Meet Queen Esther – Israel’s First Beauty Queen

In addition to a crown (and a ceramic vase), the queen was the recipient of slander and condemnation. So how was the first Israeli beauty queen, "the typical example of Hebrew beauty", selected?

Tzipora Tzabari, the third Queen Esther, 1928. Photo: S. Korbman, the Museum of the History of Tel Aviv-Yafo Collection.

The setting is 1920s Tel Aviv. Baruch Agadati is a well-known cultural figure in the city, and a producer of magnificent Purim balls. Just before the Purim holiday of 1926, Agadati comes up with a new and surprising idea to upgrade his masquerade ball – a beauty pageant! In the spirit of the festival he decides to name the pageant: “Queen Esther’s Election Ball”.

Early that year, the Doar HaYom newspaper reported:

“On January 31st, Baruch Agadati will organize a unique party in the exhibition hall, the likes of which have never been seen before in Tel Aviv. A ‘Queen Esther’ will be chosen for the Purim ball – a typical example of Hebrew beauty from Tel Aviv. Esther will be the queen of the Purim ball and the queen of the procession that will take place in the streets of Tel Aviv on Purim.”

Invitation to a Purim Election Ball, 1929. The National Library poster collection

Thus was born the first ever beauty pageant in the Land of Israel! Each entrant was required to present fifty signatures in order to submit her candidacy. The attendees of the Purim ball would ultimately be the ones to vote for and elect the first Queen Esther of the new Hebrew nation.

The contest was further legitimized by a charitable initiative for the good of the homeland: Half of all of the proceeds were to go to the Jewish National Fund.

Who could ask for more?

The first competition was a great success and became part of the Purim tradition for several years after. Each year, a new queen was chosen from a different community – there was a Bukharan Queen Esther and a Yemeni Queen Esther. Agadati hoped to connect the Jewish tradition of Purim and the Megillah with the burgeoning new Hebrew culture – a beauty queen of the Hebrew Yishuv. On the surface it was a perfect idea.

So who was the winner of this first Queen Esther pageant? The title went to a woman named Lyla Tchertkov, who did not even officially register for the competition! She came to the ball as a guest, but the audience immediately fell in love with her, and chose Lyla as their very first Queen Esther.

The first pageant winner, Lyla Tchertkov, 1926. From the collection of A. Tchertkov, Tel Aviv

“She had green eyes that bathed in tenderness, and the hair that crowned her head was black and radiant,” wrote Uri Keisari, a journalist who covered the event.

“She carried her beauty with the special pride of a woman whose steps do not even touch the earthly soil. She was a lady whose supreme laughter could have reshaped the map of the world. She was as beautiful as the sun, beautiful as the world of the Holy One, blessed be He.”

The first pageant winner, Lyla Tchertkov, 1926. From the collection of A. Tchertkov, Tel Aviv

Of course, not everyone fell in love with the idea of a beauty pageant. This was, after all, a Jewish competition, and as they say: “Ask two Jews, get three opinions”. Angry letters were sent to newspapers and defamatory posters were hung in public spaces. Some of the objections were religious, from those who saw the competition as an indecent, secular practice imported from foreign countries. Other protests came from intellectuals who saw the competition as no less than an attack on the morals of Hebrew society.

“Do not forget that the decline of our national honor was caused by the publicity, noise, and excessive celebration that has brought disgrace upon us…” expounded those academic figures who felt that the competition was rooted in immorality.

“Do not forget that we were the source of morality from which the world was nourished! Return to your roots, House of Israel! Remove this shame from your people and your land!”

The critics protested with more than just public posters.

“And what does art have to do with an ‘Election Ball’?…Where every drifter and derelict chooses the prettiest of Tel Aviv’s women to become ‘Queen Esther of the Purim Ball’?” wrote Mr. Z. David in a letter to the editorial board of the Davar newspaper on February 1st, 1926.

“Beauty is a gift to be given by God, not to be elected by popular vote! And fifty percent of the proceeds of the ball given to the Jewish National Fund do not purify it either! Muktzeh is muktzeh!”

These pictures display some of the beauty queens awarded with the “Queen Esther” title

Baruch Agadati, who just wanted to spread a bit of happiness, was offended. He was so insulted that he decided to fight back and defend the integrity of his competition. Several weeks after the first competition, Agadati published a response to the embittered reader, Z. David, under the title ‘To all the moralists’:

“The ‘Queen Esther’ competition I arranged was only a prelude to the next Purim Ball. I hope that the moralists and the good people at Davar and Ha’aretz will not call for a boycott of the Purim Ball as well. I do not think that I have sinned a great sin in this, and I support continuing it in the years to come.”

