Over the past few weeks, I have had numerous people ask my thoughts on Esther Petrack, the now renowned America’s Next Top Model contestant, who identified herself as Modern Orthodox from the get-go. I too was intrigued and stunned by the initial episode, but really wanted to see how things played out before weighing in. So over the past week I have snuggled up to my trusty laptop and watched most of the back episodes and read countless blog posts and articles on the topic.
While a quick google search will inundate you with information (including interviews with Esther and comments on posts by her mother), here is what seems to be the highlights:
– Yes, there was major editing in the first episode. The fateful sentence “I will do it” was not as casually tossed out as it appeared, rather it was part of a long and complex conversation around the various needs at play and how to make them work together.
– Esther did not give up Shabbat. (There are times when I noticed her absence from group things and found myself wondering if that was at times when she was doing Shabbat appropriate things.)
– Esther kept kosher in the house. She maintained her own cabinet in the kitchen with food, pots, plates, etc.
– Esther didn’t grow up in a community where dressing tzniut was a MO thing, so overwhelmingly that was less of an issue than other people made it out to be. (Oh, and she was wearing a bathing suit, not a bra in the first episode – its just harder to find cute tops when you are a busty gal!)
– Esther reports that she was uncomfortable in some of the outfits she wore, but either moved on or requested changes as appropriate.
In short: She continued to keep Shabbat and Kashrut. Last I checked (for an unmarried woman) those were the big two for identification of frum by the frum community.
With this knowledge in our heads, here is my commentary:
As anyone who has read our blog more than once knows (and first time readers are about to find out) I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all Judaism, nor does Jessica. Everyone is on a journey to find a meaningful experience which resonates with their life and world experiences – Jewish and secular. Various major life events help to propel us along, including moving out of our parents home and/or community. As an eighteen year old woman out of her parents home for the first time, Esther also has to find herself and her space in Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy – she just had the added experience of cameras, editors, press and the watchful viewers to aid along the journey. She had to find a way to balance who she was and who she wanted to be, so who are we to put her in any box?
Who are any of us to determine what qualifies a person as being any denomination, or being a good Jew, or anything else? We only know what editors deem fit to show or print. We were not in LA with Esther nor home with her family in Boston. We do not know her struggles before, during, or after the show, nor should we expect to. Esther took a risk and while you may or may not agree with it – doing so should not inherently make her any “less Jewish” than she was when she graduated from a religious high school months earlier. Living a Modern Orthodox lifestyle is complex, and anyone who says differently needs a reality check and an honest conversation with those living it.
I feel compelled to comment in reflection about one of the primary criticisms Esther received – that her personality didn’t shine through. To me that was where you saw her MO upbringing the most. While she says in interviews that she is a different person at home, I think the person she showed on the show is a great example of internal tzniut. She didn’t want to draw a bunch of attention to her self by being loud and ostentatious. (Perhaps, she also knew she had generated a flurry of online activity and wanted to diminish rather than add fuel to the fire.) When people insulted her, she keeps her head held high and moved on. She didn’t talk about people behind their backs or get overly involved in the gossip. To top it off, she also cheered on her competitors and discussed her Judaism in a positive light.
I think all these things, set a good example of Modern Orthodoxy in a way which popular society needs to see! Too often the Jews we see in public lights are extreme versions on either end of the spectrum which don’t allow for embracing ritual while living in modernity. I think it would benefit us to embrace this empowered young woman striving to achieve her dreams and make it in the secular world while still living a very Jewish life rather than ostracize her for it. (Personally, it is inspiring to me to see a young woman I can relate to on so many levels really pursuing a dream – even if not in a way I would feel comfortable with. Alas, her journey and choices are not about me regardless of demographic commonalities.)
Kol ha’kavod Esther, and I wish you much hatzlacha in continuing to pursue your dream!
PS – There are many more things I wanted to say on this, but I had to draw the line somewhere. If you want to know my thoughts on something I didn’t address or skimmed over – ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to!