The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

By | Oct 07, 2011
2010 July-August, Culture
Baron Cohen

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.

4 thoughts on “The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

  1. susan williams says:

    Clearly, I have come late to your article. I knew Judith and Vivian Baron Cohen for a brief time in Oxford in the early 2000s, the year Billy Bob Thornton’s “Slingblade” was shown at a Oxford cinema. I was wondering about them the other day and googled Vivian’s name and came across your article, which I have very much enjoyed reading. However, I am very sorry to learn that Judith died in 2008, but I am glad to know this because she will be more firmly set in my memory.
    Judith and Vivian were lovely hosts, and I most especially appreciated Vivian’s showing me the most understated plaque to the memory of Robert of Reading, who, after his conversion to Judaism, called himself Haggai of Oxford and was murdered for his faith. The time Vivian gave me has sparked my continuing interest in the Jewish history of Oxford, and I am a Roman Catholic. Indeed, since knowing of Haggai of Oxford and coming across several instances myself of antisemitism among the dreaming spires, whenever I think of Oxford I think of its continuing current of the antisemitism Judith found so worrying.
    I will always feel blessed that Judith spoke to me after that particular showing of “Slingblade” and began an acquaintance I wish could have been an enduring friendship. She and Vivian were wonderful to me.

  2. Graham says:

    I spoke with Vivian today. What a lovely man. He told me all about his new book – Joe and his magic snout.

    I will be purchasing this book from Amazon as all proceeds will go to cancer research.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Very good in depth story – even though I had trouble navigating it. I worked for Vivian, in his menswear store for many years. Very charming and generous man. I was young at the time and was mainly interested in dancing and of course boys. He, Vivian, did talk about his family -very proud of his wife of course and the children. Thank you for your work on this article. Kathleen

  4. Beth says:

    I just came across here when I’m Googling Mr. V Cohen . I also worked in his suit shop in Piccadilly years ago. I really have some fond memories while I’m working there and we even keep in touch afterwards but unfortunately…. I don’t know how he is now but yes! He’s a lovely man and so many stories that I’ve learned from him at that time…

    I just wish him well.

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