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Getting closer to Natalie
06/07/2006
Abigail Pogrebin
In a revealing interview, Hollywood star Natalie Portman tells Abigail Pogrebin about her Judaism, her support for Israel, and why materialist young Jews make her furious

Natalie Portman is sipping Earl Grey tea in Schiller’s Liquor Bar, a favourite café of hers tucked into Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Leaning on a white marble table, ceiling fans overhead, Portman talks about the difference between Jews in Israel and Jews in Long Island.

“I definitely know what being Jewish in Israel means and what being Jewish in America means,” says this 25-year-old, who was born in Israel to an Israeli father, fertility specialist Dr. Avner Hershlag, and an American mother, artist Shelley Hershlag.

They moved to the United States when she was three, and they return to Israel every year to visit family. Portman, who uses her grandmother’s maiden name professionally, attended Jewish day schools until eighth grade (age 12) - mostly, she says, because her parents wanted her to keep up her Hebrew.

But the Hershlags were not a religious family, nor involved in the local synagogue. “I grew up in the classic American-Jewish suburbia, which has a whole different sense of what it means to be Jewish than anywhere else in the world,” she says.

I ask her to elaborate. “The people I grew up with on Long Island are wonderful people. But I have friends who grew up in five-million-dollar homes, they all drive BMWs, and the only places they’ve been to outside the United States are the islands in the Caribbean. Which is fine, it’s a choice, and I don’t want to be critical of that. But I am. I think it can definitely be a problem, especially since American Jews are the ones who are in a position - politically and financially - to help other Jews around the world who are facing problems that we can’t conceive of.”

Tucking her bobbed hair behind her ears, Portman explains why she never felt a pull to be a part of Jewish life in her Syosset neighborhood.

“I never liked going to temple [synagogue] on Long Island because it just had that aura of someone’s fake party to me, which always made me uncomfortable. So I never went to temple at home, I never got batmitzvahed, I just sort of rejected that whole thing - it seemed so tied up with values that I hated.

“But on the other hand, when I go to Israel, I always want to go to temple on the High Holy-days even if no one in my family is going with me. I’ll fast. One year in Israel, my family went to Jaffa to get pizza on Pesach and I would not do that.

“You know, I get much more Jewish in Israel because I like the way that religion is done there. Not all the time - I would never set foot in Orthodox temples. But in Israel, it’s about what it’s about.”

She says it wasn’t a big deal in her family when she decided to forgo a batmitzvah. “All my friends were doing it,” she recalls. “But people were having hundred-thousand-dollar parties that totally took the meaning out of it.”

As she describes some of her Long Island girlfriends, the slur “JAP” [Jewish American Princess] pops into my head and I ask how she feels when someone uses the word.

“Because it’s one of those stereotypes that seems to derive from something that does exist, I don’t get offended by it as many people do,” she says, sipping her tea.

“I mean, I grew up in a Long Island public school that was 60 to 70 per cent Jewish and I know what a JAP is. But obviously the word shouldn’t be misused. I wouldn’t want to have stereotypes used in derogatory ways by people outside the Jewish community, but I think it is something from within the community that we need to examine and be self-critical about, because it’s how we’re raising our young people. Do they know or care about the outside world? Do they know or care about things other than having a nice car or a nice purse?”

She says she was also disappointed by the fact that the American-Jewish community, as she watched it while she was growing up, was not focused on giving back.

“You see church groups doing community service, but you don’t see that as much among Jewish kids in America. Maybe I’m talking about my specific experience, but I also see this among kids from Chicago, LA suburbia. Of course, there are exceptions. I can’t make any sweeping statements. But I don’t think it’s a value that’s instilled early on. The values that you do see instilled are, for example, everyone getting nice cars for their sixteenth birthdays.

“I had a fashion designer tell me that when I wear a dress of his, it sells out across the country because Jewish girls ‘look to me,’ and Jewish girls are the ones that buy expensive dresses. It made me sad, because I want to be an influence in ways other than by a pretty dress.”

Portman is careful to point out that she sees virtues, too, in today’s Jewish community. “There’s so much goodness there, and such a value placed on education, which is sort of universal among Jews around the world. I appreciate that obviously, to be a part of that.”

But she can’t help but return to her obvious frustration with the ideals she saw as a kid. “You belong to a temple and it’s totally for social purposes. It’s the barmitzvah–wedding–Rosh Hashanah place where you go and see what everyone’s wearing. And it serves its purpose too. But I think the major problem today with American Jews is materialism.”

I ask her where she feels more herself as a Jew - in Israel or in America. “It’s hard, because I was raised in the Long Island atmosphere, but I admire the Israeli atmosphere. So I’m in this strange middle-ground.”

She says starting college at Harvard changed her perspective, because she felt herself pulled toward the Jewish community on campus.

