Israel’s Bold New Queen
The latest Miss Israel, Ethiopian-born Yityish Aynaw, says it’s about time a black woman wore the crown
For anyone familiar with the saccharine judges of America’s prime-time beauty pageants, it might be jarring to hear how the director of Israel’s national competition describes Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, the Ethiopian-born 21-year-old who was just crowned Miss Israel. “I think she was not the most beautiful, by classic beauty,” said director Iris Cohen, comparing her to the 19 other finalists in this year’s competition. But she does give Aynaw this: “She stands on the stage and you cannot ignore her.”
The new Miss Israel is just as blunt. Sitting with her last week in the green room at the Tel Aviv offices of La’Isha magazine—the Israeli equivalent of Vogue and sponsor of the annual pageant—I told her about the stereotypical American beauty queen who seeks to impress the judges with her earnest hopes for world peace. “To say a sentence like that, in my opinion, is to sound retarded,” Aynaw replied. Then she stopped and wondered out loud if she should have said that. She changed “retarded” to “stupid,” and barreled on. “Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, China is trying to become a superpower,” she said. “To say that I want world peace, of course I want it. It’s a dream. But I don’t think it will happen now.”
Israelis are better known for their grit than their grace, but Aynaw’s got both. Almost 30 years since the first clandestine Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews—the fabled descendants of the lost biblical tribe of Dan—to the Promised Land, the Jewish state has finally anointed one of them Israel’s most beautiful woman. Asked by judges why she deserved the title, Aynaw said it was about time that a black woman wore the crown.
I met Miss Israel a day after one of her first solo photo shoots. Aynaw was wearing a blue sleeveless dress with silver studs lining the shoulders. She teetered a bit in gold-strapped heels, but confidently strutted down the hallways of the magazine offices, one slender leg cutting across the other like scissors. Measuring in at 5 foot 9, not including her bun, she towered over the rest of the magazine’s editorial staffers, who congratulated her as she walked past their offices. She attributes her beauty to her Ethiopian heritage. “We have these chiseled faces. Everything is in the right place,” she said. “I never saw an Ethiopian who was stuck with some big nose.” She looks like a fiercer version of Tyra Banks, one of two role models she named in the competition. The other one was Martin Luther King.
The Miss Israel pageant has been held uninterrupted for the last 63 years. That’s a startling feat in a country only 65 years old, in a culture that typically rejects pomp and circumstance, and where most long-standing annual events commemorate tragedy and war. The late Hemda Nofech-Mozes, who married into the country’s most powerful media family, founded La’Isha magazine a year before Israel’s war of independence in 1948 and instituted the competition two years later. “Everyone was talking about war, everyone was talking about settlement. She said, wait a minute, there is a nation here … there are beautiful women,” said Cohen, the current pageant director.
You can learn a lot about the face Israeli society has tried to put forward by the faces its judges choose each year. In 1952, at the height of tensions between Israel’s European veterans and Middle-Eastern Jewish newcomers, Yemen-born Ora Vered became the first Miss Israel of Middle-Eastern Jewish descent. In 1993, in the midst of Israel’s tidal wave of Soviet immigration, Kiev-born Jana Khodriker won, and in 1999, the peak of Israel’s optimism that Arab-Israeli peace was imminent, judges crowned Rana Raslan the first Arab Miss Israel.
In the early days of the competition, each Miss Israel cast away her ethnic name for pure Hebrew ones; Israel’s first beauty queen, Miriam Yaron, was born in Germany as Giselle Freilich, while Ora Vered’s original last name was the Yemeni name Jamili. Similarly, in the last 30 years, many Ethiopian newcomers have adopted Hebrew names.
Not Aynaw, whose given name is connected to the circumstances of her birth. “I was born sick, but my mom believed I had a future,” she told me. Yitayish is Amharic for “look,” or as Aynaw explains it, “looking toward the future.”
“I’d never change my name,” said Aynaw. “Ever.”
Aynaw’s biography is, as she calls it, a Cinderella story. Born in a small township near Gondar in northwest Ethiopia, she was orphaned by age 10. Her father died a year after she was born—she never found out how—and a decade later her mother died of a sudden illness. Her mother’s parents, who had already uprooted to Israel in 2000, arranged for her and her brother to move, too.
Aynaw grew up like many Ethiopian Jews, dreaming of going to Israel. “I was told this was the land of milk and honey,” she said, laughing. “That I’d go on the street, bend down, and pick up golden coins. I’d open the faucet and milk would pour out.”
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