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.