“The first time I felt comfortable in an American religious institution was in college, because campus Hillel was inclusive. And it’s nice having Shabbat dinner every week with

everyone. Anyone was welcome, so we’d bring all our friends to dinner because the Hillel Shabbat meal was so much better and they served Manischewitz [wine].”

She laughs. “It was so exciting to get alcohol in the dining hall.”

Portman says she’s always fasted on Yom Kippur and continued to do so in college. “I think it’s a really amazing thing, and I only

recently began to appreciate what it’s for. I used to just do it as sort of a dare - to see if I could actually handle it, because I really have a hard time not eating. I really like eating.

“But a couple of years ago, one of my friends got really mad at me and it happened to be on Yom Kippur. Even though this friend wasn’t Jewish, it made me go through the actual atonement on that day, and the hunger associated with it is really helpful.

“You see why there are kosher rules and why so many religions have rituals associated with food. Because you eat three times a day, so every time you have a restriction on your food, you think about why you’re restricting yourself.

“So whether it’s not eating milk and meat together, or not eating at all, you think about how you’ve wronged your friends, and how you should change your behaviour in the future. You’re made to think. It’s pretty powerful.”

At Harvard, she took a seminar in Israeli literature, and briefly became entangled in the Israeli-Palestinian controversy on campus.

In the spring of 2003, when a law student named Faisal Chaudhry wrote a column in the Harvard Crimson [a student newspaper] about the racism of Israelis, entitled “An Ideology of Oppression,” Portman shot off a letter to the editor.

“The fact that they published something that was such propaganda really upset me and I wrote back. But it ended up bringing more attention to this guy’s story than it got initially, so I was angry. I learned my lesson… I’m sure he’s a very intelligent and good person, but I think a lot of people don’t know what they’re necessarily talking about.”

I ask her to recap briefly their dispute. “His allegations were that Israel is treating the Palestinians poorly because they’re racist and it’s a conflict of white people against brown people, which is just so absurd.” (Chaudhry wrote: “White Israeli soldiers destroy refugee camps of the brown people they have dispossessed for decades.”)

“My response was that more than half of Israelis are of Sephardic origin. Many of these Jews come from Arab lands and share the same physical skin color. There was a picture on the cover of Newsweek that week in which there were two photographs side by side - a female suicide bomber who exploded herself in a supermarket and an Israeli girl who was killed in that attack. The girls were 17 and 18 and almost indistinguishable. That was my point.”

I ask if she’s felt pressure, since she graduated, to use her celebrity on behalf of Israeli causes.

“I’m very comfortable with that,”she says, “and I’m currently exploring ways to help because I love the country.”

She has recently become more protective of Israel, in part because people around her have become more impatient with it.

“I have a very close friend who lately has this European, anti-Israel way of thinking, and it’s very hard for me to have conversations with him. He says: ‘Can’t you be self-critical?’ But it’s hard to be publicly critical. It has to be done in a very delicate, well-thought-out manner.

“These issues come up at parties and dinners with people who don’t know a lot, and as someone who was born in Israel, you’re put in a position of defending Israel because you know how much is at stake. It’s become a much bigger part of my identity in recent years because it’s become an issue of survival.”

Portman suddenly realises that she has to put coins in the parking meter and excuses herself to run outside, first asking the waitress to change a dollar.

When she returns, I turn the conversation to her career, asking if she feels some Jewish pride in being considered a Hollywood beauty.

“Yeah,” she replies. “The hard thing is that people often don’t associate me with being Jewish. I’m not someone who you look at and say: ‘You’re Jewish.’ People ask me if I’m Spanish, Italian, or even WASPy. So I don’t think I can be representative. But in another way, I think I look very Jewish because all the Jewish girls I grew up with, we all look the same - small, short, skinny, dark hair, dark eyes. Little noses.”

She laughs. “So maybe it is time for a new type. I’d like it if people thought I was Jewish-looking.”

I ask if she’s ever felt shy about her ethnicity as a public person. “Not at all. But I don’t think that any one characteristic should be overemphasised in your real life when you’re an actor, because if I play a nun one day, I don’t want someone to be thinking when they see me, ‘Jew, Jew, Jew.’”

She did play an iconic Jew, Anne Frank, on Broadway at the age of 16. “It was an amazing experience,” she says. The reviews, however, were mixed. Time magazine said: “Portman’s Anne is a little short on stage charisma,” while the New York Times said she had “an endlessly poignant quality of spontaneity.”

But some of the criticism was personal. “I got a lot of flack,” Portman volunteers. “Cynthia Ozick was awful. She wrote this article in The New Yorker without having seen the show.” (Ozick is a prolific author and essayist who specialises in Jewish subjects. She described Portman’s characterisation of Anne Frank as “shallowly upbeat” and claimed that Frank’s story had been “kitschified.”)

