Sacha Baron Cohen bails on Freddie Mercury biopic


Plans for Sacha Baron Cohen to portray a character who is both mustachioed and flamboyant (a hybrid of Borat and Bruno, one might say) have fallen through.

The Jewish actor has cancelled his plans to play Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in an upcoming biographical film, Deadline.com reports. Apparently he is not on the same page as the remaining members of Queen, who have creative control over the project. The band’s vision is a PG movie, while Cohen was pushing for a “gritty R-rated tell-all centered around the gifted gay singer.”

It’s too bad they couldn’t make things work, as they’re going to have a hard time finding someone who looks more like Mercury than Cohen does.

But what about Azerbaijan?


A few weeks ago, in that Hollywood purgatory just before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, I found myself at a party in honor of Borat.

I fully expected Borat to appear, dingy brown suit and post-modern Groucho mustache and all. Instead, as I walked through the door of the restaurant Jar, I came face to face with Sascha Baron Cohen. The actor who created Borat came out of his self-imposed in-xile to meet his potential Academy voters (and me) and impress upon them the fact that he was, indeed, acting.

I shook Cohen’s hand maybe a beat too long — the man is preternaturally handsome and poised, and I was a bit tongue-tied at first. Then I told him I thought his movie was brilliant satire. And the fact that as Borat, the anti-Semitic Kazakhstani journalist, Cohen spoke Hebrew, was an even higher level of brilliance.

“Ata m’dber Ivrit?” the actor asked me. Did I speak Hebrew?

“Ken,” I said. Yes.

And so, amid the high-powered producers and directors, I found myself chatting in Hebrew with Cohen. He told me he learned it on a kibbutz, that he preferred to daven in traditional synagogues and that he was well-aware of the irony that Borat, who once urged the audience of a country and western bar to “throw the Jews down the well,” speaks not Kazakh, but Ivrit.

A friend interrupted us: “What are you saying?”

“We were just talking about you,” Cohen deadpanned.

As it turned out, the Academy didn’t nominate Cohen for Best Actor, or “Borat” for Best Picture. It should have. I can’t think of another movie of the past year that was as subversively clever or had as deep a cultural impact. Then again, by the time the Academy honored Charlie Chaplin, the man was near death.

Oscar doesn’t do comedy.

Meanwhile, not long after I met Cohen, I met one of Borat’s landsmen, so to speak. Consul General Elin Suleymanov of the Republic of Azerbaijan had sent me a column he had written taking issue with some of the stereotypes in “Borat,” and he followed up the submission with a meeting. Yes, I know Azerbaijan is across the Caspian Sea and two countries away from Kazakhstan (well, I know that now, thanks to Wikipedia). But at the time, the coincidence seemed too perfect.

Suleymanov is a thoughtful and cultured man, and he would be the first to express his disgust that I’m even mentioning his name in the same paragraph as Borat’s. But the deeper message of “Borat” was one that the consul general shared — American ignorance might be blissful and funny, but it stops us from seeing the complexity of real life, and real human beings.

All of which — Jar, Borat, Cohen, Suleymanov — leads me to Iran.Iran has seven neighbors. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I could only name three of them: Turkey, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.

Iraq is a mess, a cauldron of intra-Islamic conflict. Afghanistan is heading down the same tragic path, as the Taliban assert greater fundamentalist control. All those Muslims are nuts, right?

Then there’s Azerbaijan.

It is a majority Shi’ite country — 70 percent Sh’ite, the rest mostly Sunni. It is a democratic secular state whose religious and ethnic minorities are embraced. Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote in 1919 — one year before the United States did.

“My teachers were Jews. My doctors were Jews,” Suleymanov said. “They have lived with us through good and bad times.” (Azerbaijan’s most famous Jew? Chess grand master Garry Kasparov.)

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held his Holocaust denial conference earlier this winter, the Azerbaijani television station aired a debate on it featuring Arthur Lenk, Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan (yes, the same man who was Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s).

“He got one full hour,” Suleymanov said. “There was a feeling he won the debate.”

It’s not just about tolerance. One-sixth of Israel’s oil supply comes from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an economically thriving, moderate and tolerant majority-Islamic nation with great oil wealth — like the real Kazakhstan, in a way.

