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Natalie and Me

In 2004, Natalie Portman—likely to win a Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan this weekend—spent a year at Hebrew University. So did I, and it’s her fault I started smoking.

Saul Noam Zaritt
February 23, 2011
Natalie Portman in Jaffa during a visit to Israel in 2008.(Dana Kopel/AFP/Getty Images)
Natalie Portman in Jaffa during a visit to Israel in 2008.(Dana Kopel/AFP/Getty Images)

This year, I’ll be watching the Oscars closely. As Natalie Portman inevitably alights the stage, looking gorgeous and pregnant, her engagement ring sparkling, I will be reminded again that the dream is over. I’d like to think I will be unmoved. But watching Natalie on the screen, I will think of what could have been.

In 2004, a couple of months after graduating college, I found myself in Israel. I had received a scholarship to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a year, and I was now thousands of miles away from my girlfriend. I had heard that Natalie was also studying at Hebrew University, on a short break from her acting career. As we made up the small minority of students older than 20—most students were on their junior-year abroad—I was sure that we were destined to become the best of friends.

I found out through the rumor mill that she was studying Middle East politics at the international school. I was studying Yiddish literature on the other side of campus, meaning that in all likelihood our academic lives wouldn’t overlap. I could have decided to take a politics class so that I might, purely by chance, sit next to an international movie star. But I am no creeper.

Instead I started smoking.

I had seen her once from a distance puffing away—the picture of cool. I was sure a smoke after class would be an innocuous way to become friends, though I guess cancer is bad.

My brand of choice was the French Gauloises. I would step outside, ostensibly admiring the view. The Mount Scopus campus overlooks much of the ancient city, including the Dome of the Rock, so there were plenty of picturesque places to stand, gaze, and smoke. The problem was, I soon found that I was strangely inured to nicotine addiction. I simply couldn’t get hooked. I found smoking gross. But I kept it up. I don’t know how many packs I went through; I got smoker’s cough and my teeth started going yellow. Still, I smoked. Natalie never showed.

One afternoon before Yiddish class, I decided to go out for a cigarette. As I was breathing in that lovely death, suddenly there she was, walking past with a friend toward the main gate of the university. When she was 20 paces ahead of me I put out the cigarette and began to follow, at what I deemed a safe non-stalker distance. When Natalie and her friend reached the entrance they began to look around for a cab. This was my chance. I went up to her friend and asked in Hebrew with my best Israeli accent if they were going downtown and if I could split a cab with them. I am particularly proud of this deception—as if it wasn’t obvious that we were all American. Amazingly, my ruse worked. Natalie answered that English was preferred, that they were American, and that I could certainly share the cab with them.

Once we got in the car (the friend in the front seat, and—serendipitously, amazingly!—me and Natalie together in the back), I froze. “Great day to skip class,” I said, resorting to what now sounds to me like a bad Ferris Bueller impression. I was sweating profusely. She noticed my nervousness and took over the conversation. We talked about books, I think. I tried my best to seem interesting and engaging, but I kept fiddling with my seat belt and crossing and uncrossing my legs, like I was directing traffic while sitting down.

Unfortunately, it’s a short 10-minute ride from the university to downtown. When we arrived, I paid my share of the cab and then stood there, frozen. I had been concentrating too hard on seeming sane to invent a reason for my going downtown. I couldn’t figure out some way to prolong our conversation. She smiled at me before walking away, one hand clutching her handbag and the other in a half-wave. I stood on the corner dazed for a couple of minutes. Then I sauntered off ebulliently. Surely Natalie and I were now friends! I assumed that the magic of celebrity and destiny would do the rest.

After about four or five paces, though, I realized that she didn’t even know my name.

Dejected, I did what any young academic-wannabe does when they’re feeling down on their luck in downtown Jerusalem. I wandered through the city’s many used bookstores and bought comfort books: the newest work by Yoel Hoffmann, novels by David Bergelson and Jacob Glatstein.

Awkwardly fumbling the six or seven books that I bought, I headed to Jerusalem’s main Zion Square. As I turned a corner, preoccupied with the choreography of books and bags and limbs, there she was again, inexplicably quite alone, as if she were waiting for me.

Somehow, without dropping my books (what grace!), I waved hello. She stopped me.

“Hi, I’m Natalie, by the way.”

“Oh, yeah, of course. I’m Saul.”

Her phone rang suddenly, as though on cue. She had one of those huge new Blackberries—it was 2004—and proceeded to have a conversation with what sounded like her agent or someone of the sort. She had been whisked away from our reverie, but I waited beside her patiently.

Then I heard a girl’s voice from behind me: “Who’s that?”

“Oh, he’s no one. He doesn’t know Natalie. He just split a cab with us.”

I turned around to find that Natalie’s friend had been joined by a gaggle of young women, all glaring at me as if I had stolen something from them.

Natalie continued to chatter on the phone and I could feel their eyes like daggers piercing my back with mounting rage. I knew this was a battle I couldn’t win. I noiselessly slipped away. I figured I would see Natalie at school soon.

But Natalie flew back to America for a movie premiere later that week, and I never saw her again.

Watching the Oscars will be hard, though perhaps also therapeutic. It’s time to move on. And at least I can thank Natalie for one thing: A couple of months after that taxi ride, I put my pack of cigarettes away. I don’t think I’ll ever smoke another cigarette.

CORRECTION: The photo caption in this article originally misstated when the photo was taken. It has been corrected.

Saul Noam Zaritt is a doctoral student of Hebrew and Yiddish literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Saul Noam Zaritt is a doctoral student of Hebrew and Yiddish literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary.