Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

‘Proud to Be Jewish’

Natalie Portman, Oscar winner and face of Dior Cherie perfume, condemned Dior designer John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst. In 2005, she spoke about her deep Jewishness for the book Stars of David.

Print Email
Natalie Portman arriving at the Academy Awards Sunday night. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Read Portman’s statement on John Galliano here.

On a cool October morning, actress Natalie Portman is wearing a jean jacket and dangling beaded earrings, sipping tea in Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She 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 Shelley 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.”

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, I never got bat mitzvahed, 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.”

As she describes some of her Long Island girlfriends, the slur “JAP” pops into my head and I ask how she feels when someone uses the word. “I mean, I grew up in a Long Island public school that was 60 to 70 percent Jewish and I know what a JAP is,” she says, sipping her tea. “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.”

“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 sort of sad, because I want to be an influence in ways other than by a pretty dress.”

I ask if she’s felt pressure 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’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 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.”

She did play an iconic Jew, Anne Frank, on Broadway at the age of 16, and 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 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.”

When it comes to Portman’s own romantic life, it has obviously been a staple of gossip columns, 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.” 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. But according to that argument, I might as well only date vegetarian guys.”

Stars of David by Abigail Pogrebin

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 obviously easier when both parents are in it together, but I don’t necessarily think it has to be.”

Portman says she resists any kind 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 from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Print Email

Since she is having a child with a man of a different faith, I assume that views ascribed to he n 2004/5 require an update.

D. B. Starr says:

Unfortunately she fits into the dominant category of figures in the book, i.e. some degree of attraction to Jewishness (in her case quite strong) but with no inevitable behavioral consequences re. group norms.

Pesele says:

Actually no update is necessary:
‘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 obviously easier when both parents are in it together, but I don’t necessarily think it has to be.”’

As a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who actively helped raise two proud Jewish daughters, I can assure Ms Portman that Jewish continuity can be achieved by one committed Jewish parent, provided the other parent (Jewish or not, as it happens) is supportive. And I wish her well in that journey.dfads

Pesele says:

oops–extra characters should have been deleted…sorry!

Marty Janner says:

This lovely,talented, Jewish Woman, is representative of what being Of our faith means to her! In no way should we cricize her, because, these are personal and should be commended. She, in her heart is Jewish to the nth degree!

Living in the arts is a very strange environment! Often times, very strange to our way of thinking. The important thing, is what’s inside that counts!

Yaakov Hillel says:

She says something very sad and true. most of my family, couins, second cousins etc. live in America. Most of the family is in America a century or more. Among the grand children of my cousins only few have remained Jewish. In Israel the feeling Jewish even if you are anti-religion, Arabs and Jews rarely marry, meaning the feeling of being Jewish in Israel is natural. This supports the argument that Jews should live in Israel simply to remain Jewish. There are fewer Jews in America than is really reported. I believe approximately 30% less. o9ne of the reasons that the situation is not worse because Israel is constantly exporting Jews to America, Generally the highly educated ones

Anon says:

Agreed, Pesele! Natalie is a great example of a proud and committed Jew in an interfaith relationship who will raise her children as Jews. She’s a wonderful role model. Unfortunately some people still associate intermarriage with loss of Jewish identity — that could not be further from the case for many Jews including Natalie.

Excellent comment, Pesele. I agree completely. Not only is it possible to successfully raise Jewish children when not both parents are Jewish as long as both parents are supportive and respectful, it is possible to make that marriage last through any other major decision that may, and will, arise throughout the marriage because that is the most important part of any relationship.

Howard says:

Sigh. Wish you well Natalie Portman, whoever you are. But honestly, I don’t understand the mind/soul of one who says you can raise a Jewish child with a nonJewish spouse, and that this is more or less the equivalent of doing so with two Jewish partners. (I was raised by a Jew and a nonJew … I have some experience here.)

On the other hand, once you get to the point where it seems to be true that it doesn’t matter if both parents are Jewish, it probably really doesn’t matter. After all, a person who thinks like that isn’t thinking about having a shared Jewish spiritual language with their spouse or seeing the matrix of Jewish family life, customs, rituals as being in anyway essential to the flavors and melodies of the love he or she communicates to the children.

If you don’t know why you would need a Jewish spouse, it is unlikely that having one would help!

So hers is just late stage assimilationist thinking, so far outside of Jewish continuity that it hardly matters at all.

Of course I wish her well, and she may even cobble together some kind of Jewish identity for her children, and they may or may not adopt it or live it. Or not. Who knows? This is normal modern thinking, in the final states of cultural collapse.

She stands outside the corruption of upper middle class Jewish Long Island life, but well within the deluded consensus zone of post-religious American and Israeli Jewish life. She is a good example of the Israeli secular mindset transplanted to the American cultural reality. Without the hothouse of Arab hatred and a militarized society, Israeli Jews would assimilate into the Middle East faster than you could snap a finger, and they would do so while saying things just like Natalie Portman. I suppose that’s only a bad thing if you care about Jewish survival.

I’m only mildly religious myself – I say all this without rancor, just interest, experience and belief.

Connie says:

I see a women who’s heart is Jewish. She has the sense to defend Israel and she knows what dosnt matter when it comes to religion. That says alot about her to me. And im not Jewish. I think she would not stand with the liberal Jews who are allowing another holocaust by believing Islam is a religion of peace. I believe she will stand defending Israel with the rest of us.. :))

Dr. Michael Margaretten says:

David,

Her child will be Jewish.

