The Promised Accent: Hollywood’s Israeli Impressions
The Nazi-hunting thriller film The Debt hit Australian cinemas last week, unleashing a raft of shonky Israeli accents on the cinemagoing public. Sam Worthington’s is the worst, shifting continents involuntarily. Tom Wilkinson’s is pretty bad, too. Helen Mirren’s is probably the best, followed by Jessica Chastain, who plays the younger Mirren, and Marton Csokas, who plays the young Tom Wilkinson.
Romi Aboulafia, who plays Helen Mirren’s daughter, is actually Israeli. She’s prominently featured on the Debt trailer, so have a listen:
Notice the emphasis on the long vowels that native English speakers tend to skim over, and the unexpected hard consonants (for instance, in “Rachel Sin-ger”).
Paul Shoebottom of the Frankfurt International School writes that Hebrew doesn’t discriminate between short and long vowel sounds, whereas it contains more than 20 consonant sounds, so native Hebrew speakers will often confuse the distinctions between English words such as ‘ship/sheep’, or ‘bit/beat’.
They also often conflate various ‘th’ sounds, such as ‘then’, ‘think’ and ‘clothes’, and may mix up ‘w’ and ‘v’ sounds in the way we associate with German speakers. As a Ha’aretz headline phonetically reported a study into the teaching of English to native Hebrew speakers: “Spik dis vay to Izraeleez”.
Additionally, Hebrew usually stresses the last or penultimate syllable in a word, whereas English syllables are pronounced in a much less regular manner. Hebrew speakers can have trouble with English prepositions, saying “close the light” rather than “turn off the light”, or “fill up the form” rather than “fill out the form”.
The fascinating thing about the Israeli accent is how diffuse it is, reflecting the country’s contested history and diasporic origins. There are many different variations between those who came to Israel at different ages, bringing their previous accents with them, and those who’ve left Israel and assimilated aspects of the accents around them.
As the International Dialects of English Archive highlights, older Israelis have accents more heavily influenced by Yiddish, Russian and Central European languages, while younger Israelis can sound almost American.
But Hollywood accents only have to be accurate enough to be recognisable by audiences who aren’t intimately familiar with the accent. And in Hollywood, it seems that an Israeli accent equates to a vaguely European accent with exotic intonation. Here are five other onscreen Israeli accents – both plausible and ridiculous – to compare to The Debt.
Paul Newman plays Zionist stud Ari Ben Canaan in this 1960 film. Although Ari is meant to be a second-generation Israeli (well, technically, “Jewish Palestinian”, as the film is set immediately before Israel’s declaration of nationhood in 1948), he basically has a slightly more clipped and lilting version of Newman’s regular accent.
Still, as Ronald Bergan writes at The Guardian, this was in a period when mimetic plausibility was not a high priority in Hollywood accents. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released the year after Exodus, featured Mickey Rooney’s truly appalling yellowface, while Dick van Dyke’s mangled cockney in Mary Poppins would follow in 1964.
Lisa Cholodenko’s 2002 drama is full of people talking in pretty good fake accents. Welshman Christian Bale and Englishwoman Kate Beckinsale play Americans; American Alessandro Nivola plays English (an accent he’d reprise in Coco Avant Chanel); and Natascha McElhone, who is English, does a plausible Israeli accent. She’s the Israeli doctor who declares her attraction to Bale’s psychiatrist character in this memorable car park scene.
There’s a variety of accents in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 drama based on Operation Wrath of God, the Israeli government response to the 1972 Munich massacre. Lead assassin Avner (Eric Bana) is Israeli, as is his handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) and ‘cleaner’ Carl (Ciarán Hinds, practising for his utter miscasting in The Debt). Meanwhile, Steve (Daniel Craig) is South African and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is Belgian.
Bana is probably the best of the lot, although to an Australian ear, he and Rush do slip into their native twang. Bana revisited his Munich accent in this year’s Hanna, in which he portrays a rogue German secret agent.
Chilean-born, Miami-raised Cote de Pablo plays ex-Mossad agent Ziva David, now working for NCIS. There’s a fascinating comment thread on an NCIS fan forum about the plausibility of Pablo’s accent, which fans generally seem to accept as being realistically hybrid. We apologise for the soundtrack of this fan-made video, but it does show the difference between Ziva’s light accent and the heavier, more Yiddish-inflected accent of her father Eli.
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Adam Sandler’s unexpectedly funny comedy about an elite Israeli commando who yearns to become a New York hairdresser is actually based on a real person. Eytan Ben-David, who acted as a consultant on the film, moved to Los Angeles after completing his military service and became a hairdresser. Since it’s a comedy, the accents are much broader, played for laughs – and that means lots of gutteral flourishes.
Dina Doron, who plays Zohan’s mum, is a veteran Israeli actor, while Jewish-American comedian Shelley Berman plays Zohan’s dad. Compared to them, Sandler (who apparently had dialect coaching) sounds terrible, but nonetheless the movie went down a treat with young Jewish-Americans and Israelis alike.
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