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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.

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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.

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Great little story Saul. She’s a beauty and seems to be a nice person, she could of easily said no when you asked about splitting the taxi.

I wish her all the best at the Oscars.

Joyce Gilbert says:

Adorable story! Don’t fret, Saul — there has to be another Natalie in your future.

Ms. Herschlag, you are such a heartbreaker.

Hope Natalie doesn’t read this. Embarrassing. Not sure what makes this a story worthy of publication.

…on second thought… I was moved to read it. So I see the logic. And I”m sure Jewish guys can relate more than I do.

pinchas says:

Jewish men are often either arrogant know it alls, or little nebishes with an inferiority complex. Why is that, saul?

And then it turns out that the author was Natalie all along.


anonymous says:

She is an interesting person, so you had right to like her. You can still be her fan and there are many jewish girls that look like her.
Look around and dont’ get discouraged.

That’s not actually an image of Natalie when she was here studying at Hebrew U. That image was taken on a trip back in 2008 when she visited Israel with her then boyfriend Devendra Banhart. And I know that because….uh….because…uh….

Rob Ross says:

Saul, doing a quick calculation I’m guessing that now you’re about 28 or 29 y.o.
I really do hope that at some point in the last 7 years you’ve grown a pair.
It will make life so much easier even for a doctoral student of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. You will know the transformation has taken place when you find you are no longer intimidated by a “gaggle of young women”.
I bet, in fact, Natalie Portman would have found you charming….good luck.

this is a very sweet slice of life story. i loved it.

Harry, I know that the photo was from a trip to Jaffa with Devendra Banhart because of Google Images. Disappointing that the caption was not fact-checked. Tablet, you need to improve.

7 years is a long time to think about such failure, Saul.

sup saul, my wife and I were both at Hebrew University then, as well. Natalie was in her Arabic class. She didn’t start smoking, but she has remarked since about how small Natalie Portman was.

mrs. Matzhini says:

All these years I dreamt of meeting a real, gifted writer. If I only knew you were so near, passing by every night, while I was busy with the dumpster.

Oh what could have been Saul. But great story!!

Ed Gerson says:

I suggest everyone read Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer. For him, it was seeing William Holden on the street. Such is the aura of celebrity. I’m sure, however, I would have acted in exqctly the same way. Wonderful story. I shared it with my friends.

karen b gordon says:

i relate to naming the person who started your smoking habit albeit a short one. i was in camp massad in the poconos summer of 61. susan sheingarten bless her heart got most of us into the habit. she quit many years before me. shes doing well in nyc 2011.

I once paid 13 and 1/2 shekels for a cab from campus to downtown. Maybe if you achieved that instead of a sweaty back, Natalie would be pregnant with your child

Llinda Kneucker says:

I think it is a lovely story…and his “longing” was real, and he transmits the feelings to the reader. Thanks

Jennifer says:

Aaw what a wonderful story – makes people all warm and Fuzzy inside. How about we talk about the concentration camps in Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians simply because they are not Jewish…lets talk about the drums on top of their houses because they only get water twice a month or the starving children in Refugee camps whose land was snatched so that the likes of Natalie Portman could become Israeli! It’s not right and it’s not just…Israel is treating these people like the Nazis treated the Jews…disgraceful!

David J says:

Jennifer, you have swallowed horrendous leftist bullshit. Have you visited Israel? If so, please locate the concentration camps and refugee camps that you cite. There are none in Israel. There are in other Arab lands because it suits there political purposes. And your tripe also suits their purposes. Get a life.

Stewart says:

Thank you David, I couldn’t have said it better. Stewart S., NY

What a great story! And because I cannot help but channel your mother, the highlight was that you stopped smoking! Good job! Nothing ruins a crusty bread event more than having to go out for a smoke.

elaine alexander says:

Saul, I am not sure why no-one noticed: You are over Natalie Portman, but still a funny, tongue-in-cheek writer. And by the way, Bruce Springsteen and I graduated from the same high school— just a year apart.
(I am the older one.) Back in high school, I never met Bruce. No surprise. At Freehold (NJ) Regional High School, Bruce was a garage band nebish. And I was a “college prep” nebish. But several summers, I waitressed at Trotters and Pacers, an all night diner. I worked the counter, and Bruce who probably came in (maybe with a buddy), ordered a Coke and did not leave a tip (because he was just a poor boy in a garage band). Years later, when the Boss performed at a super-sized venue in Chicago, I brought a miniature hand-made wind sock, engagingly packaged, around to the stage door. It had a tag on it which read: Welcome to the Windy City. Elaine, FRHS ’66 and my address. Bruce never acknowledged my gift. I guess he has no feeling for FRHS alums, or maybe he knew that in high school, I did not go out of my way to be nice to guys who sat at my counter and didn’t leave tips.

Incidentally, Jennifer, you are under-informed as to what the Nazis did to the Jews. Before you reference a subject, study up.

Justadude says:

Saul’s piece resonated with me due to similar experiences and masks a sad reality for many people. These types of missed connections happen all the time, and leave not only the men feeling deflated, but often the girl is left disappointed too (see Craigslist “missed connections” for proof).

Although easier said than done, guys need to ask for the phone number or date before the opportunity is gone and get a firm yes or no instead of kicking themselves forever. Rejection is much less painful than wondering “what if?”.

Not to rub it in, but I bet she was here looking for a nice Israeli husband. Why else would one of the biggest Hollywood stars take a year off to move here?

fred lapides says:

Pincas: stop splitting the world into either this or that. that oversimplifies human beings and you are a putz.

Jennifer: you need to read up on history and contemporary things instead of swallowing leftist crap whole hog–and I am a far left person.

dave says:

Wasn’t she supposed to be a goody two-shoes? And it turns out she puffs butts between classes, the grossest habit of all. Between all the smoking and fawning, there’s really nothing charming about this story.

Rebecca says:

hilarious! I particularly loved the part about buying comfort books……. now that’s a Jewish thing! Loved it :)

Damian says:

Beautiful story man!

Micki says:

Loved the story and hope if Saul readsthe follow ups know that by now we hope he has found his bershert.JTS is surrounded with a choice of the right one for him.

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thanks for the insight

What a great story!

And then it turns out that the author was Natalie all along.


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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.

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