But the pressure worked and the competition was finally banned in 1930. This led to a response from none other than Queen Esther herself, who issued her own poster in which she defended the competition that bore her name.

“I am ashamed and embarrassed, my people, for I have paid a heavy price. Must I, once again, take up my walking cane and wander off? Will this be the reward for all the good that I have done for my people? No, no I have not accepted this as my fate. For I have loved you so much, and I will receive my suffering with love! “



Mark Twain in Palestine – “A Hopeless, Dreary, Heart-Broken Land”

In 1867, Mark Twain made a visit to the Land of Israel. What did Twain think of the Holy Land? Join us as we trace his journey.

Mark Twain (circled) and the “innocents" aboard the Quaker City

After the invention of the steamboat in the nineteenth century, hundreds of American pilgrims flooded into the Holy Land, in boatload after boatload. In an era when the typical American Protestant was required to master the Bible, many Americans knew the basic geography and the names of the historical sites of the ancient Land of Israel before even arriving in the Holy Land. The first American pilgrims reached Palestine in 1819. With the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Ottoman Empire in 1832, the final bureaucratic barrier to the already arduous journey was removed.

In 1866, the young author Samuel Clemens, who was just beginning to become known under the pen name Mark Twain, set out to examine the attractions for himself. The rapidly developing religious tourism industry contributed to Twain’s natural tendency toward ridicule and satire. He latched on to a group of pilgrims, whom he deridingly dubbed “the innocents,” and boarded the “Quaker City” en route to the Land of Israel.

The Quaker City, a warship that served in the American Civil War and was later converted into a cruise ship. The picture is taken from the catalog, “Dreamland: American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century” and preserved by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

Prior to his departure, Twain had signed a contract to write fifty-one short articles during the journey. The letters he penned while in Palestine were combined with articles he wrote later on, the result being “The Innocents Abroad“, a book which detailed his impressions of the strange country he encountered.

“A Pleasure Excursion in the Holy Land,” the short, Hebrew version of the book authored by Mark Twain. This version contains only the voyage and the episodes that describe Twain’s stay in Israel.

A “pleasure excursion” on the deck of a floating “synagogue”

From the moment he arrived on deck, Twain used his sharp pen to lash out in every direction. Referring to the ship’s prayer hall where the pilgrims gathered, he wrote: ‘The unregenerated called this saloon the ‘Synagogue'”. It seems Twain was not impressed with the mood on board either: “…the pleasure trip was a funeral excursion without a corpse” he wrote. His more pious partners soon resented the way he chose to pass the voyage at sea: gambling with the younger passengers, drinking, smoking his pipe and taking the Lord’s name in vain whenever he felt that the ship was being unnecessarily delayed.

The young novelist’s trip lasted six months. He and the “innocents” first passed through Europe on their way to the borders of the Ottoman Empire. When they arrived in Constantinople, the writer was photographed for his visa by the Abdullah brothers, the official photographers of the “Sublime Porte” – the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Mark Twain’s visa from Constantinople which he received on his way to Palestine. The visa was printed in French and Arabic and is preserved by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation

What did the famous author think of the Land of Israel?

On September 24, 1867, the author bought an elegant looking Bible for his mother. He asked the shop owner he purchased it from to inscribe the word “Jerusalem” on the cover in Hebrew (probably to impress his anxious mother) before sending it to the United States. But in truth, Twain was not at all impressed by what he witnessed in the Holy Land.

A copy of the Bible purchased by Mark Twain for his mother. The Bible is preserved by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. The picture is taken from the catalog “Dreamland: American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century”

From the long-awaited moment they arrived in the country, Twain hastened to dismiss the religious devotion shown by the rest of the party. According to his reports, his fellow travelers took every opportunity to cry and pray hysterically, but they also never missed an opportunity to remove antiquities from their resting place to take home as souvenirs.  In sharp contrast to his fellow travelers, Twain neither sang nor gushed. Upon crossing into the Holy Land and laying his eyes on the river Dan, he determined that “Its banks, and those of the brook are respectably adorned with blooming oleanders, but the unutterable beauty of the spot will not throw a well-balanced man into convulsions, as the Syrian books of travel would lead one to suppose”.

