famous pen-pals

The Most Intense Excerpts From Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Emails

Photo: Craig McDean/Times

Natalie Portman is on the cover of T Magazines new summer entertainment issue promoting her directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, an adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz’s best-selling memoir about his childhood in Jerusalem in the last years of the British mandate. The pictures are gorgeous, but we’re equally intrigued the accompanying feature: a new email correspondence between Portman and author Jonathan Safran Foer, penned especially for the Times. The pair have been email pen pals for over a decade, but their “epistolary archive mysteriously disappeared” earlier this year.

As you may recall, it has long been rumored that Foer developed a whopping unrequited crush on Portman after she decided to adapt one of his books. Portman allegedly rebuffed him, but not before Foer told his wife, Nicole Krauss, about it (oops!), leading to the dissolution of the literary power-couple’s marriage back in 2014. While there’s no explicit mention of romance here, these emails are certainly the kinds of intense midnight musings — lengthy, pretentious digressions on Jewish melancholy and the nature of freedom — that one might pen if one wanted to convince a very famous and beautiful actress to leave her husband for you.

Here are some of the most intense excerpts:

Jonathan speaks of guinea pigs:

“It’s almost 6:00 in the morning. The boys are still asleep. I can hear the guinea pigs stirring, but that might be the residue of a nightmare. People often refer to aloneness and writer’s block as the two great challenges of being a novelist. In fact, the hardest part is having to care for guinea pigs.”

Jonathan asks Natalie about how freedom constrains her:

“Freedom might not be a prerequisite for the expression of passion — it helps, sometimes, not to be able to follow your instincts — but they are strongly intertwined. How do you think about freedom? When do you most strongly wish you had more of it? When do you most strongly wish you had less?”

Natalie also speaks of guinea pigs:

“My mother-in-law used the word guinea pig when telling me a story in French yesterday, and it’s ‘‘cochon d’inde,’’ which translates to ‘‘pig from India.’’ Who’s right?”

Jonathan gives a history lesson on Gettysburg:

“The two things that distinguish [Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania] are its proximity to Gettysburg … I never have followed through on my threats of a tour, but Gettysburg’s presence is constantly felt while in the area: the innumerable signs commemorating battles, the ammunition in the antiques shops, the memorials. It also exudes a ghostly aura. I feel silly writing that, but there’s nothing silly or ignorable about the feeling. And it isn’t just the proximity to history. It’s something else — something in the air, and in the ground. Are there places where you feel a ‘‘something else’’?”

Natalie writes of Jewish yearning:

“I realized how much Judaism for me was connected to yearning — to wanting what you don’t have — which is maybe why Israel is so complicated emotionally for Jews: It’s built into the emotional structure of our religion to yearn for a homeland we don’t have.”

Natalie muses on melancholy as a cultural tendency:

“An ex-boyfriend of mine used to call me ‘Moscow,’ because he said I was always looking out the window sadly, like ‘‘Moscow,’’ like some Russian novel or Chekhov play. Clearly there were grounds for this ex getting fired, but he did have a point — I have that longing, yearning, it’s-better-over-there tendency. It was illuminating for me to have Oz describe that kind of behavior in his mother as ‘‘Slavic romantic melancholy,’’ because it associated it with a cultural tendency. And it’s true that there is a very cultural influence on that sort of yearning, depressive ‘‘Moscow’’-ing out the window (there must be one German adjective that describes this exact feeling).”

Jonathan has sooooo many questions:

“My first book came out when I was young, but you have been a professional actress for what seems like your entire life. How has that influenced your sense of the passage of time? (Most people see milestones ahead, and work toward them. You had so much come at once.) Is there any sense in which writing and directing are a means to feel that you are beginning again? And not to pile on the questions, but ‘‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’’ is about a young boy growing up in a young country that is itself growing up. At the same time, the boy is clearly a very ‘‘old soul,’’ and the young country is more than 5,000 years old. More, you play a woman who is never her chronological age — sometimes too full of a child’s wonder to be an adult, sometimes prematurely old, sometimes almost biblical. What, if anything, did your own experiences with time — growing up, and as a mother — contribute to your vision of time in the film?”

Natalie reflects on the Sabbath:

“Time goes exponentially fast as a parent. I hate saying it, cause ugh, we hated it so much when people said it to us: Pay attention and hold them close because before you know it, they’re moving out of the house. They always said it, and now we say it, and it’s awful, and we’re old. But it’s also true. And that’s why Shabbat is such a lovely idea that I’m trying to revive in my life. I love that Erich Fromm thing about Shabbat being the ability to suspend time. The reason we aren’t allowed to move a book from one place to another on Shabbat, or turn on a light, or buy something — it’s not because it’s ‘‘work,’’ and work isn’t allowed on the Sabbath. It’s because those things would show the passage of time. And Shabbat is the one day when we can stop time. “

Jonathan really doesn’t want the article to end:

“Not even Shabbat can stop the clock — two have moved from the future to the past in the course of our having this exchange — but every now and then the broken-down time machine that is Hotmail can cough itself back to life. I didn’t bother mentioning it, because it felt so fruitless, but while corresponding with you, I have also been corresponding with what I think is a robot at Hotmail. And while most everything that was lost will remain lost, I was able to dig up a few things, including the email that began our long friendship, from all the way back in 2002.”

Can’t wait ‘til these two hear about Snapchat.

Natalie Portman’s Emails to Jonathan Safran Foer