Of course, Azerbaijan is small — 8 million people to Iran’s 75 million. But Azeris, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Azerbaijanis, account for some 20 million Iranians. Mullahs who have tried to gain traction for fundamentalist teachings in Baku have met with little success, and Azeris in Iran have had a liberalizing influence.

“Every revolution in Iran began in an Azeri region, except the Khomeini revolution,” Suleymanov said.

So is it possible for Shi’ite Iran to choose to be more like its neighbor Azerbaijan and less like its neighbor the Taliban? The consul general believes one key is to give Iran carrots and sticks to pull it toward the Western orbit, where many of its citizens prefer to be.

Of course, the threat of a nuclear Iran raises the stakes and shortens the amount of time the West can allow Iran to evolve. In the meantime, it’s incumbent upon us, as Natan Sharansky has pointed out, to hold Iranian leaders morally and politically responsible for their pronouncements.

But when the Borats of our American pundocracy assert that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, Israel and human rights, you might ask them — what about Azerbaijan?

The video of Rob Eshman’s interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is now available at http://www.jewishjournal.com/video/ehudbarak.rm. Length 1:18. Format: Real Video (streaming).

Boycott Borat?


Does comedy nullify hatred? Does comedy grant allowance to bigotry, racism and, most of all, anti-Semitism?

Nov. 3 began the opening weekend of the acclaimed “most hilarious movie ever”: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Khazakstan.” After rushing to the movie theater on Saturday night, I was greatly displeased to find the show was sold out. But since nobody I knew got in either, I soon realized I could still see the show with my friends the following weekend.

After much anticipation, I finally saw “Borat,” and for most of the movie I was almost dying of laughter. However, at a few points my laughter came to an abrupt stop. One scene replaced the Spanish tradition of the Running of the Bulls with “The Running of the Jew.” During this scene, Kazakhs chase two huge, green-colored caricatures of Jews — one a man with an unnaturally large nose and long payot and the other a woman with a large nose and a hideous face. When the crowd erupted in laughter at these famous stereotypes, I felt as though I had traveled back 65 years to when anti-Semitism was openly rampant.

Another scene shows Borat staying at a bed and breakfast run by a Jewish couple. Thinking that the owners had metamorphosed into cockroaches, Borat throws money at the insects and flees the house in great fear. The implication that Jews are “cheap” was displayed and made fun of in front of millions of viewers all over the world. Throughout the film, Borat reinforces stereotypes of other minorities, as well as of Jews. One scene includes Borat sagging his pants and speaking in a mocking African American dialect. Practically throughout the entire film, Borat pokes fun at “hicks,” a term many of us in our own bigotry have used to categorized everyone living in Middle America.

This display of clearly anti-Semitic scenes, in combination with various other scenes offensive to minorities, truly tore my decision in half regarding whether I should support this movie. Do I side with my teenage perspective that says it’s hilarious? Or rather, do I side with my grown-up, more critical side that deems the film offensive and anti-Semitic?

Before making any judgments, we must reconsider Sacha Baron Cohen’s, a.k.a Borat’s, true motives for making this film. Certainly, Cohen is not serious in this anti-Semitism — he’s a Jew. Rather, Cohen successfully attempts to evoke the stupidity of anti-Semites — and all racism, for that matter — through his character, Borat. By making brash, racist remarks, Borat’s exposes the audience to the irrationality and “craziness” of any form of baseless hatred.

The movie also uncovers the very prevalent anti-Semitism in America. This anti-Semitism is something Diaspora Jews tend to forget about, for we assume it is improbable that such views still exist in this civilized, democratic country. This portrayal of reality truly is the genius and motive behind the movie.

Although Cohen’s objectives are correct and pure, many people are still sensitive to any form of racism for whatever reason. For example, my parents saw the movie and, for the most part, thought it was funny. Even with the understanding of Cohen’s intentions, they were still deeply offended by the anti-Semitic scenes. My parents found the sight of the non-Jews sitting next to them laughing at Jewish stereotypes especially disturbing. Furthermore, for those who don’t know Cohen’s true intentions, the movie could perpetuate and enhance prejudice. The Anti-Defamation League had something to say, as well, regarding the fragility of interpretations of Cohen’s film and actually wrote a letter to Cohen himself.

