Critics didn’t like The Dictator. The Post found it unfunny. The Times thought it was “lazy.” They didn’t like it because it exploited crude Arab stereotypes: sex obsession, arrogance and obscene chauvinism. They didn’t like it because it felt like a tired sketch comedy with a nod to current events. And they didn’t like it because it wasn’t unscripted like Borat, it wasn’t racy like Borat and it wasn’t gross like Borat.
But what can I do? I liked it. I think it’s because I speak 21st century Jewish.
My Zayde was suspicious of anyone who didn’t speak “Jewish,” including the woman who wanted to marry her son and eventually became my mother. When she said she spoke “Jewish,” she meant Yiddish (my mother was perfectly “Jewish” by any other standard). But when I say that I speak Jewish I mean—in the very best possible way—that I laugh at Holocaust jokes. Even though I’m not really supposed to.
And, OK, I’ll admit it: I liked the “in” jokes. I liked that no one but me in the theater understood the Hebrew. I liked that when Admiral General Aladeen was playing his Terrorist Edition Wii and shooting Jews (“oy vey!”), he was shooting me. I was nostalgic for a time I’ve never experienced when I might have been the Eternal Outsider, the hated Jew. As atavistic as it sounds, watching The Dictator, I found myself reveling in my image of my grandfather’s anti-Semite; one just as uncircumcised and distasteful as Cohen’s. If the ADL had seen me, I probably would have made them nervous.
And while yes, I take guilty pleasure in old country stereotypes, I was also drawn to Cohen because he’s a New Jew. Cohen was born to a well-off British family. He grew up in a post-1967 world. He told Howard Stern that he never experienced anti-Semitism. He’s not actually afraid of the goyim—he just wants to, in his words, “expose” them. This isn’t Woody Allen and Jews aren’t neurotic or self-deprecating. Cohen speaks Hebrew rather than Yiddish—his grandmother lives in Haifa and his mother was born in Israel. With Israel at his back, Cohen’s fearlessness lets him take Jewish comedy on a new course: the Hebrew offensive.
And it was the offensive Hebrew that wound up being my favorite part of The Dictator (kids, stop reading now).
Cohen invented Hebrew names for the male and female genitalia. He calls his penis a “bilbul”—a “confusion.” He could have said "bulbul," the word little Israeli kids use, but he didn't—he "confused" it. A Talmudic read ratchets up the irony: “bilbul” could be an Arabic mispronunciation of “pilpul” (the Arab alphabet does not contain the “p” sound, a convention that Aladeen sticks to throughout), in which case the Hebrew would translate to “argumentation” or “back and forth debate.”
Other pieces of R-rated anatomy turn into Israeli food items. Female genitalia are “mallawach,” a thick, oily Yemenite bread that migrated to Israel. He alternatively calls semen “sbich,” (the "real" Hebrew slang word would be "shpich") perhaps intended as a shortened version of sabich (an Iraqi-Jewish sandwich made with fried eggplant and hard-boiled egg) and “labane” (a Levantine strained yogurt-cheese dip).
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