‘Borat da!’ Sacha Baron Cohen’s Welsh roots revealed
Nathan Abrams, Professor of Film at Bangor University
Nation.Cymru has reported how an image of Sacha Baron Cohen, as Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev, has been projected onto Cardiff Castle wearing his iconic “mankini”, in an advertisement for his upcoming “Subsequent Moviefilm” – or Borat 2 as it has been dubbed.
This, at first sight, may seem bizarre – what has Borat got to do with Cardiff and has he even visited Wales? The reality is less so for his creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, is half Welsh and his father once owned a store opposite the castle.
— Amazon Prime Video UK (@primevideouk) October 21, 2020
Chaim Baron was an Ashkenazi Jew who emigrated to Britain from Belarus in the wake of pogroms in the 1880s. 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.
Chaim made his living as a jeweller, pawnbroker and handyman. He went on to have 15 children, raising them in a “typically warm Orthodox Jewish home”.
One of those children was Sacha’s grandfather, Morris (Moishe), who was born in Whitechapel, but like many Jews at that time, fled London with their parents as the Second World War approached. They moved in with their Yiddish-speaking grandparents in a small isolated labourer’s cottage in Pontypridd, buying a kosher chicken from Cardiff every Friday night.
Morris found a job in a menswear shop and the family settled in Morganstown, on the northern outskirts of Cardiff. As Jews, they stood out, being subject to antisemitism from their teachers.
Like many other Jew sons of their time, Gerald ended up joining his father in the family business which they built into a thriving menswear retail company with outlets in Wales and London. They included Baron of Piccadilly in London and Morris Cowan in Newport.
Well-known for their hand-tailored “Baron Suit”, the company bought out Calders in the 1960s when it had already been established for 50 years in Cardiff.
Gerald handled the bookkeeping. In a recent New York Times interview, Baron Cohen described how he was an accountant for a very small gentleman’s men’s wear business. The business “was so unfashionable that many of the brands actually pulled their clothes out of my dad’s shop when they wanted to become fashionable again”.
The family moved to London before Sacha Baron Cohen was born. He was raised in London in a Jewish household and is fluent in Hebrew (which he speaks in the first movie).
Baron Cohen joins the roster of other Welsh Jewish comedians, including David Baddiel and Bennett Arron, but that is another story.
In a sign of recalling his Jewish roots, in an earlier incarnation, as Ali G, Baron Cohen did visit Wales where he is shown receiving a basic lesson in the language.
Next time, Sacha Baron Cohen can tweet ‘Shwmae a Shalom Caerdydd!’