Mark Twain (circled) and the “innocents” aboard the Quaker City

The residents of the area seemed petty and narrow-eyed, and the exorbitant prices they offered to the pilgrims only reinforced his views. On the banks of the Sea of Galilee, while imagining Jesus giving his teachings to the local fishermen and Josephus commanding his fleet of warships, the pilgrims tried to barter for a ride on one of the locals’ boats. After an unreasonable price of two Napoleons was put forth, the “innocents” countered with an offer of only one. They were then shocked to see the fisherman turn around and sail off, leaving them stranded on the shore: “How the pilgrims abused each other! Each said it was the other’s fault, and each in turn denied it.”

Twain was fed up with the primitiveness of the settlements and roads he encountered: “The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”. The statement reflects his general attitude to the ancient land throughout his journey.

One exception to the rule was the city of Jerusalem, which Twain described in glowing terms: “Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun. So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants… Tears would have been out of place. The thoughts Jerusalem suggests are full of poetry, sublimity, and more than all, dignity. Such thoughts do not find their appropriate expression in the emotions of the nursery.”

A central motif that weaves through Twain’s writings is the polarization between American progress and the enslavement of the Holy Land to its own past. In his opinion, it was precisely the reverence of the three religions towards the Land of Israel that was responsible for the miserable state he perceived it to be in. In one of the sharpest and most beautiful passages in the book, Twain states that “Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land.”


If you liked this article, try these:

A Glimpse of 19th Century Jerusalem

The Beautiful Postcards Theodor Herzl Sent to His Daughter

The Man Who Would Be King: Delusions of (Royal) Grandeur in Mandatory Palestine

When the Head of Iran’s Nuclear Program Turned to the Israelis for Help

In the early 1960s, a team of Israeli experts was dispatched on an urgent mission to Iran, to help rebuild an earthquake-ravaged region.

Over 12,000 people were killed when an earthquake which hit Iran's Ghazvan region in September, 1962

Over 12,000 people were killed when an earthquake hit Iran's Ghazvin region in September, 1962

As head of the vaguely named “Plan Organization of Iran”, Safi Asfia was the man in charge of the nation’s early nuclear ambitions. It was on his door that Akbar Etemad, popularly known as the father of Iran’s nuclear program, knocked when he wanted the Shah’s blessing to jumpstart the program in 1965. At age 23, Asfia had become the youngest professor at Tehran University, instructing in both mathematics and geology. His responsibilities as head of the Plan Organization were quite extensive, as it was tasked with overseeing all of Iran’s development projects. It was in this capacity that Asfia signed off on an agreement with TAHAL (Water Planning) Ltd., an Israeli government corporation known for developing some of the 20th century’s most ambitious water supply and irrigation systems.


Akbar Etemad, popularly known as the father of Iran's nuclear program
Akbar Etemad was popularly known as the father of Iran’s nuclear program, but even he needed the approval of Safi Asfia, head of the vaguely named “Plan Organization of Iran”.

In September 1962, a massive earthquake hit the Ghazvin region (also spelled Qazvin) of Northwestern Iran. Hundreds of villages were devastated, some completely destroyed. Thousands were killed and injured, tens of thousands immediately became homeless. Impromptu local rescue efforts began immediately, followed by aid from Tehran and abroad.

Within a few months, Asfia’s Plan Organization approached Tel Aviv-based TAHAL requesting comprehensive collaboration to rebuild and strategically plan the entire region. The work would serve as a model for planning and modernizing efforts throughout the whole of Iran. An official publication produced by the Plan Organization of Iran and TAHAL (Water Planning) Ltd. – Iran Branch details their intimate relationship, which now seems an almost unfathomable not-too-distant reality.

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem holds a copy of this rare document, a two-volume work produced in English and Persian entitled Ghazvin Area Development Project Reconnaissance Report. The report includes a copy of the official letter sent from Israeli team leader Arie “Lova” Eliav to Safi Asfia, as well as extensive survey data, detailed illustrations and a six year plan for developing the Ghazvin Area.


This rare Iranian government document describes a joint project with the Israeli company TAHAL to rebuild and modernize the Ghazvin region. This copy is now kept at the National Library of Israel.

According to the report, as part of the initial recovery phase, “The Government of Israel sent a team of architects and technicians who, working under the authority of the Iranian Ministry of Agriculture, planned and rebuilt the totally destroyed village of Khuznin.” While this and other improvised projects moved forward, “[T]he Government of Iran decided to make the severely damaged Ghazvin Area the subject of complete re-planning, with the object of raising its level of production and the standard of living of its inhabitants.”

