Jewish ‘Survivor’ Finalist Ben Katzman Gave Us the Anxiety Representation We Need

The Floridian musician worked through his night terrors and rocked out in the season finale.

The season finale of “Survivor 46” aired last night and, spoiler alert, Jewish contestant Ben Katzman did not win the title of sole survivor. That honor went to Kenzie Petty, who played a phenomenal social game and frankly should also win “cutest outfits at tribal ever” for her adorable high ponytails and creative buff bows. Ben also did not come in second place; that distinction went to Charlie Davis, who played a strategic game while still being lovable and friendly. But Ben, the only known Jewish player on the season, did make it to the final three, earning him a chance to plead his case to the jury. He also had a really beautiful final arc, and definitely left his mark on “Survivor” in a positive way that, as he would say, rocks.

When I wrote about Ben before the first episode of the season aired, I said: “Does sharing a contestant’s religion mean I’ll definitely see myself in their game play? Of course not. But finding little pieces of shared identity is one thing that can make a fan feel extra excited about a specific contestant.” And I stand by that! But even more than his Judaism, I really related to Ben over another piece of his identity: his anxiety. I know, I know — isn’t that redundant? Cue Jewish anxiety jokes now, etc.

I want to make a few things very clear before moving forward. One: Anxiety means different things to different people. For some people, it does feel like an identity (“I’m an anxious Jewish girl!” is something I often say) and for others, it is simply something they experience and manage. Two: Obviously not all Jews are anxious. But… it is a stereotype about Our People for a reason, and I did once joke that I was going to make t-shirts that say HOT ANXIOUS JEWISH GIRL and many, many people wanted one. Make of that what you will. Three: Being more open about mental health and the struggles people with anxiety face is powerful, important work, and I think it’s really cool that both “Survivor” and Ben himself were willing to tackle the subject so openly and vulnerably this season. Nothing I have to say about Ben and his anxiety comes from a place of judgment — quite the opposite.

So with those disclaimers firmly set, let’s talk about Ben’s night terrors. They have been a theme of the season, and they were highlighted again in the season finale. We see him waking up in the middle of the night, panicked and sometimes crying. In the finale, he wakes up gasping and we see him trying to talk himself through it: “One more night, one more night,” he chants quietly to himself, though anyone who has struggled with panic attacks and night terrors knows that it’s hard to self-soothe when you feel so inexplicably scared.

Ben spoke openly about the feeling of confusion that often accompanies an anxiety attack: Sometimes there’s a clear reason why they happen, but sometimes they just show up out of nowhere to mess with your head. “At night, I don’t know what happens,” he says into the camera during an interview clearly taking place during the day, when he is not actively experiencing an attack. “Some nights I have a reason to freak out. But last night I had all the reason in the world to chill… but I had this hysteria, and to come down from it takes a while.” The footage flashes back to the night terror in real time, and we see Ben opening up to Kenzie, one of his closest allies: “It’s like, I enjoy the day and then this happens. I kind of just want it to be over.” The producers then show a montage of Ben experiencing night terrors almost every evening of the season. It’s honestly hard to watch; he’s scared, he’s crying, he seems so defeated. We flash back to night 20 and hear him talking to Kenzie again: “I feel like I don’t stand a chance here, against, like, myself, not the game or anything.”

Allowing oneself to be so seen on national television is really, really huge. In the final tribal/sit-down with host Jeff Probst, Ben credited season 44 contestant Carolyn Wiger for allowing him to be open about his mental health on the show and for giving himself permission to take risks, the same way she did.

As fans who have watched the show from day one can attest, it has really grown and changed over the years. Contestants on “Survivor” used to be overwhelmingly white; casual misogyny, racism and homophobia was often ignored or excused; and mental health was definitely not something anyone was even talking about. One of the reasons I believe the show has remained relevant and captivating is because the producers have changed things up as the American public has moved forward in the ongoing work of unlearning misogyny, racism, homophobia and ableism. Imagining Ben and his anxiety on an early season of “Survivor” is truly unfathomable; I get anxious just thinking about how the other players may have treated him. The fact that now, in the New Era of “Survivor,” a player with night terrors can rely on other contestants for genuine support and care, can talk openly about his struggles and can make it all the way to the end, is a big deal. As far as I’m concerned, Ben earns a spot with Carolyn when it comes to changing the game in a really legendary way in terms of acceptance around mental health struggles. The Instagram post he published last week, addressing his anxiety and the kind notes he’s received from others who share his struggle and felt seen by the representation on the show, only bolsters my belief that Ben is a rock star in every sense of the word and a true mensch.

Though the night terror arc was obviously moving and hit very close to home for me, it was not the only thing to focus on when it comes to Ben’s final episode. He had a very exciting final few days in the game! First, Kenzie wins the penultimate immunity/reward challenge (with Liz’s help) and she decides to choose Ben to be her one guest to join her at the Sanctuary, where they feast and laugh and get a breather to just hang as pals. Kenzie says she chooses Ben because he’s never had a chance to go on a reward challenge or see the Sanctuary yet, which I’m sure was true, but it was also so clear to me how cute and close their friendship is, and it was lovely to watch them just hanging together. “Let’s go chill hard, buddy!” Kenzie says as she and Ben walk off to enjoy their reward, and they toast “to chilling mad hard!” They talk about what they’ll do when they get back home, and later we see them goofing around in the ocean together, with Kenzie waving her red bandana like a bull fighter and Ben putting his fingers up to his head, pretending to be a bull and rushing toward the mark.

But wait — there’s more! After sharing with Jeff that he has not slept for more than two hours a night for two weeks, Ben pulls it together and wins the final immunity challenge! It’s his first and only challenge win, and it sets him up for a huge power move. He decides who he will bring with him to the jury, and which other two players he will force to battle it out in a fire making competition to earn the third spot in the jury. It’s a tough choice for him, and he cries a lot. Later, in front of the jury, he admits: “I’m probably the person who cried the most this season.” It all just makes me love him more. That’s my guy! He’s Jewish, he’s anxious, he’s emotional, he’s full of love! I love him!

I didn’t expect Ben to win this season, and he did not. During the jury session multiple people spoke about how emotional and loving Ben is, both as a person and as a player, but as Soda pointed out, the game of “Survivor” is about “out wit, out play, out last… not out love.” Fair enough. Though he did not receive a single vote, Ben definitely ended up being a lovable, loving “Survivor” player who will not be swiftly forgotten. He proclaimed the things he loved to “rock” and the things he didn’t love to “not rock.” He mentioned Jewy things a few times. He made several emotional speeches to the jury, speaking about his love for his parents, his desire to bring music education to kids and his gratitude for his “Survivor” journey. He battled Charlie in a Metallica vs. Taylor Swift song-off and tapped out only once he’d listed 106 Metallica titles and Charlie had listed 107 T. Swift titles. He wore a leather vest on the island. And no matter how hard his night terrors made the game for him, he never quit.

“I got something else out of this game,” he says near the end of the final episode. “I’m going to show up for myself even when things get dark and don’t rock. And I did.”

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