In the Diaspora: Rak b'America

The debut of the first American film to see Israel without the myths.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
From the opening seconds of You Don't Mess With the Zohan, as the camera swoops over the Tel Aviv beachfront and all its fleshy enticements, and the soundtrack pulses with the hiphop of Hadag Nachash, it becomes clear that for the first time an American movie means to portray everyday Israel. That the movie in question happens to be the unapologetically adolescent creation of Adam Sandler, assisted by the veritable auteur of arrested development, Judd Apatow, makes the achievement both more surprising and more significant. A genuine pop culture hit, Zohan took in $40 million at the box office when it opened last weekend, placing it second in the country, ahead of even Sex in the City and Indiana Jones. For those not yet initiated in its crude delights, Zohan follows the adventures in America of its title character, a Mossad commando who tires of all the raids and retaliations and fakes his own death as a way of escaping. In New York, he pursues his true dream of becoming a hairdresser devoted to the disco-era styles of Paul Mitchell. Along the way, Zohan builds client loyalty by servicing, let us say, every lonely, middle-aged woman that crosses his path. Ultimately, he falls in love with the young, sexy Palestinian expatriate who owns the salon and who, in the improbable ways of farce, believes Zohan's cover story that he is an Australian. That particular joke, of course, rides on the ineradicable Israeli accent that Sandler has mastered for this role. The dialogue of Zohan is flecked with Hebrew - b'seder, boker tov. Sandler calls his parents Abba and Ima, and when they learn of his passion for hairdressing, they call him a faigele. (The cast also includes such veteran Israeli actors as Ido Mosseri and Dina Doron.) Zohan refuses to translate or explain any of these inside jokes. Similarly, it casually offers a precise and hilarious portrait of the yerida life in America. There's a street of Israeli-owned shops clearly meant to evoke St. Mark's Place in Manhattan's East Village - that hub for young, hip Israelis. One of the businesses, which sells consumer electronics of dubious provenance, evokes any number of gray-market Israeli stores in midtown. (And I speak here from personal experience.) IN ITS unlikely combination of sophisticated satire and potty-mouth humor, in its seemingly genuine disregard for lofty goals, Zohan manages to be the first American film to see Israel through a lens other than mythology. Whether in the Zionist epics of Exodus and Cast A Giant Shadow or the anti-Zionist thriller Munich, Hollywood has encountered Israel less as a living, breathing place than one either elevated or burdened by virtue, either impossibly perfect or unconscionably hypocritical. Art, in these cases, imitates politics. Israel must either be the globe's only innocent, to borrow part of Leon Wieseltier's phrase, or it must be the only nation morally undeserving of existence. The subtleties, the nuances, of Israel as lived by Israelis simply don't suit an American need for heroes or villains. No wonder, perhaps, that when a branding specialist named Boaz Mourad began to study how his homeland was perceived in the United States, "What he learned is that, to ordinary Americans, Israel is a dark bunker," the journalist Mandy Katz recounted in a recent article in Moment magazine. The Israeli diplomat Ido Aharoni, a veteran of postings in New York and Los Angeles, said in the same article that Americans view Israel "only through the prism of the conflict" as a "relentless purveyor of bad news." The damning verdict of focus groups, he continued, is that Israel was "not fun." Adam Sandler's character of Zohan, however, is almost nothing but fun - his anachronistic ardor for disco, his indiscriminate sexual appetite, his use of humous for everything from brushing teeth to fighting fires. "The remarkable - and hilarious - thing about the film is that it cracks, for the first time perhaps, the stony mask of grave, relentless machismo that has traditionally been de rigueur for Israeli characters in American films, characters that looked and acted as if the entire weight of Jewish history rested on their broad, tanned shoulders," said Liel Liebovitz, an Israeli journalist based in New York and the author of a trenchant book on American Jewish immigrants, Aliyah. "Zohan has none of that. For him, combat and copulation are just two sides of the same coin, and both are fun, frivolous and mindless physical activities." YES, ZOHAN has run away from the conflict, but he's too goofy and vibrant a character to be likened to the soul-weary assassin played by Eric Bana in the Tony Kushner-Steven Spielberg film Munich. Rather than coming off as an ideologically committed anti-Zionist - the stance that Munich approves - Zohan is more reminiscent of the young Israelis who tramp off to Goa or Phukhet or Machu Picchu after their army service. Even the movie's corny ending, with its conciliation between Israelis and Palestinians in New York, gets at a certain truth about the ability of enemies abroad to at least tolerate one another on American ground. And it's not as if Sandler endows his Arab characters with any more purity than his Israelis. John Turturro plays a master terrorist who parlays his infamy into a fast-food franchise. A recurring gag has a Palestinian in New York, who is contemplating killing Zohan, frustrated by the automatic messages he receives when he calls Hizbullah for advice on terrorism. In such moments, and there were many in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, I was reminded less of the usual Sandler and Apatow fare than of Erez Tal's satiric show Rak b'Yisrael, with its ability to laugh in the face of terrorist attacks. As Liel Leibovitz put it: "If we can finally begin to make fun of it all, maybe someday soon we'll also be able to make sense of it all."