The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan
In a rare interview as himself (and not one of his characters) Sacha told NPR’s Terry Gross that he didn’t believe that the people Borat encountered agreed with his racist statements just to be polite, and even if that was their motivation, he was concerned. “‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference,’” Sacha, a Cambridge University history graduate said, quoting British historian Ian Kershaw. “It’s that indifference that’s quite dangerous.”
Sacha, through his satirical characters, and Erran, through his musical fusion, are pushing back against prejudice, which has played a powerful role shaping Baron Cohen family history. The two brothers are members of the fourth generation of Baron Cohens, which also includes their first cousins Ash, a Hollywood director of small-budget independent films such as Bang and This Girl’s Life, and Simon, a prominent Cambridge psychologist promulgating controversial theories about sex differences and the brain.
On the one hand, the story of the Baron Cohen clan chronicles the success and assimilation of Britain’s Jews. From impoverished Eastern European great-grandparents, its members have risen in three generations to make distinguished careers in academia and Hollywood. At the same time, the Baron Cohens stand out among British Jews, who are generally far less vocal than their American brethren. They are willing to draw directly on their Jewishness to shock and provoke.
Family legend has it that when Chaim Baron, a red–headed widower, emigrated to Britain from Belarus in the wake of pogroms in the 1880s, he tacked Cohen to his name to show his pride in being Jewish and his descent from the priestly Cohanim. Armed with his double-barreled surname, he settled in the Welsh capital of Cardiff with his second wife Amelia, whose father, an immigrant from Poland, had worked in a sweatshop in London’s East End.
Making his living as a jeweler, pawnbroker and handyman, Chaim increased his brood from four to 15 children, raising them in a “typically warm Orthodox Jewish home,” says his grandson Vivian Baron Cohen. Tall and vigorous at age 80 with a white mustache, Vivian is Erran’s and Sacha’s uncle, the brother of their father Gerald.
Vivian and Gerald are the offspring of Chaim and Amelia’s middle son, Moishe (Morris), whom Vivian describes as a raconteur with a great sense of humor. The two were born in Whitechapel, but, as World War II loomed, fled London with their parents. They moved in with their Yiddish-speaking grandparents in a small isolated laborer’s cottage about 25 miles from Cardiff, where the boys shared a bed. “I remember cooking a kosher chicken bought from a Cardiff butcher every Friday over an open fire,” says Vivian.