In summation, the letter stated, “We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”

After reviewing all possible interpretations and resulting occurrences, I believe that Borat should not be boycotted, and not even changed, for a variety of reasons. First, I trust that the majority of American audiences possess the intelligence to differentiate between true racism and a clear mockery of racism.

Second, changing or cutting out scenes of this movie would be the most racist thing to do. How can we take out scenes offensive to Jews but leave the rest of the movie, which is replete with scenes offensive to all the other minorities?

Maybe by attacking all minorities, Cohen tested our society even further. Who thinks their minority’s self-respect is above those of others?

Adam Deutsch is a sophomore at YULA.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15; Deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Borat, Seriously


Following the massive success of the movie “Borat,” there is bound to be an equally massive deluge of punditry on what it all means.

I defy you to watch the movieand not cramp up from laughter. And by all means, continue laughing when the pundits say “Borat” reveals something dark, ugly or frightening about America. Taking “Borat” seriously is seriously ridiculous.

As the erstwhile Kazakh journalist Borat, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen travels across the United States, goading the common man and woman into shocking, sometimes hilarious, sometimes just shocking situations.

I saw it on a Monday night in Santa Monica, during the second sold-out show. There were unexpected comic moments that hit the audience like an amusement park plunge — we all screamed as one. There were also unexpectedly touching moments of comic brilliance — director Larry Charles did “Seinfeld” as well — as close to a Charlie Chaplain movie as any film with sound.

There’s also the racism and anti-Semitism. Part of the humor and shock in the movie is how easily it seems Borat can coax a heap of Jew-hating out of Middle America (well, mostly Southern Middle America).

At a gun store near Dallas, he asks the proprietor for the best gun for killing Jews, and gets an unblinking recommendation. Later he hitches a ride with some college frat boys, one of whom confides that the Jews are taking over the country.

There’s also the infamous scene from Cohen’s HBO series in which the journalist gets the patrons of a Tucson roadhouse to sing along with him the word to a “famous Kazakh folksong.” The customers laugh and sing in giddy unison: “Throw the Jews down the well/So my country can be free.”

The idea of setting people up to reveal their true selves on tape isn’t new. First there was Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” a much kinder, gentler “Borat.” Then Howard Stern, who has used the same technique on unsuspecting celebrities for years, and now Cohen.

Is it any coincidence the masters of this craft — Funt, Stern and Cohen — have been Jews?

The quintessential outsiders can’t help but wonder what they are saying about us behind our backs. How tempting it is to get them to say it to our disguised faces. That’s a technique as old as Jacob dressing up as Esau to fool Isaac, as clever as Shakespeare’s Shylock, out to prove “a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”

To many people, including Cohen himself, these vignettes point to something deeply wrong about America.

Cohen came out of his character closet this week to address his critics not as Borat, but as Cohen. He told Rolling Stone, “I think part of the movie shows the absurdity of holding any form of racial prejudice, whether it’s hatred of African Americans or of Jews.”

In a 2004 National Public Radio interview, he told Robert Siegel, “That’s the really interesting thing with Borat. People really let down their guard with him…. They feel much more relaxed about having their outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out.”

Commentators are already warning that such satire can unleash latent, ancient hatred. Robert Wistrich, head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Israel’s Hebrew University, told the New York Times that, “using the stereotypes can actually perpetuate them. It doesn’t matter that Jews are indulging in it.In fact, it can seem more deadly when it comes from a Jew.”

Deadly? Please. Looking to learn something about American anti-Semitism from “Borat” is like trying to study medicine by watching “Patch Adams.”

The movie is perhaps not as raw and revealing as Cohen, or anxious sociologists, want us to believe. As The Forward newspaper pointed out last year regarding the Tucson incident, the aired footage was a fraction of what was shot, and the bar’s accountant — herself a Jew — claimed that everybody in the place was onto the comedian long before the sing-along.

What also doesn’t appear in the final movie only reaffirms the point. On the Internet I found a Borat outtake in which he asks a Southern animal control officer if he can adopt a dog that will “attack Jews.” “Jews are Jesus’ children,” the woman shoots back. The dog, she says “probably loves Jews.”

The lesson of Borat isn’t that Americans deep down hate Jews, it’s that Americans should learn 1) never sign a blanket release form, and 2) never get in front of a video camera unless someone you trust is behind it, especially when you’re plastered.

