Borat scores big at box office &mdash though most miss the biggest joke

Judging from the early box-office returns and the howls of laughter coming from those watching, British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s new “Borat” film scores a direct hit on the audience’s funny bone.

Yet in all the glowing reviews of the film in major newspapers and magazines, only a couple of Jewish reporters got the supreme jest — that the Jew-bashing Borat frequently speaks in Hebrew.

For instance, when Borat takes leave of his home village, he tells a one-armed peasant, “Doltan, I’ll get you a new arm in America,” according to the subtitles translated from “Kazakh.” What he actually says is, “I’ll buy you some kind of a new arm” — in Hebrew.

Borat also sings the lyrics from an old Hebrew folk song, and identifies his country’s greatest scientist, who discovered that a woman’s brain is the same size as a squirrel’s, as “Dr. Yarmulke.”

Cohen’s Hebrew is excellent, thanks to an Israeli mother of Iranian descent, a year spent at Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra and his early membership in the Habonim Dror youth movement.

To top it off, the 35-year-old played Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof” while attending Cambridge University.

There are some real knee-slappers as Borat Sagdiyev, a faux Kazakhstani television reporter, makes his way across America in an ice cream truck. But the biggest laugh must be reserved for Cohen and the folks at 20th Century Fox as they shlep the box office receipts to the bank.

“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” earned an astonishing weekend gross of $26.4 million, easily beating second-ranked “The Santa Clause 3,” which opened in four times as many theaters.

The mock documentary also topped the charts in six European countries, including Cohen’s native Britain.

In his travels across the United States, the wide-eyed, mustachioed Borat encounters, and generally makes fools of, a cross-section of unsuspecting natives. But Borat’s favorite targets are Jews, and he plays the true believer of Jewish conspiracy theories to the hilt. He refuses to fly from New York to Los Angeles, for instance, for fear the Jews will hijack his plane, “as they did on 9/11.”

Apparently the shock waves anticipated by critics did not fully kick in, perhaps because in the preceding weeks Borat’s nonstop appearances on television and radio shows, and excerpts from the movie readily available on the Internet, had given viewers a solid idea of what was to come.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent