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'Borat': Welcome to Israel!

January 18, 2007 By:
Yocheved Miriam Russo, JE Feature
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The next time you're in Israel, go see an American film, preferably a comedy. There's no quicker way to contrast Israel with America than by seeing what the locals think is funny.

And not funny.

For that reason alone, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" should play in Israel, permanently; it's the perfect barometer to check how Westernized Israel is becoming. If you're Israeli, and you think Borat is the funniest film you've ever seen, you're well on your way to being American.

For the benefit of your elderly aunt in Rio Linda who didn't see British comedian and Golden Globe winner Sacha Baron Cohen's masterpiece of a film, the plot is simple: Borat, a native of Kazakhstan, is commissioned by his ministry of disinformation to travel to America to make a documentary. Borat and his rotund producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) begin in New York, then head for California after Borat sees Pamela Anderson on an episode of "Baywatch," and becomes hopelessly besotted.

Along the way, the Kazakh "out-of-towners" drive an old ice cream wagon Borat bought for $700 and experience the Real America, in all its glory.

The trip is where the fun is -- or the fury, if you prefer. The genius of "Borat" is that almost everyone in the film is a regular person, not an actor. It's a bit like "Candid Camera" where Cohen plays Borat, but all the people he interacts with are real people, "caught in the act of being themselves," as Allen Funt used to say.

The thing is, in "Borat," the humor is highly cultural. If you haven't been to the area he visits, you might not catch it. Which is why most native-born Israelis, or immigrants from non-Western countries, watch in wonder as former Americans roll in the aisles, howling.

One running gag in the film didn't strike most native Israelis as funny at all. Ethnic Borat's constant habit, when encountering another man anywhere at all, is to kiss him on both cheeks, sometimes even planting a third smooch on the mouth, just for good measure.

Kissing Up
In New York, tough-guy bus riders aren't amused, nor are men he busses on the street. For Anglos in the theater, whenever Borat bends over to begin the kissing routine, they start to laugh. But for predominantly Sephardic Israelis -- almost all of whom, for centuries, have greeted men in the same way -- the joke is lost.

Momi, a 50ish Israeli of Moroccan heritage, said those scenes actually made him feel sorry for Borat. "I've made the same mistake myself," he said. "Americans think it's strange. For us, it's traditional."

Another such moment comes during a long segment at a Pentecostal revival meeting into which Borat, in a moment of depression, wanders. As Americans, we may never have personally attended one of those Bible-pounding, arm-waving sessions, in which "altar calls" urge people to come forward to be saved, and where sweaty men in business suits lapse into "speaking in tongues." But most of us know it by reputation, anyway, and seeing the hapless Borat adjust himself to this strange reality is hilarious.

Israelis -- baruch hashem! -- have been spared this knowledge. For all the sense it makes to them, Borat may as well have been messing around on Mars.

One inside joke was for Jews. Occasionally in moments of stress, Borat and Azamat chatter to each other in their "native" tongue. Non-Jewish viewers probably assume it's Russian, or Kazakh. In fact, Borat is speaking Hebrew, and Azamat responds in a dialect of Armenian.

For Jews -- who might recognize the language but not understand the words -- it's counterintuitive to hear the Jew-averse Borat speaking Hebrew. Israelis, on the other hand, understand what Borat is saying -- and at least some of them assume it was done for their benefit.

I asked two intelligent-looking 30-somethings why they thought Borat would speak Hebrew, and both assured me that it was done only for the Israeli version of the film. "They do that sometimes, here -- dub just parts of it. In America, it was probably in English." Hah!

While interviewing "Borat" in Hebrew, one Israeli film critic asked why the character spoke Hebrew in the film. "Oh, I see you speak Kazakh!" Borat replied.

One of the charges of anti-Semitism in the film comes from the interaction between Borat and the Jewish husband and wife who own a B&B, where Borat and Azamat stop. During the night, cockroaches crawl under Borat's bedroom door, horrific in this otherwise upper-class home.

To Westerners, cockroaches spell filth and poverty -- what could be worse? Israelis don't get the joke. Anyone in Israel who hasn't seen a few cockroaches in his home hasn't been here very long. What's so funny?

Charges of anti-Semitism abound -- as do charges of homophobia, anti-feminism, anti-Americanism, anti-Islamism, and on and on. If anything, Borat is an equal opportunity offender.

Since I couldn't see where any charges of anti-Semitism might arise, I quizzed a couple dozen Jews who'd seen the film. Not one Israeli thought it was anti-Semitic. Not all liked the film -- some didn't think it was very funny. But none had even entertained the thought that it was anti-Semitic.

In Israel, where we face anti-Semitism every day in the form of suicide bombers, Hamas and Hezbollah, it apparently takes more to offend us than "Borat." Or, it may be an "all-in-the-family" mentality.

One former Londoner insisted it couldn't be anti-Semitic. He remembered Sacha Baron Cohen in a Beit Knesset in London, reciting the Birkat hakohanim. "Sacha? How could he be anti-Semitic?"

I wondered if the film could be perceived as anti-Russian. So I asked Russian-born Miri, in Israel 16 years, what she thought.

"Oh, no, of course not!" she said. "How could it be anti-Russian? Kazakhstan is like Afghanistan, not really Russian at all. Borat wasn't Russian -- he's Muslim! That's why he's so afraid of Jews!"

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