A commenter to my earlier post about Natalie Portman getting her first Christmas tree writes:
“This is what the Forward loves, Jews that celebrate Christmas. Shame on her, a Solomon Schechter graduate who celebrates that holiday and desires a tree. The Forward hates Ivanka because she conve[r]ted to Modern Orthodoxy Judaism and [is] raising her children as Jews.”
I have a few things to say about this, the first being that this post came from moi, Sisterhood Editor and long-time Portman-news-follower, not from the publication as a whole. So let’s assume this commenter is referring to me, and to my Sisterhood posts. Let’s also set aside the question of whether my Ivanka-criticism is because she’s an observant Jew, or a convert to Judaism. Rest assured that my issue with Ivanka is not that she’s Jewish (consider the source!) but rather her past-and-present role in helping her father with his now-imminent presidency.
No, what I’d like to focus on is this notion that there was “love” expressed for Natalie Portman’s tree remarks. Because, frankly, I found it unsettling.
What I found unsettling, to be clear, wasn’t the fact that her husband isn’t Jewish, or that she celebrates her own as well as her spouse’s traditions. I’m a firm believer both that individuals should make the personal and religious choices they see fit, and that what celebrities say on talk shows is persona-creation — that is, a performance, not sworn testimony about their private lives.
Rather, was the context — Trump as president-elect, and the accompanying rise of the so-called “alt-right”; Jimmy Fallon — altering what might have felt, at any other point in American Jewish history, like an innocuous moment of self-deprecation. Do all Jews, as in literally all Jews, dream of having literal Christmas trees? No. (If nothing else, those of us with small dogs determined to pull things down are likely a bit averse.) But what of it? Portman was making a lighthearted, talk-show-compatible remark about being a member of a minority religious tradition, and how Christmas is, for Jews in America, a bit fraught. Nervous assimilation-humor is a grand Jewish tradition, and it’s kind of refreshing to see it coming from a Natalie Portman and not a Philip Roth or Woody Allen. (From a woman. I mean from a woman.)
And yet, there was something about the moment when Fallon presented Portman with a (promotional) Christmas ornament that seemed, in the broader political context of our moment, not quite right. There she is, being welcomed into the all-American fold, except also, not. We have, on the one hand, Portman playing Jackie Kennedy in a new movie (that I very much expect to go see), and, on the other, a political climate where Jewish women, many of whom “pass” as much as Portman, are now facing a distinctly, uh, intersectional form of abuse online.
We’re at a moment in American Jewish history when assimilation seems like a quaint threat. That being the case, the anxious assimilation joke seems from a different time. It reflects a level of comfort that I remember but don’t currently recognize.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at email@example.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.
How Should We Feel About Natalie Portman Getting a Christmas Tree?
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a former editor of the Sisterhood blog at the Forward. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including The New Republic and The Atlantic. Her book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” was published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017. She has a PhD in French and French Studies from New York University, and has read a lot of 19th century French Jewish newspapers for a 21st century American.