Natalie Portman: Fit for a Queen
March 13, 2006Comments (2)
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Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman has been in the spotlight for half of her life, starting with a powerful film debut in "The Professional" at age 12 and ascending to Hollywood royalty with her role as Queen Amidala in the "Star Wars" prequels. After juggling a film career with her studies at Harvard University for four years, she has received critical acclaim for several recent performances, including those in "Cold Mountain," "Closer" – for which she received an Oscar nomination, and the upcoming "V for Vendetta." In an excerpt from the 2005 book "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish," Portman talks with journalist Abigail Pogrebin about growing up in very Jewish Long Island, dealing with anti-Israel sentiment and her happy memories at Harvard Hillel. (Excerpted with permission.)
On a cool October morning, actress Natalie Portman is wearing a jean jacket and dangling beaded earrings, sipping Earl Grey tea in Schiller's Liquor Bar, a favorite caf of hers tucked into Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Leaning on a white marble table that sits on a black and white checkered floor, 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 24-year-old, who was born in Israel to an Israeli father, fertility specialist Dr. Avner Hershlag, and an American mother, artist Shelly Hershlag.
They moved to the United States when she was 3, 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—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."
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 $5 million 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."
Folding 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 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, never got bat mitzvahed, I just sort of rejected the 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 step foot in Orthodox temples. But in Israel, it's about what it's about."
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 somewhat, because she found herself feeling pulled toward the Jewish community on campus. "I think you should always sort of look for where you belong once you get to school," says Portman. "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 Manishewitz." She laughs. "It was so exciting to get alcohol in the dining hall."
At Harvard, she took a seminar in Israeli literature, and she briefly engaged 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 about the racism of Israelis, titled "An Ideology of Oppression," Portman shot off a letter to the editor. "I was reading my student newspaper and 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 helped him get into the Washington Post -- they gave him a lot more voice than he was due. 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 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 my country." She's 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."
I ask if she's very shy about her ethnicity as a public person. "Not at all. But I don't think that any one characteristic should be overemphasized in your real life when you're an actor, because if I play a nun one day, I don't want some one 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," Portman says.
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 grandfather. 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 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 about such dignified people."
When it comes to Portman's own romantic life, 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 mainly 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."
Portman says she resists any kinds of blind tribalism. "I don't believe in going along with anything without questioning. I think that's the basis of Judaism: questioning and skepticism." 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 to me that humans are more important than Jews are to me. Or than being Jewish is to me."
Excerpted with permission from "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish," by Abigail Pogrebin. New York, Broadway Books, 2005.