On January 6, 1963, Safi Asfia signed a contract in Tehran with TAHAL’s representative there. Within days, the TAHAL team was on the ground in Iran. Led by Eliav, the team included Ephraim Shilo, noted agriculturalist and religious Zionist activist, as well as other leading academics and practitioners – from among the young Jewish state’s best and brightest.

TAHAL would oversee two other Israeli teams and work in close collaboration with the Iranian government and other international aid workers, including those sent through the auspices of the United Nations.


An official letter, included in the report, sent by the Israeli team leader Arie Eliav to Safi Asfia, head of the vaguely named “Plan Organization of Iran”



After addressing immediate and urgent needs, the Israeli team was tasked with four primary objectives: 1) carrying out a general survey of the Ghazvin Area in order to best plan its future development; 2) preparing a plan for the entire earthquake zone, including new villages and detailed plans for construction to begin within six months’ time; 3) introducing new crops and setting up demonstration plots to instruct the locals in improved agricultural practices; 4) training Iranian engineers, “one of the most important aspects of the work” according to the Iranian-Israeli contract.

Only in retrospect does a high level Iranian official bringing Israeli experts in to train Iranian engineers seem in any way remarkable. Historically speaking, collaboration was commonplace: Israel, of course, had quite a close (if not controversial) relationship with the Shah’s regime.

Even so, brief details of Israeli-Iranian cooperation and comradery included in an otherwise dry planning report is somewhat remarkable, especially given today’s geo-political climate:

“Since the Israeli team worked and lived in Ghazvin and all its activities were connected there, it was natural for the Iranian personnel in training to join them and live and work with them in Ghazvin… It is gratifying to note the close comradely relations which developed between the Iranians and the Israelis as a result of working and living together, joint trips and discussion of the work, and the attitude of mutual appreciation which grew up between the teams and the trainees and staff through working together on a joint project.”

In the spring of 1963, at the request of the Iranian Independent Irrigation Corporation (Bongah Abiari), which was also involved in the work, the Israeli team even offered a special course in geology for select students from Tehran University. Dozens of Israelis and Iranians lived, worked, learned and even trekked together.

Warm words beyond basic requisite courtesies are also found in the report: “It is wished to stress the fact that while the Israeli engineers endeavored to impart knowledge to their Iranian colleagues, they themselves also learned much from, and were greatly assisted by, the Iranians. There is no doubt today that without their devoted work, both in the field and in the office, the Israeli teams would not have attained the results they did…”

A full list of the Iranian engineers appears in the report (including one Khalil Khamenei), as does a listing of the senior Israeli, Iranian, and international officials involved in the efforts.

Warm Israeli-Iranian relations, including other collaborative planning and development work, continued until the Revolution of 1979.

Safi Asfia was arrested by the new regime and languished in prison for five years where he reportedly passed the time by teaching French to other inmates, studying Italian, molecular biology and computer science, and tinkering with watches and electronics. One story tells of a blind-folded Asfia even offering to help fix a judge’s tape recorder, which had broken mid-interrogation.  He lived in Iran until his death in 2008.


Arye “Lova” Eliav was the leader of the Israeli TAHAL team in Iran. He later became a politician and served as a Knesset member for many years. Eliav passed away in 2010.

Arie Eliav, who had led a similar Israeli aid mission to Morocco in 1960, headed another one to Nicaragua in 1972. He worked for decades encouraging immigration to Israel, promoting a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and settling the Negev. Eliav served three terms in the Knesset, served as Chairman of the Israeli Labor Party and was a one-time presidential candidate. In 1988, he received the prestigious Israel Prize for his life-long contribution to Israeli society. He passed away in Tel Aviv in 2010, just two years after Safi Asfia.

In the fall of 2017, nearly 55 years to the day after the Ghazvin quake, a major earthquake hit Iran once more, with tremors felt as far away as Tel Aviv and Haifa. The Israeli government offered humanitarian assistance. It was declined.

Jerusalem’s First Tourist Map

Where did one go to watch a movie in British-Mandate era Jerusalem? Where could you catch a bus? And what were the popular hot spots? Presenting the map that resurrects pre-state Jerusalem...

Not many maps are capable of visually resurrecting a city. The task is even more challenging when that city is Jerusalem, and not only that but Jerusalem as it appeared eighty-eight years ago. Rare are the maps that show us not only a schematic of a street grid, but also depict buildings, cultural and recreational institutions, as well as government structures, in a detailed and aesthetic fashion. Maps that place a picture of life in Jerusalem as it once was before our eyes. Such are the hand drawn Jerusalem maps of Spyro Spiridon.

