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Esther Is Ready for Her Close-Up

This week on ‘America’s Next Top Model’

Dvora Meyers
October 21, 2010
Esther Petrack.(The CW)
Esther Petrack.(The CW)

All it took was the departure of the catty Kacey and a visit to the Grammy Museum for our Model/ern Orthodox contestant to get the screen time she deserves. First, Ann asks Esther to say something in Hebrew, because she has never heard the Semitic tongue spoken. After Esther obliges her fellow models in a brief bit of Heeb speak, we finally get a glimpse into how she’s more than just Jewish talk.

Earlier this week, Marina Petrack, Esther’s mother announced that her daughter never said she would forsake her Jewish practice in the first episode—that the editing merely made it seem so. She even noted that her daughter had toveled (ritually immersed) a pot in the Pacific Ocean and kept kosher while filming the show. Though we never got to see that act, in this episode we do get to watch Esther explain the myriad rules to her housemates, a ritual which should be as familiar to the Modern Orthodox set as keeping separate dishes for meat and milk.

You see, when a young MO leaves the cocoon of day school and a community that prioritizes religious regulations to go to the big, bad secular university—Brandeis, Harvard, Penn—sometimes she is forced to share a kitchen with someone who doesn’t keep kosher. And that’s when the awkward explanation of the Dos and Don’ts begins. In the context of the Jewish world, the laws of kashrut don’t sound so weird, but anytime I would find myself explaining them to people outside the community, I could hear their strangeness. It was the same feeling I got when I tried to explain the plot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to naysayers: “No,” I’d protest. “It really does make sense.” And it does! But only when the whole universe of the show—the characters, the setting, the emotions—are taken into account. When spoken into thin air, it merely sounded crazy.

In a confessional, Chris comments on Esther’s observance. “I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says, after Esther explains that she can’t use the grill out back because both meat and cheese had been cooked on it. She notes that the competition is stressful enough, but dealing with all these rules too? “I’m getting a headache just thinking about it.”

While Chris was more focused on the anxiety that keeping kosher in this setting must provoke, I was more interested in the loneliness and isolation that often results. The camera zoomed in on Esther as she knelt down to put a food item away, and we could see that she had posted a sign on the cabinet door that read, “Esther’s Stuff.” This brought back memories of sharing a house off-campus one summer while I was at Penn—I had my own burner, hot water pot, and frying pan, which were all marked with my name—and a brief study abroad session in London where I drank coffee or soda in lieu of ordering food in restaurants with my friends. Though I had a seat at the table, I never felt like I was completely part of the group; they left the restaurant satisfied, but I was still hungry.

At least it seems like Esther has found a friend in Jane. The two eagerly pair up for the Grammies challenge, in which the girls have to outfit each other as though they were about to present an award onstage. Esther asks Jane to avoid strapless gowns, because she has to worry about her thick bra straps. Jane tries mightily to find something that fits her specifications, but confesses, “I have no idea what G boobs or any boobs are like.” (Jane, I feel ya.)

In a previous post, I noted that Jane seemed to be most similar to Esther, at least in her restraint. And though Jane appears to come from upper-class WASP stock, the two indeed seem to have the most in common. Neither truly needs to be on the show; when they are eliminated (and I highly doubt either will make it to the end of the competition), Jane will likely return to Princeton and Esther will end up in a place like Brandeis (or, in the worst-case scenario, Boston University). Part of me wonders why either one auditioned for the show to begin with. Whereas for the other girls—Kendall, who admitted to having never been outside of Alabama until she was cast; or Liz, who has a daughter and had lived in a homeless shelter; or Kayla, who didn’t have a bed to sleep in until she was 14—it’s clear why they’re on the show and how paltry their options probably are.

For the photo challenge, the girls are asked to portray a famous designer. Both Esther and Jane are assigned men: The former gets Christophe Decarnin and the latter Marc Jacobs, which she probably has hanging in her closet next to the horse stable her parents had built for her. But neither is successful in portraying these men. Not knowing how to position lanky arms as a man, Esther returns to the slack-jawed open-mouthed pose that I had hoped was gone forever. (Tyra Banks later comments that she looks like she was drooling.) The photographer, Francesco Carrozzini, seems very frustrated. “Can you close your mouth a bit?” he implores.

After her disastrous shoot, Esther recognizes that her position is now tenuous. “I’m hoping someone is worse than me,” Esther tells Jane, uttering her first mean sentence of the season.

It comes down to the African-American and the Jew, Kendall and Esther, this week’s bottom two. They clasp hands in solidarity as they move forward. Tyra notes that Esther had been unpromising at the start of the season but had gained consistently week after week, until this one. For this, she is given the reprieve, and some sage wisdom: “I recommend that next week at judging, you wear a ponytail.” Yeah, that and never use that open-mouthed expression again.

Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.