Jewish Jerusalem-born Esther Petrack identifies as Modern Orthodox, a label which takes the more right-wing, traditional denomination of Orthodox and qualifies it as modern. Or, as comedian Elon Gold often notes at his Jewish shows, “Modern Orthodox…which means…not Orthodox.” Most Modern Orthodox Jews I’ve known consider themselves traditionally observant, but draw certain lines in different places than those who wouldn’t qualify their Orthodox with a “modern” in front of it – perhaps partaking of the “secular world” in greater measure, being more lenient of certain strictures, and with a tendency to be less isolationist in their communities and daily work and play. But all of this is background to what’s going on in the Jewish blogs this week, after Petrack – who’s in competition to become America’s Next Top Model – made a spectacle of herself on national television.Shortly after Esther presented herself as a Modern Orthodox Jew, a concerned Tyra Banks asked if the aspiring model was Sabbath observant. Esther said yes, and launched into an explanation of all the things that Sabbath-observant Jews do (or rather, don’t do) from Friday night to Saturday. Tyra laid down the law, saying that on America’s Next Top Model, the models work all the time with no days off, challenging Esther: could she do that? Yes, Esther said. Then the conversation quickly turned to the model’s chest size, and whether her breasts were too large for a runway and fashion model competition; first she revealed them to be size 30G, and then she actually revealed them, lifting her shirt so that the judges (and all of us following along at home) could see them. (See the clip below for this entire segment.)Some Jewish blogs are questioning her Orthodoxy – how observant could she be if she could so easily acquiesce to the ANTM schedule, which all-but-promises Shabbat violation, and if she so easily exposes her underwear on national television?Tablet Magazine’s Dvora Meyersspeaks up for the aspiring model:
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.
Meyers also noted that having a Modern Orthodox woman on a reality show would “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).” Over at Jewlicious, Steve, who identifies himself as someone who has never been an Orthodox Jew or a fashion model, “cringed a little” when Esther so seemingly easily moved on from her tradition, in a post titled “America’s next top (Jewish role) model? Me thinks not.” Venice’s Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, of the Pacific Jewish Center, reminds us that Esther’s just a teenager. “Don’t think for a second that the story of Esther Petrack’s connection with her Judaism has been written and is now over. People change. Teenagers do things they later regret.” Or as Patrick Aleph, from PunkTorah and OneShul, noted in the comments on Jewlicious, “No one at 18 should be required to have life, G-d, and all the other big questions all figured out.”