But the other lesson grows out of one astonishing, little-remarked upon fact: Borat speaks Hebrew. I sat there in the theater understanding every Kazakh word without the subtitles because Cohen, an observant Jew who lived for a year on a kibbutz, just spoke Hebrew most of the time. If Americans are too geographically challenged to know anything about the real Kazakhstan, they surely won’t be able to tell Hebrew from Kazakh.

In one brilliant scene, Borat awakes in the home of two kindly old Jews to find a pair of cockroaches. Panicked that the Jews have shape-shifted, he throws dollar bills at them to shoo them away and screams at them in Kazakh; that is, in Hebrew.

So here’s the truth about Jews in America in 2006: The No. 1 comedy of the year features a Jew playing a buffoonish anti-Semite who curses Jews in a language which real anti-Semites long ago left for dead.

That is seriously funny.

An AIPAC ‘stranglehold’ on US foreign policy? Huh?


Fascinating, isn’t it, to watch professors Stephen Walt (Harvard University) and John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) attain near rock star status by resurrecting the tired and
discredited canard that U.S. foreign policy is dictated by a devious, dangerous and disloyal cabal known as the pro-Israel lobby — sort of a Protocols of the Middle-Agers of Zion. Of course, the good professors are convinced that any policies advocated by the cabal are anathema to the interests of this country.

Moreover, it seems that bashing Israel and its U.S. supporters is good business, as the W&M boys are on the lecture circuit and have landed a lucrative book deal with a well-known publisher. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t appear in “Borat,” along with all the other anti-Semitic characters Sacha Baron Cohen has so masterfully exposed.

As the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the professors main target — I’ve had more than a passing interest in what these characters have to say and how their arguments have been received and, in some quarters, blindly accepted.

The most detailed and devastating analysis of the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis comes from Alan Dershowitz, who documents countless examples of flagrant facts and twisted logic, which cannot be written off as oversights or even mere sloppiness; it is must reading for anyone who is even thinking about taking these guys seriously. It can be found at: Temple Beth Am

Israeli-Palestinian Confederation; CAIR; Borat; Elections; More JewQ questions


Confederation

Josef Avesar says of the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs that “each side demands that the other relinquish crucial aspects of its identity,” and that therefore, some form of confederation would be a “pragmatic” solution to their problems (“Mideast Solution: A Confederation,” Nov. 3). Both Avesar’s diagnosis and prescription are wrong.

Palestinians aim to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, not merely to change some aspects of its identity. Israelis only demand that Palestinian Arabs relinquish this aim, not their identity.

Avesar envisages Israel and the Palestinian Authority in time relinquishing their power to what “will become the de facto authority to establish rules to settle issues, solve problems.” There is a simple term for this — binationalism, something which would see Israel gradually dismantled and Jews turned into a minority in a greater Palestinian state.

Avesar’s confederation scheme is therefore simply a program for foisting a creeping binational scheme on Israel.

Morton A. Klein
National President
Zionist Organization of America

CAIR

It is curious how Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), defines the terms “extremist” and anti-Semitic (Letters, Nov. 10).
He claims his organization merely “denounce[s] human rights violations committed by Israel.” But in fact, Ayloush himself is known to use the term “Zionazi” to refer to Israelis and compare Zionism to Nazism, once writing in an e-mail, “Indeed, the Zionazis are a bunch of nice people; just like their Nazi brethren! It is just that the world keeps making up lies about them! It is so unfair.”Ayloush cavalierly accuses me of engaging in “guilt by association” but avoids comment on CAIR’s involvement in the promotion of anti-Semitism.

He does not dispute the virulently anti-Semitic language used by Wagdy Ghoneim at a CAIR-sponsored event, in which he led the audience in a song with the lyrics, “No to the Jews, descendants of the apes.”

Additionally, CAIR has invited neo-Nazi William Baker to speak at various conferences, whose presence at such events Ayloush has defended. How dare people infer anti-Semitism and extremism from such incidents.

As for Ayloush’s claim that CAIR “defend(s) the civil rights of unpopular individuals,” such defenses typically involve attacking any terrorism investigation or asset forfeiture as, for example, an “‘anti-Muslim witchhunt’ promoted by the pro-Israel lobby in America.” (One should note that the individuals involved in that company have been convicted of providing material support to Hamas and violating sanctions imposed on state sponsors of terrorism, receiving sentences up to seven years in prison).

