After a fantastic weekend wandering the side streets of the Old City of Jerusalem with a group of religious overseas students from my program, I went to friend a few of them on Facebook. For one of them—a girl named Esther Petrack—I didn’t find a profile. Instead, I discovered a fan page devoted to someone with her name. My jaw dropped.
As a result of her appearance on “America’s Next Top Model” this season, Esther, a graduate of a Modern Orthodox Jewish high school in Brookline, has received a tremendous amount of censure from her community and her religious Jewish brethren. But although she takes full responsibility for her choices, she told me, there is far more to her tale than meets the eye. Of course, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Her name in Hebrew, after all, is similar to the root for the word “hidden.” And as I discovered over the course of my interview with her, this Orthodox Jewish rebel possesses an even more striking beauty than is at first apparent—a determination to respect the traditional community that raised her even when many from that community have denounced her.
Much of the criticism Esther has received stemmed from her audition, in which she was edited to appear as though she had sacrificed her religion upon Tyra Banks’s altar. In the episode, after Esther explains her upbringing as a Modern Orthodox Jew, Banks retorts that contestants on her show must work every single day, including Saturdays. She asks if Esther would compete regardless. Esther’s four-word response—“I would do it”—was widely seen as, as one writer for Tablet Magazine put it, a “severe” and devastating “blow” to “the Modern Orthodox experiment.”
In reality, Esther cannot recall a single moment over the course of the show when she was forced to compromise her religious beliefs (her discussion with Banks during the audition was actually a 15-minute long “conversation about Shabbat,” she explained). Nonetheless, posing scantily clad for millions of viewers on a weekly basis is a far cry from what the founders of Modern Orthodox Judaism envisioned. To that end, although some in her community have been more open to her decision than others, she told me, a top administrator in her high school recently instructed the students to “pray for her soul.” “It’s more than just ‘you shouldn’t have appeared on national TV in your bathing suit,’” she explained, referring to her school’s reaction. “It’s also partially, ‘you are not what we espouse. You are not what we look for in a human being.’”
Esther, to be sure, fully anticipated this backlash, despite the fact that she still identifies as Orthodox. “If you’re coming from where I’m coming from,” she explained, “you’d have to be stupid or naïve to think that you can audition on ‘America’s Next Top Model’ [and] just go home and have everyone give you a hug.”
But this is far from her whole story.
Historically, Orthodox Jews who go against the wishes of their communities in the national spotlight have also cast tremendous aspersions on those who raised them. Some years ago, for example, Noah R. Feldman ’92, a current Harvard law professor who attended the same Brookline high school as Esther, found himself and his Korean-American fiancée cropped out of his high school’s alumni photo. In retaliation, in 2007, he penned a feature for the New York Times Magazine that made a huge splash in the Orthodox world. Similarly, Shalom Auslander, another Orthodox expatriate, recently wrote a biting memoir in which he recounted how he was humiliated, abused, and “raised like a veal” by his community in Monsey, New York.
What differentiates Esther from these defectors—and, indeed, makes her that much more elegant—is that she actually made every effort to protect her community even as she was blatantly defying it. In order to distance herself temporarily from her high school and prevent, as she put it, “pull[ing her community] in” with her, Esther refrained as much as possible from performing Jewish rituals while on camera. “I didn’t feel like I had to make excuses for what I did,” she said. “But I knew that a lot of people wouldn’t want to identify with me in the future. So I didn’t identify with them publicly.” Even while she was pursuing a dream that could not be more at odds with her upbringing, Esther was still extremely cognizant about how her decision would affect her community. And she had the maturity to acknowledge that while she may have her disagreements with her community, its members still deserve her respect.
As an Orthodox Jew myself, I understand Esther’s community’s disapproval of her life choices. Nevertheless, there is still much to admire in the way Esther decided to pursue those choices. Although numerous commentators in the Jewish blogosphere have accused Esther of damaging the Modern Orthodox enterprise, this charge glosses over the tremendous thought that actually went into her decision. In realizing how her ambitions differed from those of her community, Esther attempted to affirm both, pursuing her own while respecting the others. Therefore, instead of condemning her outright, Esther’s detractors ought to take a hint from her name, and delve beyond appearances in order to uncover the truth that hides within.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House currently studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.