(JTA) — Last week, the story of a Jewish woman competing in the Miss Germany competition went viral, appearing in media outlets around the world. Tamar Morali, 21, said organizers told her she was the first Jewish woman to get this far in the beauty pageant.
It turns out the story — and the world of beauty pageants in general — isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
In 2011, a Jewish woman, Valeria Bystritskaia, was crowned Miss Germany. But out of fear of anti-Semitism Bystritskaia, a Russia native who moved to Germany at the age of 7, kept her Jewish heritage a secret.
Bystritskaia, 31, is the Moscow-born daughter of a Ukrainian-Jewish mother and Russian father. In 1993, she told JTA, she and her mother moved to Germany to escape anti-Semitism, eventually settling in the city of Karlsruhe. Her mother warned her not to tell anyone about her Jewish heritage, though Bystritskaia said she was bullied in school for being a foreigner.
At 17, she was discovered by a modeling agent. She represented Germany in the Miss Universe 2011 pageant, although she did not place in the top 16. Bystritskaia said organizers never asked about her religious background and she did not tell anyone.
Following her victory, however, Bystritskaia experienced anti-Semitic harassment on social media. She said she’s still not sure how people found out about her Jewish background.
“The worst was someone who wrote ‘Hitler forgot about her and her family,’” she told JTA in an email this week. That spurred her to leave the country.
Bystritskaia, who speaks five languages — Russian, English, German, Italian and French — settled in New York, whose vibrant Jewish community helped reconnect her to her roots. She attended synagogue for the second time ever. Judaism also connected her to her husband. They married this year.
Josefin Dolsten is a former news fellow at the Forward, writing about politics and culture, and editing the Sisterhood blog. She received an MA in Jewish Studies and Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a BA in Government from Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @josefindolsten.
Jewish Miss Germany Shares Her Story After Pageant