Of course, Ayloush himself responds to any criticism of his organization in the typical fashion employed by all CAIR officials: smearing anyone who reports on uncomfortable and disquieting facts by labeling them an “Islamophobe” or “anti-Muslim.” Ayloush’s own record of engaging in and tolerating anti-Semitic viewpoints speaks for itself.

Steven Emerson
Executive Director
Investigative Project on Terrorism

Ed. Note: Hussam Ayloush’s previous response is online at www.jewishjournal.com/forum, where the two men are invited to continue their exchange.

Orthodox Split

I believe that your article on the Modern Orthodox/Charedi split underplays the differences on the ground between the two communities (“Two Neighborhoods Reveal Orthodox Community’s Fault Lines,” Nov. 10). By interviewing only moderate rabbis (Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the local Charedi apologist, far to the left of his colleagues) and few congregants, one gets an overly rosy picture. I believe more animosity and derision of the other exists.

Modern institutions will find more like-minded teachers and clergy will not respond to Charedi book-bannings, and Charedim will have to look elsewhere to fund their causes.

Name withheld by request
Los Angeles

Borat
Steven Rosen’s review of “Borat” was right on target in regard to the satirical elements of the anti-Semitism depicted in the movie. However, Rosen failed to comment on the fact that when Borat spoke to his cohort/producer, Bagatov, he did so in Hebrew. My husband and I thought this added to the satire in that a “flagrant anti-Semite” would never even know lashon Hakodesh. Kudos to Sacha Baron Cohen!

Nancy Cooper Federman
Westlake Village

Size Matters

A better approach than making a car that gets 100 miles per gallon is to develop one that rarely uses gasoline (“Size Matters,” Nov. 10). A plug-in hybrid would do most driving based on battery power from being plugged into an outlet and switch to gasoline when the batteries are depleted.

I’ve read about alternate approaches for storing energy in a car. These include using flywheels or compressed air. The “Tel Aviv Project” that you propose does not have to limit itself to improving gas mileage or batteries.

David Wincelberg
Beverly Hills

Loss of Interest

Rob Eshman’s editorial caused me to stop and think. He poses the question: Why is the attendance at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities so low (“Size Matters,” Nov. 10). Why only 3,000? Why not 25,000? After all, Los Angeles has the second-largest Jewish population in the United States.

I can offer an explanation for the apparent lack of interest among our Jewish community. Certainly I speak only for myself, but I believe what I say would apply to many others like me.

Until several years ago, I was very interested in the Jewish community, but then I experienced the workings of The Jewish Federation, with its abandonment of the Jewish Community Centers and self-aggrandizement, and the workings of the Greater L.A. [Federation] administration. Then I realized that our leaders are more inclined to cushion their own portfolios, rather than the good of the Jewish community, and too many leaders suffer from exaggerated egos.

So today, instead of donating to the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, I have found more worthy causes, where more of my contribution goes to the charity and not to the leaders. Very likely, my perception has rubbed off on others with whom I relate. And perhaps many other have the same opinion.

George Epstein
Los Angeles

P.S. I enjoyed reading about Theodore Von Karman (“Jewry’s Role in Human Advancement,” advertisement). What few people know about him is that he played a key role in the development of the armor systems helping to save lives in Iraq and elsewhere. In 1956, as the program manager at Aerojet General Corp. for an Army program to develop advanced personnel armor concepts, I was fortunate to have Dr. Von Karman as a consultant for my program.

‘Borat’ laughs across the U S and A — in Hebrew



Borat perfoms ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’ at a country music bar in Arizona. Click on the big arrow to playAll Saturday evening screenings of “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” at the Sherman Oaks Galleria were sold out, but I snuck in on Sunday and will pass on two observations.

First, almost all reviews have missed the movie’s funniest running joke, and, second, judging from audience reaction and some exit interviews, it’s pretty hard to shock teenagers and adults in my neighborhood.Given, there are some real knee-slappers as the faux Khazakhstani TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev makes his way across America in an ice cream truck, but the biggest laugh must be reserved for star Sacha Baron Cohen and the folks at 20th Century Fox as they shlep the box office receipts to the bank.

