Erran affectionately remembers family Shabbats for the improvisations he and Sacha composed at the piano. One of those songs developed into a skit “about a Hasidic guy wearing all these clothes making him schvitz [sweat]. Eventually he takes off his hat and coat, ends up in a swimming costume and converts to Christianity,” Erran recalls. The two brothers performed the risqué skit at several London comedy clubs and filmed it for BBC, but, says Erran, “they banned it, saying we insulted three religions in three minutes.”
Erran performed at Sacha’s bar mitzvah with a Moog synthesizer, and Sacha, who began his break-dancing career at 12, performed at his own and others’ bar mitzvahs. How did their parents feel about their children’s irreverent entertainment preferences? “I think they were very anti-authoritarian,” Erran says. “I think we were made to realize you don’t have to follow the pack and could do things differently. I think we’ve done that,” Erran says laughing.
Erran, Sacha, Simon and Ash attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, (nicknamed Habs), a prestigious private school on the outskirts of northwest London. Habs schoolmate and close collaborator Dan Mazer has described the school as “a factory of comedy.…It’s just cocky young Jews. And because we were too weak to fight each other, we compensated with verbal jousts.”
“I would say [Habs] was an exam factory and certainly it was quite cocky,” says Erran. “There was a slightly rebellious [atmosphere]; it was a very regimented, high-pressure kind of place and some reacted against that—it made for comedy.”
In his novel New Boy, based on his experiences at the school in the 1980s, Sacha’s schoolmate William Sutcliffe writes that when the Christian trustees relocated the school to the prosperous greenbelt suburbs of northwest London, they were surprised to find themselves presiding over an “exam greenhouse for nouveau-riche, second-generation immigrants,” including Jews. As late as the 1950s, the novel recounts, the school had a Jewish quota, and Jewish students were excused from the religious half of the morning assembly: “[I]t is said that after the hymns and prayers, the headmaster would stand and intone the words ‘LET IN THE JEWS!’” whereupon the Jewish boys would file in for announcements. New Boy is fiction, so it’s unclear if the quota at Habs actually existed, but similar schools had quotas, possibly as late as the 1970s, according to Todd M. Endelman’s book, The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000.
During their years at Habs, both Sacha and Erran belonged to the international socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror (Builders of Freedom), an organization dedicated to forging peace with Israel’s neighbors and strengthening Jewish culture. Sacha was a madrich, a youth leader. Erran recalls Habonim Dror both as a home for discussions about social injustice toward minority groups and as the venue for his rock band’s—Stinker Watson Goes Mullet Fishing—first big gig.
While not in school, the Baron Cohen brothers roamed the city. “Living in London… the whole world’s here,” says Erran. “I think that’s been an important part of what we do creatively; we were open to a lot of influences.” Erran remembers taking Sacha to see Afrika Bambaataa, the legendary South Bronx DJ who is often called the grandfather of hip hop. “We were probably the only white guys in the audience,” says Erran, whose inspirations range from Miriam Makeba and Arabic music diva Umm Kulthum to Kraftwerk, a German electronic music pioneer. The brothers’ interest in hip hop eventually evolved into break dancing—with Sacha and his pals dancing to music Erran supplied from his blaster. When not entertaining at bar mitzvahs, they performed on the pavement of the main square in Covent Garden, where musicians and street performers entertain shoppers and passersby.
4 thoughts on “The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan”
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.
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.
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
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.