Before ‘The Dictator’ and ‘Borat,’ friends recall, Sacha Baron Cohen was a very nerdy, very funny, Israel-oriented guy
As the actor/comedian makes his way to Israel for his latest flick, those who knew him way back when share some potent memories
By JESSICA STEINBERG May 11, 2012,
... He is Sacha Baron Cohen, the Jewish, English and half-Israeli comedian who has created a career out of imagined characters who deftly comment on the political, cultural and social issues of the moment.
He began his career as the fictional Ali G on “Da Ali G Show,” playing a boorish, uneducated type, and often baffled his celebrity and politician interviewees who didn’t realize he was in character.
Now he’s a celebrity, married to a fellow — converted — celebrity, actress Isla Fisher, with whom he has two daughters, including one whose name is Elula. For those who knew him when, as a fellow Habonim Dror youth group member or Cambridge student, his current antics are hilarious, sometimes crude, but his success is not altogether surprising.
“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,” said one woman now living in Ra’anana, who attended a three-week seminar with Baron Cohen in Israel when they were graduating high school. “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.”
The son of an Israeli mother and Welsh father, “a quirky, smart family,” she added, Cohen grew up in West London and was active throughout high school in Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth group. “He was very Zionist, very involved in Habo,” said the fellow Israel seminar participant, who has known him since they were babies in the same mother-and-baby group. “He wasn’t Mr. Cool Guy.”
... It was at the University of Cambridge, however, where Baron Cohen read history, that he began his stage career, first as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a production of the university’s amateur dramatic club.
“I knew who Sacha was from London, his brother Eran was my age, and they were all in Habo,” said Debbie, who now lives in Israel and played Yente the matchmaker to Baron Cohen’s Tevye. ...
Of course, not everyone who knew Baron Cohen as a former Habonim, Israel-oriented Jewish nerd realized that he had attained such celebrity status, or that his Israeli roots — and time spent in Israel — has enabled him to use Hebrew as his language of choice, whether playing a sexist Kazakh journalist or Middle Eastern despot.
... Israel is one of the destinations on Baron Cohen’s current publicity tour for “The Dictator,” which will be released here in the next month. No one’s expecting any calls from their former Habonim friend, but as happened when “Borat” played here, his insider Hebrew jokes will meet their ultimate audience.