Portman adds: “She said the most important line that’s been taken out of Anne Frank’s diary: ‘In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart,’ is how Anne Frank has been interpreted, when in fact she was miserable and had this awful life that has sort of been distorted to make her a martyr.

“She quoted me out of context from an interview where I was saying that I wanted to bring ‘light’ to the character. But Anne Frank was a 12-year-old girl, and when I met with Miep [Miep Gies, Anne Frank’s father’s secretary] and Bernd Elias, her first cousin who is her only living relative, they both told me that she was this hyperactive girl, happy, always running around, they were always yelling at her to slow down and be quiet because they were in hiding.

“So I had this image in my head of the energetic young girl who obviously is put in the most awful situation and creates this world for herself through her writing.

“It was important for me not to make it ‘The Death-And-Dread Show’ because everyone knows that, even in the most horrific circumstances, there’s some sort of life and some sort of humour. Anyway, Ozick said that I said Anne Frank ‘was happy’ or something that sounded moronic. [Portman told the New York Times that Anne Frank’s diary was “funny, it’s hopeful, and she’s a happy person.”]

“And then she continued to lecture about it, basically portraying me as this moron and my interpretation of the diaries as disrespectful to Anne Frank, which was the last thing I would ever do. I don’t expect not to be criticised because that’s what I do - I put myself out there to be criticised. But I thought it was unfair.”

I wonder how personally Portman connected to the character. “Very personally,” she says. “Because my grandparents didn’t talk about those years much, especially my grand-

father. His younger brother, who was 14 at the time, was in hiding from the Nazis and couldn’t take it one more day and ran out and was shot in the streets. And his parents were killed at Auschwitz. He was the one I’d always related to in the family. He was sort of the quiet, brilliant man who led Pesach, and I would always imagine him or his father in these horrifying humiliating conditions. The humiliation is almost harder for me to imagine than the physical pain. To think [it happened] to such dignified people.”

She was also surprised to discover how timeless and universal were Anne Frank’s fixations. “She talked about crushes and sex and genitals and all of these things that I was thinking about - and embarrassed to be thinking about - when I read the diary for the first time at 12-years-old. I thought I was weird and crazy, and then you read this diary and it’s not some grown-up’s book written for kids, like ‘What’s Happening to My Body?’ It’s another 12- or 13-year-old telling you what they’re going through.”

When it comes to Portman’s own romantic life, it has obviously been a staple of gossip columns (she’s been linked to actors Lukas Haas and Hayden Christensen, and to rock star Adam Levine), but she says she’s not necessarily looking for a Jewish husband.

“A priority for me is definitely that I’d like to raise my kids Jewish, but the ultimate thing is just to have someone who is a good person and who is a partner. It’s certainly not my priority.”

She says her parents don’t push her one way or another. “My dad always makes this stupid joke with my new boyfriend, who is not Jewish. He says: ‘It’s just a simple operation.’”

She laughs. “They’ve always said to me that they want me to be happy and that’s the most important thing, but they’ve also said that if you marry someone with the same religion, it’s one less thing to fight about. But according to that argument, I might as well only date vegetarian guys. The term ‘intermarry’ is sort of a racist term. I don’t really believe in purity of blood or anything like that. I think that’s awful.”

She doesn’t think it necessarily takes two Jews to maintain Jewish continuity in a family. “I feel the strength to carry that on myself. It’s easier when both parents are in it together, but I don’t necessarily think it has to be. I always think that if a guy I date is Jewish, it’s a plus, but it’s not one of the reasons I would like him.”

Portman says she resists blind tribalism. “I don’t believe in going along with anything without questioning. I think that’s the basis of Judaism - questioning and scepticism.”

She says that for her, basic humanity comes before faith. “To me, the most important concept in Judaism is that you can break any law of Judaism to save a human life. I think that’s the most important thing. Which means that humans are more important than Jews to me. Or than being Jewish is to me.”

From Hollywood to Harvard

Natalie Portman was born Natalie Hershlag in Israel in 1981.

She made her acting debut aged 12 in Luc Besson’s thriller “Leon,” winning rave reviews.

She made her Broadway debut in the title role of “Anne Frank” having become obsessed with the book. Several members of her family were murdered by the Nazis.

Portman’s big film break came in 1997 when she was given the role of Queen Amidala in “Star Wars - Episode 1.”

She took time out from her career to study for a psychology degree at Harvard.

While in Israel to film Amos Gitai’s

“Free State” last year, she studied at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Portman was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a lap dancer in the film version of Patrick Marber’s play “Closer.”

Abigail Pogrebin is a New York-based television producer and journalist. This interview is taken from her book “STARS OF DAVID: Prominent Jews talk about being Jewish,” published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 2005 Abigail Pogrebin.


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