On-screen you know him as Borat Sagdiyev, Ali G and Admiral General Aladeen. But when you strip off the mustache, goggles, or big beard you’ll find Sacha Noam Baron Cohen: quirky Jewish family man.
Baron Cohen keeps a generally low profile outside the professional sphere, but over the year’s we’ve gathered bits and pieces of information that reveal a whole lot about his Jewish life.
Here are some things to know about Sacha Baron Cohen and his Jewish identity:
He’s a British Jew
Baron Cohen was born on October 13th 1971 in Hammersmith, London to Jewish parents. His mother, Daniella Baron Cohen, was born in Israel and his father, Gerald Baron Cohen was born in London and raised in Wales.
He’s fluent in Hebrew
Baron Cohen was raised as a Jew and is fluent in Hebrew.
His mom’s side of the family were German Jewish immigrants to Israel. Baron Cohen’s grandmother, Liselle Weiser, trained as a ballet dancer in Germany before fleeing the Nazis in 1936. She lived in Haifa, Israel until her passing in 2014. Baron Cohen often visited his grandmother, according to the Times of Israel.
In fact, Hebrew has often made its way into his comedy
In Borat and The Dictator, Baron Cohen gave a nod to Israeli’s. The ‘Kazakh’ and Arabic he supposedly speaks throughout the movies is actually perfect Hebrew.
In the Borat films, Borat’s ‘Kazakh’ is a series of Hebrew expressions and Israeli phrases. “In one scene, Borat sings the lyrics of a Hebrew folk song, Koom Bachur Atzel, which means “get up lazy boy”. Later, he refers to a Kazakh government scientist, “Dr Yarmulke,” who proved that a woman’s brain is the size of a squirrel’s. Even Borat’s signature catchphrase – “Wa wa wee wa,” an expression for wow – derives from a skit on a popular comedy show and is often heard in Israel,” the Guardian reported.
“It was sort of like a wink to the Hebrew speaker,” Oded Volovitz, told The Guardian. “It was a message that basically said, ‘Although the movie is very anti (Jewish), I am still with you, I am still the same Mr Cohen. I’m just trying to send a message here and I hope you guys understand it.”‘
He was in Jewish youth group
Before he rose to fame, Baron Cohen was known as a “nerdy, very funny, Israel-oriented guy” according to old friends that remember him from college and youth group.
In High School, Baron Cohen was actively involved with Habonim Dror, a Jewish labour youth movement. That’s where his love for acting and theatre began.
“I remember being on the bus during our Habonim Mahane Lomdim trip, and he did this standup bit about lost property at the front of the bus,” one woman who attended a three-week seminar with Baron Cohen in Israel when they were graduating high school told the Times of Israel. “He was really very nerdy, he didn’t hang out with the girls, but we were literally crying from laughter because he was so funny. I remember thinking how talented he was, and very, very smart, a genius, really.”
He spent a year working on a Kibbutz in Israel
Baron Cohen, like many young Jews, spent a year in Israel volunteering at Kibbutz Rosh HaNikra and Beit HaEmek as part of Shnat Habonim Dror, a leadership program. He was also a part of the Institute for Youth Leaders, known as Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz, a program for Jewish youth movement leaders which educates and strengthens leadership, focused on Israel and Zionism.
“He was very Zionist, very involved in Habo,” said the fellow Israel seminar participant.
He studied antisemitism in college
Baron Cohen attended Christ’s College, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. There, he studied history with a focus on antisemitism and graduated in 1993 with honors. He wrote his thesis on the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement.
He played Tevye in his college production of Fiddler on the Roof
Speaking of college, Baron Cohen was a member of the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, where he acted as Tevye in the club’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof.
The underlying goal of his comedy is to challenge hate
Baron Cohen was awarded the ADL’s International Leadership Award. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged that at times, critics have said his comedy risks reinforcing stereotypes. That couldn’t be farther from the truth of his mission, he said.
“I’ve been passionate about challenging bigotry and intolerance throughout my life. As a teenager in the UK, I marched against the fascist National Front and to abolish Apartheid. As an undergraduate, I traveled around America and wrote my thesis about the civil rights movement, with the help of the archives of the ADL. And as a comedian, I’ve tried to use my characters to get people to let down their guard and reveal what they actually believe, including their own prejudice.”
He’s usually in character
Baron Cohen’s dedication to staying in character has been an enormous part of his success, and it’s one he takes very seriously.
Take, for example, his Harvard’s Class Day address. He was invited to give a speech to the graduating class of 2014 and performed it as Ali G.
He actually finds it “terrifying” to be himself
He has stayed out of character for a select few occasions, including his 2019 acceptance speech for the ADL’s International Leadership Award.
“I’ve spent most of the past two decades in character. In fact, this is the first time that I have ever stood up and given a speech as my least popular character, Sacha Baron Cohen,” he said at the ADL’s conference. “I have to confess, it is terrifying.”
So, he always manages to sneak his shtick in somehow.
He presented at the 2016 Oscar’s and while producers forbade him from dressing up as any of his characters, Baron Cohen snuck in Ali G.
“The Oscars sat me down beforehand and said they didn’t want me to do anything out of order; they wanted me to actually just present it as myself,” he told Good Morning Britain. His wife, Isla Fisher, helped him fake food poisoning and get into costume in the washroom.
“Luckily my wife put on the Ali G beard in the disabled toilets and I managed to get away with it. What would I do without her?”
Isla Fisher is truly his partner-in-crime
Baron Cohen met his now-wife, actress Isla Fisher, in 2002. They got married in 2010 at a very private Jewish ceremony with only six people.
As you’ll have gleaned from the Oscar’s bit above, the two like to keep it silly. Sometimes, however, going out with Baron Cohen can be a bit embarrassing, Fisher said in an interview.
Fisher converted to Judaism for Baron Cohen
Fun isn’t the only thing that bonds these two. Their relationship is constantly #couplegoals.
Prior to their wedding, Fisher spent three years converting to Judaism.
“I will definitely have a Jewish wedding just to be with Sacha. I would do anything—move into any religion—to be united in marriage with him. We have a future together and religion comes second to love as far as we are concerned,” she told The Evening Standard before they married.
Fisher’s Hebrew name is Ayala. The pair have three children: Olive, 13, Elula Lottie Miriam, 10, and Montgomery Moses Brian, 5.
The two lead a proudly Jewish life
In a 2009 interview, Fisher spoke about her love for Judaism.
“I love Judaism, the fact that there’s such a huge emphasis on family and, to me, family’s everything,” she said, according to the Jewish Chronicle. “We’re quite observant, we keep Shabbat and do Friday night dinner and celebrate the holidays. I really enjoy being part of that Jewish community. I have visited Israel recently and I love it there.”
Baron Cohen spoke with NPR in 2012 and reinforced his proud Jewish identity. Although he wouldn’t consider himself “religious”
“I wouldn’t say I am a religious Jew,” he told NPR. “I am proud of my Jewish identity and there are certain things I do and the customs I keep.”
He said he and his family try to keep kosher, observe Shabbat when they can, go to synagogue on certain occasions and celebrate the holidays.
Originally Published Jul 11 2021 03:53AM EDT