Mayonnaise with that? Israeli TV drama takes Lenny Bruce further

June 27, 2014 by

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Lenny Bruce would be giggling in his grave. He was the one who so famously explained that mayonnaise is goyish. Who would have predicted how far this observation would extend?

Israel is gripped by many obsessions painful and joyful. At the same time as we pray for the return of the three kidnapped kids, we are also overtaken by World Cup fever. For a country not represented in the greatest football spectacle of all time (yes, it’s football, Ann Coulter!) Israelis are free to support whoever they want – flags abound.

But the greatest obsession in abeyance until next season is our Zaguri obsession. 26 episodes of this family comic drama about a dysfunctional Moroccan family in Beersheva took the country by storm. And it also reappropriated mayonnaise for a brand new audience.

Here is a short clip, showing a brief argument between Aviel and Avishag (Shuggie). They are brother and sister. Aviel left the household several years ago, and worked hard to hide his Moroccan roots by changing his name and committing himself to the army. The series begins on his return to Beersheva together with his blond girlfriend Shahar. His seven siblings, mother, father, and old flame Lizzie, are not impressed. Watch the clip, and then we’ll unpeel it a little…

Don’t you love it? Aviel’s blond Ashkenazi girlfriend is “Mayonnaise”. It’s such a deep and rich insult – almost better than the juicy Moroccan curses that spice the dialogue of this mass cult hit show. First, it of course refers to color. A bland, sickly pale color of skin as opposed to the way in which many Mizrachim see themselves in Israeli society: Black. But the insult runs deeper in the Mizrachi-Ashkenazi split. Shemi Zarchin’s stunning first novel Some Day (he’s better known for his award-winning films such as Aviva My Love, and Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi) marks how Mizrachi food was looked down on, and “modern food” – a euphemism for Western food – more respected. When opening her own catering firm, Ruchama is given the keys to the kingdom: How does one cook “modern” food? Just add mayonnaise!

Beyond the mayonnaise, Aviel’s girlfriend is associated with pretensions of great wealth (father accused of owning Israel’s greatest resource: water), lack of solidarity (she wastes everyone else’s water), and the ultimate symbol of Mizrachi oppression, the Kibbutz (hence Shuggie wishes her back to the kibbutz dairy house). For his part, Aviel is so strongly identified with his army home that he cannot even argue with his sister without using the classic Army set of three: A, B, and C.

Even in this short extract we can even see how Zaguri is drenched with fascinating attitudes to gender issues. Avishag gives her vision of a true man: One who is so enslaved to his woman that he would cut out his own kidney for her. Aviel in contrast talks of detachment from jealousy, and cannot fully acknowledge his own feelings for his old flame Lizzy, who hangs out on the roof of their apartment block.

Zaguri has been embraced and attacked by the Mizrachi community, as one might expect. It is horrifically honest about the flaws of this Moroccan family, to the point of exaggeration or demonization. On the other hand, it is real, full of love and passion, and written by a guy whose family name happens to be… Zaguri…

Now knowing all this, take another look at the clip…

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