Portman’s Hebrew Accent Whisperer
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Portman’s Hebrew Accent Whisperer

While making the film “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Natalie Portman had to put her palm in front of her mouth, repeat Hebrew words and feel how the air hit her skin.

If Portman felt her breath, it meant she was saying the words in an Israeli accent — or something close to it. Along with directing, writing and starring in the 2015 Hebrew-language film, which opened last week here, Portman had to learn how to speak like an Israeli housewife in the 1940s.

Portman was born in Jerusalem but grew up in the United States, so her fluent Hebrew came with a heavy American inflection. In the movie, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s 2002 autobiographical novel of the same name, Portman plays Oz’s mother, Fania, a Russian immigrant living in Jerusalem during the time surrounding Israel’s independence in 1948.

To study the accent, Portman hired Neta Riskin, 39, an Israeli actor known for her role in “Shtisel,” an Israeli show about a charedi family. For three months during filming, Riskin and Portman practiced daily, covering vowels, consonants, syllable emphasis and sentence flow.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is to act not in your language,” said Riskin, who spoke to JTA while on an acting stint in Germany, where she was performing in both German and English. “It’s like walking with crutches. They’re not your legs. They’re artificial. To do a full movie in that is amazing.”

Most observers, said Riskin, assume the hardest part of an Israeli accent is pronouncing guttural consonants like the “chet” and “resh,” which aren’t so much pronounced as gargled. But Portman had no problem with that; she got hung up on the vowels.

Israeli vowels are pronounced near the front of the mouth, Riskin said, while American sounds come from further back. By putting her palm in front of her lips, Portman could tell how her breath was flowing and where the sounds were coming from.

Riskin also made sure Portman was emphasizing the right syllables and parts of a sentence. Unlike in English, Hebrew words and sentences have the emphasis on the last syllable and word. To coach Portman through her word flow, Riskin would have her move her hand along with the word’s undulations, as if she were a symphony conductor.

Riskin has helped other actors perfect an Israeli accent, but she said the job isn’t in high demand. Hebrew isn’t a widely spoken language outside Israel, and some actors who portray Israelis don’t seem to care whether they get it right. Riskin was particularly irked by Adam Sandler’s turn in “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a 2008 comedy in which he plays a Mossad agent.

“That drove me crazy,” she said. “That was a Yiddish accent, not an Israeli accent. They speak that way in Brooklyn or in a shtetl, but not in Israel.”

Riskin said she was “in awe” that Portman not only acted but also directed a full film in her second language.

“She needed superpowers to do this all together,” Riskin said. “Even if we cleaned up all of the American characteristics, there would still be a shade of foreignness. If Natalie had stayed in Israel another year, she would have sounded like a sabra.”

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