|The Habo talent factory
By Alex Kasriel
What do Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Leigh, David Baddiel and Seth Rogen have in common? They are all former members of the socialist Zionist Habonim movement. So how does one Jewish youth group create so many stars?|
Habonim Dror recently moved out of its London headquarters. At the farewell, a video was shown featuring comedian and writer David Baddiel and his brother Ivor. In it, David brags to Ivor that he is the most famous person ever to have been a member of the socialist Zionist youth movement.
“More famous than Mike Leigh?” Ivor asks. “Yes,” replies David. “More famous than Dan Patterson?” Ivor probes further. “Yes,” replies David. “More famous than Jonathan Freedland?” When Ivor asks whether his brother is more famous than Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of Borat, Baddiel jokingly refuses to answer.
The video serves as an illustration of the astonishing number of successful comedians, writers and actors who belonged to Habonim in their teenage years.
And not just in this country. Seth Rogen, the current darling of Hollywood and star of movie hits Knocked Up and Superbad, was a member of the movement in Canada.
True to its socialist philosophy, “Habo” alumni also frequently join forces to help one another. Rogen, known for his improvisational comedy, helped Baron Cohen script the final series of Da Ali G Show in America, and claimed to have made uncredited contributions to the filming of last year’s hit Borat movie. Literary agent and ex-Habonim member Jonny Geller represents Baron Cohen as well as journalist and writer Jonathan Freedland; and dramatist Mike Leigh has performed work by playwright Arnold Wesker, also a former member of the movement.
This reporter, who grew up going to Habonim’s weekly meetings and residential camps, experienced first-hand the wit of Sacha Baron Cohen, when as part of a group of 14-year-olds on winter camp we were introduced to a deadpan Israeli who had come to speak to us about the situation in the Middle East. It was not until the end of the 20-minute session that some of us twigged who he really was.
Habonim was founded in London in 1929, a socialist Zionist movement promoting the establishment of kibbutzim in Mandate Palestine. In 1980 it merged with Dror, a group founded with similar aims. Today, the combined movement has a presence in 21 countries, providing informal educational activities for teenagers based on its three pillars of cultural Judaism, Zionism and socialism. There are currently about 600 members in the UK.
But why did so many future stars of the arts and entertainment industry don the distinctive blue movement shirts and join an organisation whose initial aim was to establish kibbutzim?
David Baddiel says: “Habonim was my social life for my early teenage years. It introduced me to girls, sleeping under canvas, and to a couple of friends who are still close. I never quite bought into either the Zionism or the socialism, although I did have the blue shirt with the laces in the neck-hole.
“I don’t know why it has produced a fair few media stars,” he reflects. “I don’t think it’s much to do with the movement per se. What I think it is is that Jews are pretty good at showbusiness and the arts. The artiest section of these would send their kids to Habonim, because it was a bit lefty and boho compared to [rival youth movements] Bnei Akiva or Maccabi — especially in the ’70s, before Israel became persona non grata for the left. I just think Habonim was the Jewish social club of choice for the kids of the artiest English Jews of the time.”
Bafta Award-winning film and theatre director Mike Leigh, who went to North Manchester Ken (literally “nest” in Hebrew) in the late ’50s and early ’60s, believes the Habonimniks were inspired by the pioneering nature of the kibbutzniks.
“The spirit of the kibbutz movement, the anarchic and improvised way that they all entertained themselves — that informed the whole thing,” he says.
Leigh asserts that Habonim’s ability to address weighty issues with a sense of humour has given its members a talent for comedy with substance.
“In my day, we went on marches like the one to abolish capital punishment,” he says. “But it was also fun. We produced magazines and newspapers and put on shows. People did all kinds of performances.”
He remembers the time when he and some friends staged Arnold Wesker’s play Roots. “When I told him later, he was very taken,” says Leigh.
“There was an anarchic challenging of the status quo,” he adds.
“That was what it was about for a lot of people. When I was growing up in the ’50s, because it was rather repressive, we were rebelling. Within the context of the boring, dowdy Jewish communities, we were the guys and the girls who were speaking out and wearing jeans and sandals. We didn’t dress up or wear suits and make-up, but open shirts, and we went camping.
“It was a creative environment. We were all part of the same thing, of the general open-spiritedness.”
Leigh, whose play Two Thousand Years includes characters who are ex-Habonim members, or bogrim, also talks with great nostalgia about the ziggim (sketches) members performed spontaneously.
He remembers fondly the time when he and his fellow chaverim (comrades) started an impromptu singing session in the middle of a Central London street.
He believes these antics informed his way of working as a director in years to come, in the same way that it does for comedic actors like Baron Cohen, Baddiel and Whose Line Is It Anyway? television producer Dan Patterson.
