New Jersey Jewish News
Young Jews they like this movie film!
Borat Sagdiyev is perhaps the most famous anti-Semite in America, a visiting Kazakh journalist who has been known to ask a shop owner which guns are best for hunting Jews and to revel in his native village’s annual celebration, “The Running of the Jews.”
Borat is also a hero to many Jewish teens.
If that fact confuses you, then you have somehow managed to miss the hype surrounding Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the number one movie comedy of the moment and perhaps the mainstream cultural phenomenon of the year.
The creation of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat travels across America spouting anti-Semitism, misogyny, and racism. Usually toxic stuff but then Cohen is a Jew, and the movie clearly succeeds in lampooning Borat’s bigotry as well as that of the unwitting real-life Americans he meets along the way.
Or does it? The Anti-Defamation League released a statement that there is “absolutely no intent on the part of the filmmakers to offend”; at the same time, the ADL fretted that not everyone would understand the humor. “We are concerned, however,” the release said, “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.”
We set out to find out what local teens think of the movie, its anti-Semitism, and the ADL statement. Their reviews were nearly unanimous: The movie is funny. (Okay, not unanimous: Judah Levenson, a freshman at Rutgers University and a Cohen fan, said that he had expected more from the comedian and was a bit “disappointed” that the movie was “very predictable.”)
Two of the three teenagers interviewed felt the anti-Semitism in the movie was so over the top that it could not be taken seriously.
“You can’t go into that movie expecting to take it seriously,” said Becca Litwin, a 16-year-old junior at Newark Academy who lives in South Orange. “Most of the anti-Semitism was scripted and came from Borat, not from the people interacting with him.”
On the other hand, she said, the misogyny and racism against African-Americans, coming from the “real” people in Cohen’s documentary-style film, were truly disturbing. “That stuff was mind-boggling to hear,” said Litwin. “It was the real views of real Americans.”
Alex Greenberger, 13, of Montclair thought the anti-Semitism was “offensive but funny.” He could not fathom people in the United States taking any of the comments seriously. He pointed to the “Running of the Jews” scene as evidence. In that scene, townspeople in a Kazakh village chase puppet-like figures dressed as Jews. When a Jewish puppet hatches an egg, someone shouts, “Break the Jew’s chick before it hatches.”
“People can’t take that seriously,” said Greenberger.
Levenson, however, worries that they can and was the only teen interviewed who agreed outright with the ADL position.
“It’s very complicated,” he said. “On the one hand, there’s what Sacha Baron Cohen is trying to get across a criticism of America and the closed-mindedness of American society.” But, he added, “the danger is that a lot of people see the movie but don’t get it his mockery and his stance. They see it and think it is really funny and stupid but they don’t understand it. It could fuel their own anti-Semitism or strengthen their own ignorance of the world.”
Levenson went so far as to suggest that the movie “ought to have a disclaimer or an explanation at the end.”
Greenberger wouldn’t go that far. But he did think the ADL might have a point, if not in the United States then perhaps in some other countries. “I could see it causing fights to break out. Not here but maybe in Kazakhstan or even in the Middle East.”
Litwin took a different position. Although she acknowledged there are places in the United States with deep pockets of anti-Semitism unlike Essex County, she said even in such places, she had trouble foreseeing any danger.
“I think even they won’t take it seriously,” she said. “But they might not laugh at the movie in the same way. I found it funny because it was so ridiculous. They might find it funny because it’s anti-Semitic. But even they will understand that Cohen is poking fun and will know this is something ridiculous.”
Jewish teens may also know something others don’t: that Cohen grew up in an observant home, keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, spent a year on kibbutz, and was educated at Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on Jewish involvement in the American Civil Rights movement.
In fact, when Borat speaks in what is presumably his native Khazakh, it is actually rapid-fire Hebrew. Levenson and Greenberger noticed, and the irony is not lost on Levenson.
“The movie changes when you know Cohen is Jewish, a Zionist who speaks Hebrew,” he said. “It’s ironic that people perceive Borat as completely foreign, speaking gibberish, the language of terrorism or a made-up language, but it’s actually the language of Israel, which the United States is such a strong ally of.”
Levenson added that he felt that was part of Cohen’s intended critique that people know so little about their own country’s foreign policy and about the countries with which it is allied.
Despite his stance on the movie, Levenson believes that in the end, Cohen is a fine role model for young Jews. “He’s really intelligent and I think he’s a great social critic. He’s a positive role model because he shows we should care about these issues and address them in our own way, whether comedic or serious.”
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