the land of Israel.

Queen Esther and her princesses, 1934 (Canadian Jewish Chronicle)