At the Grove on Saturday night, endless lines of mainly boys shuffled through the mall, according to one observer, and the scene was repeated at 834 other theaters across the United States and Canada.The film earned an astonishing weekend gross of $26.4 million, easily beating second-ranked “The Santa Clause 3,” which opened in four times as many theaters as “Borat.”

The mock documentary also topped the charts in six European countries, including Baron Cohen’s native Britain.

In his travels across the “U.S. and A.,” the wide-eyed, mustachioed Borat encounters, and generally makes fools of, a cross-section of unsuspecting Americans. His hapless foils include humor and etiquette coaches, Washington politicians, feminists, gays, Pentecostal revivalists, drunken frat boys, blacks, rednecks at a rodeo, a car salesman and an antique store owner.

But Borat’s favorite targets are Jews, and he plays the true believer of Jewish conspiracy theories to the hilt. For instance, he refuses to fly from New York to Los Angeles for fear the Jews will hijack his plane, “as they did on 9/11.” His Jew phobia is so over the top, so whacky, that it is doubtful that even an assembly of ayatollahs would take it at face value.

There’s a bit more shock value in some pretty gross scenes, including a highly graphic nude wrestling match between the hairy Borat and his obscenely fat producer. In another, Borat presents a bag of feces to a Southern society lady, but the teenage girl on my left said it didn’t bother her.

The screening was punctuated by a lot of laughs and a few squeals, but at about the same volume as greeted a trailer of coming attractions about a bunch of klutzy cops.

Darius Moghadan of Tarzana attended with his wife and 15-year-old son, Arash. They enjoyed the movie, thought it was funny and were not put off by the wrestling and feces scenes. Arash Moghadan observed that most of his friends would see the film, because “everyone enjoys watching fools.”

I had purposely skipped the advance press screening of the movie to see it with fresh eyes, as part of an opening-weekend audience.

Although “Borat” was well worth the $7.75 senior ticket, the anticipated shockwaves and full-throated laughter never fully kicked in. That’s partially because I felt a sneaky sympathy for most of Borat’s victims, even the bigots, who were really trying to understand and help a weird foreigner.

What’s more, Baron Cohen’s/Borat’s nonstop appearances on TV and radio shows in advance of the opening and excerpts from the movie on the Internet had given me a pretty complete picture of what to expect.

In all the glowing reviews of the film in major newspapers and magazines, only a couple of Jewish reporters got the supreme jest that the Jew-bashing Borat frequently spoke in Hebrew. For instance, when Borat takes leave of his home village, he tells a one-armed peasant, “Doltan, I’ll get you a new arm in America,” according to the subtitles translated from “Kazakh.” What he is actually saying is, “I’ll buy you some kind of a new arm” — in Hebrew.

He also sings the lyrics from an old Hebrew folk song and identifies his country’s greatest scientist, who discovered that a woman’s brain is the same size as that of a squirrel, as “Dr. Yarmulke.”

Baron Cohen’s Hebrew is quite excellent, thanks to an Israeli mother of Iranian descent, a year spent at Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra and his early membership in the Habonim Dror youth movement. To top it off, the 35-year-old comedian played Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof” while attending Cambridge University.

We can expect to see a great deal more of Baron Cohen, if not as Borat, then as two of his alter egos, Ali G, a not-too-bright, would-be London rapper, and as Bruno, a gay Austrian fashionista.

If Borat has offended … then he’s done his job


Virtually everyone who has already seen the comedy “Borat” at film festivals and invitational screenings has found the film uproariously funny.

But with its nationwide opening set for Friday, the question now is whether a mass, mainstream audience will also get the film’s satiric sensibilities, or, rather, be offended by its political incorrectness and by its lead character, who is a raging anti-Semite.

“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is a “mockumentary” starring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a cheerfully impudent, male-chauvinistic Kazakh journalist. He road-trips across America, speaking comically mangled English and constantly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. His interactions mostly are with unwitting, everyday Americans who have been led to believe by filmmakers that Cohen’s alter ego, Borat, is the real thing.