But who was Spiridon?

Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav has traced the course of Spiridon’s life: He was born in Jerusalem in 1894 and, in his later years, served a President of the Greek Orthodox Society in the city. In his twenties, Spiridion studied electrical engineering and civil engineering in Switzerland. During his time there, he was exposed to a new style of modern tourist map that was becoming popular in the country. When he returned to Jerusalem, Spiridon struggled to make a living in his field and decided to focus on something entirely different – he set out to create a map that would express the urban space of Jerusalem in three dimensions.

His map was published in the 1930s. The very first tourist map of Jerusalem, it was originally printed by the Greek Orthodox Church and, later, by the Goldberg Press.

Below are some stellar examples from Spiridon’s map. Please feel free to click on any of the images to enlarge.

Spiridon’s tourist map from the 1930s. Click the map to enlarge.


The “Horva” and “Tiferet Yisrael” synagogues:


Spiridon designed a detailed key which marked the religious affiliations of various buildings in the city:


Neighborhoods that once existed are reconstructed before our very eyes – here are the houses of the Yemenite neighborhood Ezrat Nidahim in Silwan, accompanied of course, by a Star of David symbol:


Here is Djort al-Enab, once a neighborhood of Mizrahi Jews just outside the walls of the Old City, near the present-day location of the artists’ quarter of Hutzot Hayotzer:


The Amireh neighborhood on the outskirts of Rehavia:


Some of the buildings are depicted in impressive detail – Hansen House, once a Leper hospital, is today a cultural center and museum:


The clock tower, which stood until 1934 near the present-day Jerusalem City Hall compound and St. Louis French Hospital:


The luxurious Palace Hotel (today the Waldorf Astoria Hotel stands in its place) opposite the Mamilla Pool, next to the US Consulate:


The Lemel School opposite the Edison Cinema, referred to here as the Opera House:


In the 1945 edition of the map, we see that drawings of buildings continue to occupy a central role. It is interesting to note that the map is east-oriented, an unusual orientation for maps of Jerusalem:

Spiridon’s tourist map from 1945. Click the map to enlarge.


Most of the inscriptions on the 1945 map are in English, except for a few instances where a community-adapted caption was utilized – a small inscription in Russian in the area of the Russian Compound, a few Arabic inscriptions in the Old City and in the eastern parts of the city, Greek inscriptions in the Greek Colony and three Hebrew inscriptions – the Meah Shearim neighborhood, Ben Mimon Street and the Zichron Moshe neighborhood which houses the Edison Cinema Building:


Here we can see the Alliance school, where the Clal Building stands today:


In the center of the city you can see the Egged central bus station, where the “Jaffa Center” light rail station is located today. You can also see the Zion, Eden and Orion Cinemas. Also depicted are the famous cafés of the time – Café Vienna and Café Europe:


Not only do the cinemas in the center of the city center receive special attention, the Regent Cinema in the German Colony also has its place on the map (known today as Smadar Cinema):


In the Talbieh neighborhood there is a drawing of a leper house known as Moravian Home, and we can also spot the consulates of Turkey, Iran, Spain and Greece:


The consulates of Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia were located west of the Greek colony in the Katamon neighborhood:


In south Jerusalem, the map extends as far as the Dead Sea and includes the potash factory on its northern shore, King Herod’s desert palace of Herodium, and Government House, the seat of the British High Commissioner which serves today as UN headquarters:


The Hebrew University compound on Mount Scopus features a drawing of Beit Wolfson, home of the National and University Library at the time:


The Citadel and police headquarters in the Old City:


The map shows the names of streets as they were known during the British Mandate:

Julian Road = Kind David Street

Queen Mary = Queen Shlomziyon Street

Mamilla Street = Agron Street, Yitshak Kariv Street

Saint Paulos Street = Shabtai Yisrael Street

Saint Louis Street = Shlomo HaMelekh Street

Geoffrey Mavoyon Street = HaAyin Het Street

Sultan Suleiman = HaTsanhanim Street

Chancellor Street = Strauss Street


Perhaps due to the Greek origin of the author of the map, the area of the Greek Colony is very detailed:

The Greek Club = next to Avner Street

Beit Safafa Road= Emek Rafaim Street

Greek Colony Road = Rachel Imenu Street

Efthimios Road = Yehoshua Bin Nun Street


Information about Spiridon’s life and work is attributed to the work of Prof. Kobi Cohen-Hatav.