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The Hebrew Hammer Director On How Mel Brooks Inspired Jewish Cult Classic
Writer-director Jonathan Kesselman looks back on the "Certified Circumcised Dick" who saved Chanukah.
Before Eli Roth's Donny Donowitz and Logan Lerman's Jonah Heidelbaum, there was Adam Goldberg's Mordechai Jefferson Carver — aka The Hebrew Hammer. It's a little hard to say if the Jewish avenger of Jonathan Kesselman's kosher cult classic (currently streaming on Peacock) helped pave the way for subsequent Semitic heroes, but the writer-director doesn't rule out the hypothesis completely.
"Every single person in Hollywood told me that it was 'Too Jewish,' and would never get made," Kesselman told SYFY WIRE over text message back in 2017. "Then [producers] Ed Pressman and John Schmidt came along and let me make it. So, I guess the fact that it found an audience let other filmmakers know that there might be an appetite for something like it."
How Mel Brooks and blaxploitation inspired 2003's The Hebrew Hammer
A self-aware satire of Jewish stereotypes, The Hebrew Hammer is chock full of mile-a-minute gags reminiscent of Mel Brooks and the Airplane! trio of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker — all of whom served as inspirations for the movie. Much in the same way Brooks fearlessly parodied Nazis just two decades after the end of the Holocaust in 1967's The Producers, Kesselman wanted to try his hand at seeing how much he could push the envelope by tackling sensitive topics through the lens of comedy.
"I want to do stuff that isn’t necessarily safe," he explained. "The great thing about comedy is that it’s objective. If people laugh, then they’re laughing for a reason. And if they do laugh, then I win. I also think it’s in some ways easier to make people laugh using more taboo subjects like religion, sex, death ... These things make people uncomfortable and unsafe. So if you can get in there and release some of that discomfort, I think people appreciate that."
What truly makes the film unique, however, is the way in which the filmmaker tips his yarmulke to blaxploitation classics of the 1970s by reimagining the character of Shaft as a neurotic champion of the Jewish people. An Isaac Hayes-inspired theme song, a cameo from Melvin Van Peebles' Sweetback, and the use of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" round out the groovy homage, which pits the Hammer against Santa's Chanukah-hating son, Damien (Andy Dick). It's ridiculous and silly and exactly what cult classic dreams are made of. How else are you going to introduce an iconic phrase like "Shabbat Shalom, motherf—ers!" into the pop culture lexicon?
For Kesselman, the trappings of blaxploitation went beyond mere stylistic flourishes; they were also meant to be a reflection of the empowerment behind exploitation cinema. Films like Shaft, Superfly, Dolemite, and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song were all made by Black storytellers looking to take control of and subvert generalizations made about their community.
"The notion was, 'If this is how white America sees us, let’s give them that, but in an exaggerated manner. And, better yet, let’s have our protagonists sleep with the white woman, kill the white man, and get away with it.' It was an empowering idea," the director continues. "I was curious, in a more comedy-based manner, to see if the same would work for Jews and Jewish stereotypes. When I met Adam Goldberg for the first time and we started discussing the character, I told him he’s got to be insanely neurotic and insanely cool all at once."
Kesselman concludes: "Jews — and every minority group — are not just one thing. I think it’s positive for us to see ourselves reflected as sexy [and] powerful alongside some of those other traits we see a lot: anxious, overly-analytical, nebbishy."
The Hebrew Hammer is now streaming on Peacock.