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Newest Miss America Thanks Russian Jews

Kira Kazantsev, child of Russian immigrants, cites community’s support

Stephanie Butnick
November 24, 2014
Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev at FOX Studios on September 16, 2014 in New York City. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)
Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev at FOX Studios on September 16, 2014 in New York City. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)

Newly-minted Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, thanked the Russian Jewish community this week for their support of her campaign for the crown. The 23-year-old daughter of Russian immigrants who left Moscow in 1990, Kazantsev is the third consecutive winner of the Miss America title from New York.

“I’m not Jewish, but I’d like to thank the Russian-Jewish community for being so supportive on my journey to becoming Miss America,” Kazantsev said Friday while announcing the nominees for the inaugural Russian-American Person of the Year awards, which are sponsored by the World Forum of Russian Speaking Jewry and the American Council for World Jewry. “There were a lot of Russian-American Jews who came to my homecoming celebration after I won the title of Miss America and I’m grateful for their support and for being there.”

Kazantsev also told the crowd, “My parents lived the quintessential Russian-American dream and they’re the reason I’m where I am today. I’m honored to be part of the Russian-American community.” Her best friend, she added, was Jewish.

The Miss America pageant has had a surprisingly interesting Jewish history. Bess Meyerson won the crown in 1945, making her the first—and, to this day, only—Jewish winner. As Rachel Shukert wrote in 2011, on the occasion of Loren Galler Rabinowitz’s much-later attempt at the crown as Miss Massachusetts (she was cut in the opening round), Myerson’s 1945 win was a very big deal, and surrounded by all the controversy you might imagine.

Weeks before the pageant, judges received phone calls from irate pageant watchers warning them not to choose “the Jew.” Hoping to stave off trouble, pageant officials pleaded with Myerson to change her name to the deracinated “Beth Merrick.” After her win, not a single official sponsor, from the notoriously anti-Semitic Ford Motor Company to Catalina Swimwear, requested that she endorse their products; she was barred at the last minute from a scheduled appearance at a restricted country club in the South. The Daughters of the American Revolution, it seemed, did not care to share crab salad with a Daughter of Israel. (Who says she would have eaten it anyway?)

No Jewish contestant has worn the Miss America crown since. Maybe Kazantsev’s bestie might consider competing?

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.