When Esther Petrack stood before Tyra and the Jays for the first time during the season premiere of America’s Next Top Model (the second episode airs tonight at 8), we learned something shocking: The 18-year-old brunette beauty from Brookline, Massachusetts, is a Modern Orthodox Jew. Almost sounds like a setup to a joke: An Orthodox Jew and Tyra Banks sashay down the runway … .
Esther was dressed more modestly than most of the other contestants (including the one whose segment immediately preceded hers, and required the first pixilation of the season) in a loose-fitting black sweater and brightly patterned leggings, which made Tyra exclaim, “Look at those pants!” Oh indeed. It was hard not to look at them.
After letting Esther say a bit about herself—namely, that she was born in Jerusalem—Ty Ty asked her about her Orthodox Jewish practice. “Do you honor the Sabbath?”
“Yes I do,” Esther responded, proceeding to explain the rules regarding the usage of electricity, computers, cell phones, and cars on Friday night and Saturday. Tyra sternly informed her that ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week. (I never realized that modeling was so urgent!) Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule? Her Jewish identity was all of a sudden squarely on the spot, not unlike that of her Biblical namesake.
My mind flashed back to the chipper song I learned at Camp Sternberg:
Ain’t gonna work on Saturday
Double, double, triple pay
Won’t make me work on Saturday
Ain’t gonna work on Saturday
It’s Shabbos kodesh
Having worked for Jews most of my professional life and having never been a contestant on a reality show, I’ve never had the occasion to sing it in protest. But if ever there was an opportunity, it was now and it belonged to Esther.
She replied after a momentary hesitation: “Yes, I would do it.”
And in those few seconds, she dealt a blow much less eloquently, though no less severe, to the Modern Orthodox experiment as, say, Noah Feldman did in his New York Times Magazine essay, “Orthodox Paradox”. (In fact, Esther recently graduated from the same institution that Feldman had attended, Maimonides School.) Both demonstrated the limits of Modern Orthodoxy: That engagement with the secular world can only go so far when you’re hamstrung by strict adherence to halacha. For Esther, a lanky, trilingual teen (English, Hebrew, French) with a serious set of eyebrows and a penchant for gesticulating wildly with her long arms, there was no way for her to compromise her way out of this situation, or to find a halachic loophole. Even the most liberal Orthodox rabbi would not tell her that reality television shows defer the Sabbath. If she wanted to try her hand at modeling, something was going to have to give. This was not a situation where she could have it both ways.
Even if Esther’s reversal in front of the panel seemed fast—one moment she honors the Sabbath, the next she honors ANTM’s schedule—we got to see her thoughtful side a few moments later. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m figuring things out,” she said directly to the camera. “I’m going to try to do as much as I can religious-wise, but I did kinda draw my line in the sand when I auditioned for this.” This is a remarkably mature perspective. Unlike the Amish, Orthodox teens don’t get an official period of Rumspringa. They don’t get a few months or even a year to go out and eat a cheeseburger or ride in a car on Shabbos, guilt-free, while they sort out what kind of religious life—what kind of life—they want to lead. It was welcome that Esther was open about her need to figure out her observance through trial and error.
And personally, I think it’s a good thing to have a Modern Orthodox woman on a reality show such as ANTM, not only to see her struggle with her own personal boundary between religious and secular but to give The CW’s young viewers a different perspective on observant Jews (though we are unlikely to see her doing any practicing on the show). These teens are probably too young to remember Joe Lieberman’s 2000 bid for the vice presidency—the last time Modern Orthodoxy was explained to the masses. Most probably think that all Orthodox men wear black hats and side curls and all Orthodox women wear wigs. This will show impressionable teens that not all of the observant are like that. Some wear very ugly pants and have enormous breasts. (Almost immediately after she renounced her practice, Esther was asked to lift her top; to the shock of the Jays, she measured at 30G. This will likely be her undoing in this season’s competition, which is focused on “high fashion,” since runway models don’t have breasts. Thankfully, Tyra rushed to Esther’s defense—“She holds her Gs better than my Ds!” Yeah, Tyra. You tell those queens.)
So long live Esther on ANTM. We’ll keep Shabbat warm for you while you’re gone.
Related: Orthodox Paradox [NYT Magazine]