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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What's 'Borat' really saying?

By Aron Heller
Associated Press

Israelis crowd theaters showing "Borat" and are laughing. The movie is full of Hebrew expressions and Israeli slang, inside jokes that the Israeli audiences appreciate.

SEBASTIAN SCHEINER | Associated Press

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JERUSALEM Like moviegoing masses around the world, Israelis have crowded theaters to watch the hit spoof "Borat." But they are laughing for another reason: They actually understand what the anti-Semitic, misogynist Kazakh journalist is saying.

Few realize that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's comedic creation, Borat Sagdiyev, is not speaking Kazakh or even gibberish, but rather Hebrew, the biblical language of the Jewish people.

The 35-year-old British comedian is no stranger to Israel. He is an observant Jew, his mother was born in Israel and his grandmother lives in Haifa. In high school, he belonged to a Zionist Jewish youth group, Habonim Dror, and upon graduation spent a year on a kibbutz, or collective farm, in northern Israel. He has since returned to visit, his Hebrew is excellent and his understanding of Israeli culture superb.

The irony of a Hebrew-speaking anti-Semite is not lost on the Israeli audience, which has made the movie a huge hit.

"It is extremely funny and kind of cool to realize that you are understanding something no one else does," said Gaby Goldman, 33, of Tel Aviv.

Israelis begin giggling right from the opening scene, when Borat departs his hometown in Kazakhstan for the "U.S. and A.," assuring a one-armed man in fake Kazakh: "Don't worry, I will bring you a new hand in America."

The subtitles give the translation, but there's no need in Israel. It repeats what Borat has just said in his impeccable Hebrew.

The film is peppered with Hebrew expressions and Israeli slang, inside jokes only Israelis could truly appreciate. In one scene, Borat sings the lyrics of the Hebrew folk song "Koom Bachur Atzel," meaning "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. Borat's catch phrase "Wa wa wee wa," an expression for wow derives from an Israeli comedy show skit.

The movie's comedic climax a full-frontal male nude wrestling scene is sparked when Borat curses his sidekick Azamat with a Hebrew expletive.

Uri Klein, movie critic for the Israeli daily Haaretz, said the Hebrew-sprinkled dialogue gave Israelis watching the mockumentary added value and created an empathy with the Israeli audience. "We are the only ones who know what he is talking about," he said.

Baron Cohen almost never appears in public out of character. His Los Angeles-based publicist declined several requests to interview Borat in English or Hebrew. But by all accounts, Baron Cohen is the opposite of the anti-Semitic journalist he portrays.

He is said to keep kosher and observe the Jewish Sabbath, and his fiancee, Australian actress Isla Fisher, has converted to Judaism. He still has an extended family in Israel.

Attempts to reach his Israeli relatives were unsuccessful Baron Cohen fiercely guards his and his family's privacy. But people who remember him from his days on Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra recall a funny guy.

"He was a very sweet boy, always smiling," said Moshe Tarazi, who hosted Baron Cohen for a year.

In a rare interview out of character, Baron Cohen told Rolling Stone magazine that he uses Borat as a tool to unearth the bigotry of others. "By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice," he said.