Jews in the News: Eli Cohen, Sasha Baron Cohen and Ray Benson

The Spy or Cohen Plays Cohen

“The Spy,” a six-episode Netflix original series, premieres on Friday, Sept. 6.  It is about ELI COHEN (1924-1965), a real-life Israeli spy. If you are unfamiliar with Cohen’s life, you could, of course, read an on-line biography. However, you may want to discover most of his life history via the Netflix series, so I won’t disclose, here, his most important espionage assignment. Just a little background: Cohen was born and raised in Egypt. His father was a Syrian Jew who moved to Egypt in 1914. Eli was fluent in Arabic as virtually all Egyptian Jews were. His family was strongly Zionist and Cohen secretly aided Israel while still in Egypt. He barely avoided being detected for a long time and when his position became untenable, he escaped to Israel in 1956.

“The Spy” was created by, written by, and directed by GIDEON RAFF, 47, an Israeli producer and writer who is most famous for creating the Israeli series “Prisoners of War,” which was re-made (with some changes) as the hit American series “Homeland.”

British actor/comedian SASHA BARON COHEN, 47, plays Eli Cohen. The actor’s mother is an Israeli and he is fluent in Hebrew, which probably helped him give a more authentic performance. American actor NOAH EMMERICH, 54, co-stars as Dan Peleg. Netflix’s website describes Peleg this way: “Dan is a charming, rumpled and brilliant Mossad trainer. He is wise, wary and stubborn, and has a tendency to blur the boundaries between the personal and professional. He has conflicted feelings about Eli, and is tormented by a mistake he made in the past.”  You probably will recognize Emmerich. He co-starred in the FX series “The Americans,” as FBI agent Stan Beeman. I always remember him as Jim Carrey’s faux best friend in “The Truman Show” (1998).

Streaming Catch-Up

“The Righteous Gemstones” is an original HBO series that began on August 18, with a two-episode premiere (the first season is eight episodes). The series is described as a comedy, but it is really a drama with some comedy. HBO says about the show: “[It’s about] the world famous Gemstone televangelist family, which has a long tradition of deviance, greed, and charitable work, all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

John Goodman stars as Dr. Eli Gemstone, the family’s head. SKYLER GISONDO, 24, plays Gideon, the youngest of Eli’s three children. Without spoiling things, the Gideon character has a big moment and “hidden agenda reveal” in the second episode.

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is a Showtime dark comedy which premiered on August 25. New episodes (10 this season) air on Sunday. Set in the early ‘80s, the series stars Kirsten Dunst as a young woman in Orlando who schemes her way up the corporate ladder of a cultish, pyramid scheme company that, in years past, financially ruined her family. TED LEVINE, 62, co-stars as Obie, an important and creepy member of the family that runs the company. Reviews say he’s excellent and that’s not a surprise—Levine was amazingly creepy in “The Silence of the Lambs” as serial killer “Buffalo Bill” (the guy who says: “And she puts on the lotion").

Jews in Country Music: Well, Yes.

On Sunday, Sept. 15 most PBS stations will air the first episode (of 8) of the Ken Burns documentary series “Country Music.” On Sunday, Sept 8, at 8PM, most PBS stations will air “Live at the Ryman,” a concert held last February that celebrated the release of the Burns’ series. While there aren’t many Jewish country music performers, the biggest Jewish Country musician of all (literally and figuratively) was on the stage. I speak of RAY BENSON, 68, a 6’7” guy who has been the leader of the popular Western or Texas swing band “Asleep at the Wheel” since its founding in 1970. “Asleep” played “New Rose of San Antonio” at the Ryman concert. “New Rose” was the signature song of the late Bob Wills, the “King of Western Swing,” and a major subject of Burns’ series.

Another concert performer is Ricky Skaggs, a top bluegrass performer and a strong Israel supporter who is great friends with ANDY STATMAN, 69, a religious Jew who plays bluegrass mandolin and Klezmer clarinet. Bluegrass, more than any other country music genre, has attracted a lot of Jewish players, including ERIC “Dueling Banjos” WEISSBERG, 80, BELA FLECK, 51, and DAVID GRISMAN, 74. Skaggs once said: “There’s something that Jewish people love about bluegrass. I’m trying to get my thumb on it as well. There’s something very spiritually connected to Israel. I don’t know exactly how.”


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