For the last four years, Israeli television viewers have been captivated by an unconventional crime show called Ha-Borer, or “the arbitrator.” An action-packed comedy drama, the series tells the story of an Orthodox mobster, his fractious Sephardic family, and his long-lost illegitimate son. In some ways, it’s an Israeli version of The Sopranos. But the makers of the series gave this genre a distinctive, Israeli-Jewish bent.
Ha-Borer uses the world of organized crime as a backdrop to explore timeless Jewish questions about morality, community, and belonging. It also deals with many of the most pressing issues facing Israeli society in the 21st century, from rising wealth and inequality to the ethical dilemmas of war.
Immensely popular in Israel, the show deserves to be seen by anyone who wants to understand how contemporary Israelis see themselves and the world around them. If you speak Hebrew, go to the website of Israel’s HOT cable network and watch it now. If you need English subtitles, wait until your next El-Al flight to Israel and watch the show on in-flight entertainment.
In the meantime, here’s what you’re missing: The show follows the family of Baruch Asulin, an aging mafia boss known as “Ha-Borer” for his role as a mediator of underworld disputes. The Borer is a ruthless killer, but he is also a traditionally observant Sephardic Jew. He frequents the neighborhood synagogue and is often shown settling mobsters’ disputes by referring to Torah law, which he quotes extensively, always from memory.
In Ha-Borer’s first season, the Borer is contacted by a long-lost illegitimate son, given up for adoption at birth. The son, Nadav, was raised by the middle-class Feldman family and is studying to become a social worker. As the two men bond, Nadav finds himself drawn unwillingly into the Borer’s criminal milieu. Revealing a surprising acumen for ruthless strategizing, Nadav becomes the Borer’s trusted confidant in a war against a hated rival: Yigal Mizrahi, a mobster so cruel that he is nicknamed “Yigal the Nazi.”
Together, the aging Sephardic gangster and the young Ashkenazi social worker dodge bullets and plot their next moves. Along the way, they debate philosophical questions of right and wrong, the meaning of family, and the significance of traditional Jewish values for contemporary life. Religious pragmatism meets secular idealism head on, over and over. In one scene, Nadav appeals to conscience, only to have the Borer cut him off in mid sentence. “In Judaism there is no conscience,” he says. “There are only mitzvot.”
In another episode, the Borer turns down a business proposal from his old friend Faruki, who plans to make it big smuggling drugs into Israel from Lebanon. In an Israeli twist on a classic scene from The Godfather, the Borer expresses his objection to the drug trade in terms of Jewish solidarity. “I love you very much, just as I love every Jew,” he tells his would-be partner in crime. “But you are going down the wrong path.”
Using a crime-show script to explore questions of philosophy and religion is a dangerous move. Done wrong, such a combination could seem forced, even absurd. But Ha-Borer pulls it off smoothly, with believable dialogue and top-notch acting.
What makes the show work? Director Shay Kanot, who created the series with screenwriter Reshef Levy, pointed out that the action in Ha-Borer unfolds at a rather relaxed pace: Because of budgetary constraints, each episode has fewer scenes than is customary in American television. This allows for each scene to be richer and more fully developed, he told me. “We try to make every scene include some kind of action, some kind of witty line or joke, and something for viewers to think over in their heads,” he said.
Kanot and Levy created Ha-Borer by building on years of experience in prior collaborations, including a short-lived police show called Tik Sagur (“Case Closed”) and the comedy film Ahava Colombianit (“Colombian Love”). The show’s minor characters, like the Borer’s hyper-religious daughter, reflect familiar Israeli social types. Even the choice to portray a mafia boss from an Orthodox background, which may seem incongruous to American Jews, makes sense in the Israeli context. “Israel’s most famous criminals generally come from Mizrahi families which uphold religious traditions,” Kanot said. “It’s not unusual to see a family of six children, where one brother is a rabbi and another is a gangster.”
Ha-Borer captures the zeitgeist of the past decade in Israel, a country that has experienced amazing economic growth and shown surprising resilience in the face of war and terrorism but is terrified by the prospect of losing its soul, either through the greed of capitalism or the savagery of war. The show examines the state of Israel’s soul without providing a definite diagnosis. The sadistic cruelty of the gangsters is on full display. So is the callous indifference of citizens and government officials. At the same time, Ha-Borer shows how certain national values endure, even among criminals. One memorable scene opens with a pair of the Borer’s henchmen choking a man who is trying to back out of a deal with their boss. When they discover that the victim’s son was a paratrooper who died in Lebanon, they stop immediately. “I was a paratrooper too,” one of the toughs says, “and I also fought in Lebanon.” Out of respect for the family’s sacrifice, the gangsters leave empty handed.
Three seasons of Ha-Borer have aired on Israel’s HOT cable network, and a fourth season is in the works, with filming set to begin in May. The show’s stars report being stopped on the street by fans, some of whom seem unable to distinguish between the actors and the characters they play. The show is allegedly popular with real mobsters too, and several of Israel’s more colorful mafia leaders reportedly believe that the scripts are inspired by their own life stories.
Ha-Borer is finally neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the gritty Israel it portrays. As a story of Jews making tough decisions in a dangerous world, the show reflects Israel’s determination to keep struggling both with its enemies and with its own internal demons.