Benjamin says:

Yes you can have Jewish children if you are a Jewish woman. They will be halakhically Jewish and, sometimes, may even feel Jewish (I know some) – but most of the time no. And “feeling Jewish” means nothing at all. Jewish culture is about actions not “feelings”. Feeling Jewish and living like a goy is of no consequence and interest for the Jewish people.
The question of intermarriage is not a personnal issue but a national issue for the Jewish diaspora. The fact is the Jewish population of the diaspora and of the US in particular is dwindling because of intermarriage.
Today, Israel makes some 40-45% of the Jewish population but 65% at least of the Jewish births ! And it’s just growing and growing.
The diaspora has no future. Make Aliyah or disappear, that’s your only choice.

“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.”

If I ever got the chance, I’d ask Ms. Portman if she could come up with a single other ethnic group on the planet where a person who is 100% of that group would make such a statement.

Not even her Harvard education could help her with that one. That ethnic group doesn’t exist. It’s only with the Jews, apparently, where a pure-blooded Jew would say that they can’t “be representative” of Jews (in this case, because they happen to be as attractive as she is). If even Portman can’t “be representative”, then I guess “we” rule Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Logan Lerman, and Mila Kunis, and so on right off the bat.

“typo – meant to say “we rule OUT Paul Rudd, Joseph…, etc.”

I guess all that leaves us with is the nightmarish nerdy comedians. Wunderbar!

FreeMind says:

dee, maybe it’s because many Jews don’t think, and rightly so, that their good or bad appearance has something to do with them being Jewish. What unites Jews from different corners of the world is Judaism and some culture, not some myth about being “pure-blooded” from biblical Abraham or whatever. So maybe it’s you who have a problem, not Portman.

I’m just gobsmacked by some of the negative comments about her beliefs and what folks are saying about being Jewish. American Jews, Israeli Jews & Jews from whereever ARE a “PEOPLE” period. And to the CONNIE chic who commented earlier who ‘isn’t jewish’ but believes that the liberal Jews are responsible for the next Holocaust is absolutely CRACKERS! I’m a Reformed HUMANIST American Jew & I don’t for one milisecond believe that Islam is a religion of Peace. That way of ‘thinking’ is why there is an amass of ignorance about Jews, Muslims or any other peoples of faith. Ms. Portman is quite sage in her 24 young years and I am certain Motherhood will become her. Aside from that, religion is a PERSONAL matter and REALLY isn’t of anyone elses consquence but their own. I’d kindly like to remind previous, future posters & those who may read my comments to remember that. Quit with all the “hating” & reflect upon your own lives and actions.

rivka says:

I heard that he IS Jewish and “Millepied” not his real last name. But anyone could’ve guessed that!

“and rightly so, that their good or bad appearance has something to do with them being Jewish”

Natalie Portman apparently does, if you read her comment.

Bill Pearlman says:

Natalie Portman is the only Jewish entertainment star who has like they say in Brooklyn, “balls”. God bless her.

Natalie Portman whether Jewish or not is an amazing actress :)

What an intelligent,admirable young woman…and beautiful,too…and politically astute…her parents must be very,very proud…

morris wise says:

Most Jewish women in New York that marry Goyim raise anti Semitic children. But those are only the ones I have met.

GABE RUIZ-GORRITZ says:

There is a saying in Spanish “La sangre llama.” the blood, it calls. One parent, two parents, either way if “they” hear the call of the blood therein their body regardless of upbringing or social conditioning the blood will call, and when it does the choice to listen will be present. Have an opinion, sure. Criticize to the point of discounting them, never! Hitler, the Inquisitors, and pogroms considered them foul and a poisoned people whether in total or in fraction of Jewry. There are plenty of Jews who argue the above said points and personal opinions of someone like Natalie but the reality remains that any bit of Jewish is still viable grounds for racism, bigotry, death, or anything Nazi-like in those seeking to eradicate Jews. Many feel so comfortable, self-righteous, and arrogant about their ethnic stature but it is G-d who determines and strengthens the heart of those willing, in courage, to remain what the world has sought to extinguish for centuries – Jewish!

Peter says:

Ms. Portman expresses an attachment and empathy with Judaism and Israel, but doesn’t speak of having a direct, personal relationship with G_d. Maybe it’s none of our business.

My daughter grew up Jewish, went to Hebrew School afternoons and Sundays, was Bat Mitzvah’d in a Conservative Synagogue who did the ceremony on Friday nights, with “batches” of girls, and did not chant from the Torah.The Rabbi was Orthodox believed the rubbish that woman were unclean at puberty.The Congregation sold the building to a caterer, it became a catering hall. The Rabbi was frustrated, grew an ulcer, died with stomach cancer.
My daughter married a college dep’t. head who is an agnostic, but cooperates with children’s Judaism. My son’s children went to a Jewish
day-school.
My wife and I grew up “Orthodox” but are now Liberal Conservative, as we found too many contradictions in Orthodoxy. I believe that the Temple Priests wrote the Torah to benefit themselves, and my view of GOD differs greatly from Orthodox, and is personal and warm.

ron_woodward says:

My conservative congregation in upstate New York welcomed non-Jews who wished to convert to marry Jews. Our reasoning was that one more Jew was most important. Ideological and religious differences fade in time.
Our tradition beats becoming extinct [assimilated] by a mile.

Barsaat says:

Are you seriously arguing over what makes one jewish…? In this day and age just try being good humans!

You intelligibly show cognition relating to this theme and i also have much to seek out reading your write-up.LotпїЅпїЅs of salutations and i is ideal for any longer updates.

I’ve said that least 2113803 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Great resources! Thank you for sharing this with us.Iike pandora charms jewelry.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

‘Proud to Be Jewish’

Natalie Portman, Oscar winner and face of Dior Cherie perfume, condemned Dior designer John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst. In 2005, she spoke about her deep Jewishness for the book Stars of David.

More on Tablet:

How To Say You’re Sorry

By Marjorie Ingall — As Yom Kippur approaches, I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to apologize—and how not to