“The great thing about what Sacha does is that he does spontaneous humour that actually pertains to something more serious — and that is how we learnt about things at Habonim,” Leigh says. “And what Dan does in Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The spirit has definitely come from Habonim.
“The way I conduct things — people get together and we talk very openly and have discussions, and everybody’s equal — absolutely comes from being in the movement. It’s the spirit of how I work and the atmosphere of my rehearsals. Everyone has input, it’s a real democracy. It comes from my movement experience. Being a madrich [leader] is where I learned my leadership skills.
“When I went to RADA in 1966, I walked away from my Jewish life, but a lot of my very close friends were in the movement, like Colin Cina, once head of Chelsea Arts School. It was part of my life. The chevrah keeps going even for those of us who have moved away from Judaism.”
Writer and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland — and active Habonim member during the ’80s — argues that because the movement allowed its participants a lot of responsibility at a young age by taking chanichim (younger members) on camp, it instilled in them a strong and lasting sense of confidence.
“People were given such premature responsibility. We were just 19 or 20, and we were taking charge of events and camps that normally people wouldn’t be doing until they were much older. I, for example, was in charge of taking 100 kids to Holland when I was just 20. I remember seeing a pile of forms their parents had signed, confirming that I was ‘in loco parentis’ for their children, 100 of them.
“You’re given a kind of unnatural confidence very young. You start to believe that anything is possible. That, combined with the traditional ‘vanguard’ mentality of those left-wing youth movements— that can lead to a tremendous confidence, even arrogance.
‘You come to believe you have a special responsibility. Despite the socialism, it was, in some ways, a very elitist organisation.
“The result, I suppose, is people going on to take prominent roles not only in showbusiness, but in lots of other walks of life.
“There was something extremely empowering about it. It was very unusual. There aren’t many things like that — apart from Eton, perhaps.
“We would have to organise, say, a sketch show in a couple of hours. That constant creativity — it was almost like a training for drama or the arts. Doing things very quickly, assembling things, working together in groups — all those are very useful skills, not least in the media. That combination of hormones, camaraderie, humour and passion — it was a heady mix.”
Freedland remembers taking a 12-year-old Sacha Baron Cohen on tiyul (a hike) when he was 17. “Even then he was the joker of the group, and very entertaining — but I also remember him as being very sweet and well-behaved. Not especially rebellious or shocking at all then,” he says.
“I was his madrich later on too, and he was always one of the sharpest, most creative kids in any group — but, as I’m sure he will be the first to admit, he was not unique. There was always a lot of talent around.”
Dan Patterson says the games and sketches he took part in at Habonim during the ’70s were a big influence in the creation of the hit improvisational TV sketch show Whose Line Is It Anyway? that he devised with fellow Habonimnik Mark Leveson.
He says: “When I was in it, people didn’t take themselves too seriously. There was a great sense of humour. If the camp had a theme, there were always imaginative activities. As a kid, you were drawn to that. When you were older, you were a leader and coming up with those things took a lot of creativity.
“It did attract people like that. It gave you a very big buzz to do that. I loved the games and drama. There was definitely the same atmosphere in my show as in Habo.”
Patterson was responsible for writing the yearly messibat aliyah show, in honour of those leaving for Israel. He remembers writing spoof lyrics for North-West Side Story and the “sheer excitement” of another show being performed at a theatre in the West End.
“I couldn’t have had a better environment or training. It was ideological, but it was done with a smile,” he says.
Patterson points out that the movement is still producing showbiz talent. Comedian Simon Brodkin — “the next big thing”, according to Patterson — is a former member.
And so is Ric Cantor, writer and director of the movie Suzie Gold and
co-writer on Da Ali G Show. As are Jes Wilkins, head of factual entertainment at ZigZag TV, singer-songwriter Jonny Berliner, TV scriptwriter Eleanor Greene, Never Mind The Buzzcocks writer Dan Swimer, and Richard Ackerman, producer of the Channel 4 comedy show The Friday Night Project.
The new mazkira (movement secretary) of Habonim, Deborah Brown, sums up the reason for this relentless fostering of talent.
“Habonim is empowering. It’s a democratic organisation. At a young age, you are able to use your skills for a purpose.”
Snapshot: Habonim Dror
- Habonim Dror is an international youth movement based on a mix on three “pillars” — cultural Judaism, Zionism, and socialism.
- It was created from a merger in 1980 of two kibbutz movements —Habonim, which was founded in London in 1929 with the aim of establishing kibbutzim in Mandate Palestine, and Dror, which was founded in Poland in 1915 and was a driving force behind the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis.
- Today, Habonim Dror exists in 21 countries in Europe, North America and Australia. It promotes Socialist-Zionism, working for an egalitarian and progressive Israel. The movement’s slogan is Chazak Ve’ematz!, meaning “Be strong!”
- Currently there are around 600 members in the UK. They meet at weekly meetings and residential camps for informal educational programmes.