The humor in the film, which is directed by Larry Charles, is sometimes raunchy, especially a nude wrestling match between Borat and his heavyset producer, Azamat Bagatov (Kenny Davitian). And it is sometimes bitingly politically satirical — “We support your war of terror,” Borat tells a rodeo crowd before massacring “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Borat fears Jews so much he has nightmarish hallucinations when forced to board with an elderly Jewish couple. He and his producer also choose to drive across America because they’re scared Jews would hijack their plane, “like they did on 9/11.”

Cohen, 35, is a modern-day Ernie Kovacs in his ability to subsume his personality in his comic creations. He is best known in the U.S. for playing the gay French NASCAR driver Jean Girard in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” But in Britain he became a star as the obnoxiously slow-witted rapper/talk-show host Ali G, which acquired a cult U.S. following when HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” was broadcast in 2003. Borat was a character on that show.

Because “Borat’s” anti-Semitism is so flagrant, the film raises some ethical questions. Is Cohen, who is Jewish and studied history at Christ’s College at Cambridge, crossing a line with his character’s anti-Semitism? And is his rendering of the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan as a stewpot of anti-Semites, child abusers, prostitutes and generally crude people too cruel?

According to answers.com, Cohen was born in the London-adjacent suburb Staines to a middle-class Jewish family — his father, originally from Wales, was the owner of a London menswear shop. Cohen has what the site calls an “active Zionist background,” including involvement in the Jewish youth movement Habonim Dror. His mother is an Israeli-born Iranian, and, according to answers.com, he told NPR in a 2004 interview that he wrote his college thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Borat’s anti-Semitism has folkloric, fantastical roots in his nation’s culture, as depicted in the film. It envisions, for instance, a “traditional” Kazakh “Running of the Jew” event, similar to Pamplona’s “running of the bulls.” And the Kazakhs are portrayed as simple, backward peasants — Borat mistakes a hotel elevator for his room in New York and carries a chicken onto the subway.

“I saw the movie yesterday,” said Roman Y. Vassilenko, an ambassadorial assistant and press secretary for Kazakhstan’s U.S. embassy, when interviewed last week. “Like Jonathan Swift wrote ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and invented a country, Lilliput, to make a satire of England, this is the same thing. He invents a Kazakhstan in order to make a satire of a very different country.”

Just to make sure the public realizes that “Borat’s” Kazakhstan is not the real one, the embassy has released an official statement on the movie. It reads in part: “Kazakhstan, a Muslim majority country, is home to 130 ethnic groups and 40 religious faiths. Pope John Paul II, who visited Kazakhstan in 2001, called our country ‘an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs.'” (The nation has a sizeable Russian Orthodox minority.)

Cohen himself isn’t talking. Or, rather, he’s talking only in character. Two weeks ago, he came to Santa Monica’s Shutters on the Beach resort hotel for a “Borat” press conference, standing at a podium with an official-looking Kazakhstan emblem on it. Tall and dressed in a neat if staid suit, bearing a bright smile to contrast with his dark bushy brows and hair, he did what amounted to a comedy act. Questions had to be submitted in advance.

“Good evening, gentleman and prostitutes,” he began, in halting, bumbling, heavily accented English. He said he admired “mighty warlord George Walter Bush” as a “very strong man but perhaps not as strong as his father, Barbara.”

Asked whom he’d most like to meet, he mentioned “fearless anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibsons. We in Kazakhstan agree with his statement Jews started all the wars. We also have evidence they killed off the dinosaurs. Hurricane Katrina, too. They did it.”

Cohen’s satiric target may well be America and its anti-Semitism, believes Joel Schalit, managing editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun. And in “Borat,” he may be drawing from world history to get at it.

“I see a film like ‘Borat’ as a very roundabout, tongue-in-cheek way of exploring that,” Schalit said.

A parallel can be drawn between Cohen’s imaginary Kazakhstan and the early 20th-century Russian peasants who accepted the fraudulent, anti-Semitic “Protocols of Zion” (which told of a Jewish plot to run the world) as truth and staged pogroms. (Kazakhstan, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, gained its independence in 1991.)

“By evoking that example, Cohen’s timing couldn’t be better,” Schalit said. “There remains a populist strand of anti-Semitism in the U.S. that is the parallel of pre-Bolshevik Russian anti-Semitism. And it’s emanating from the quarters of the religious right.”

Josh Neuman, editor of edgy, youthful Jewish humor magazine Heeb, thinks American Jews will get Cohen’s “Borat” and not be offended.

“I think Jews understand the power of satirical narratives, because we understand the power of narratives in general,” he said via e-mail. “[There’s] a desire to poeticize the absurdity of stereotypes rather than arguing against them. I think the former is much more effective than the latter.”

And, Neuman said, Cohen also has another target.

I think [he] is satirizing how mainstream anti-Semitism is around the world, but also and perhaps more importantly I think he’s satirizing a Western bourgeois notion of people from distant lands, their customs and beliefs. I think that he pulls it off with immense subtlety and creativity.”

“Borat” plays in theaters starting Nov. 3.

The Best Offense Is a Funny Movie


If you feel that life is losing its edge because no one has offended you recently, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next movie is for you.

Baron Cohen stars as his third incarnation (after Ali G and Bruno) in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”In it, Borat, the intrepid Kazakhstani TV reporter, is sent off to make a documentary of America, where he becomes obsessed with finding and marrying Pamela Anderson.

The film opens Nov. 3, but according to advance hints, it is guaranteed to enrage Jews, gays, blacks, women, cowboys, Christians and college boys — not to mention Kazakhstanis.

In the meanwhile, you can catch Baron Cohen now in “Talladega Nights,” where, as France’s Formula One champ Jean Gerard, he challenges NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) for the trophy.

Baron Cohen sports the thickest French accent this side of Paris, and in his first meeting with good ‘ol Southern boy Ricky Bobby, offers to drop out of the race on one condition.

“Eeef you keess me,” Gerard says.

The movie is a lip-to-lip competition between two very different comic improvisational styles, and on the track as on the laugh meter, it’s a bumper-to-bumper race.

In real life, the 34-year-old Baron Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in London, the son of a menswear shop owner and an Israeli mother. He remains a religious, kosher-observant Jew.

He studied history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, showing real potential for an academic career, and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Coming up for the actor after “Borat” is “Dinner for Schmucks,” in which “an extraordinarily stupid man possesses the ability to ruin the life of anyone who spends more than a few minutes in his company.”

After that, it’s “Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill,” in which our hero plays a young Chasidic Jew who forms a band with an aging rock ‘n’ roller.

Anti-Semitic Sing-A-Long


Some viewers of Da Ali G Show" on HBO were a little taken aback during the Aug. 1 episode when the character, Borat, got up in an Arizona bar and had all the patrons singing along with him to this song:

;In my country there is problem. / And that problem is the Jew / They take everybody’s money / They never give it back;

Throw the Jew down the well! / So my country can be free — / You must grab him by his horns / Then we have a big party.;

Borat is a fictional Kazahkstanian reporter distinguished by his utter lack of social propriety who allegedly films segments on American culture for Kazakhstan television. Like the spectacularly stupid pseudo black rapper Ali G and the unashamedly vapid gay Austrian fashion reporter Bruno, Borat is a creation of British Jewish comic Sacha Baron Cohen. And, like the other characters, Borat uses his lack of shame to expose people’s darker sides by asking them uncomfortable questions. (Among other revelations, Borat had James Broadwater, an aspiring congressman, say that all Jews are going to hell, and Bruno got a hip Miami nightclub owner to admit he discriminates against handicapped people. You just try to ignore them and hopefully they’ll go away, said James Butler of Nerve Lounge.)

But for many viewers in this particular episode, titled Peace, Baron Cohen and his creations just might have blurred the boundaries between acceptable and disturbing political incorrectness. After the episode aired, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it received hundreds of complaints and wrote to Baron Cohen expressing its concerns.

Todd Gutnick, a spokesman for the ADL, said that Baron Cohen’s office responded to the letter, expressing a willingness to discuss the issues with the ADL, but no formal date has been set yet.

Back in Arizona, Carol Irizarry, the supervisor of Country West Dancing and Lounge, says the patrons of her bar are not anti-Semitic.

[Baron Cohen] definitely misrepresented the bar. He didn’t show the whole song, she said, referring to the fact that the song had other funny verses about Borat throwing his wife’s cooking down the well, which were not aired, but which helped rile up the crowd, and made them amenable to joining in the anti-Semitic song.

As Ali G would say "Hain’t that a bit racialist?