Each December, as Christmas trees go up and many families gather ‘round to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, Jewish families quietly light their menorahs and celebrate Hanukah. The Hebrew Hammer, a “Jewspolitation” film by Jonathan Kesselman, isn’t a picture to be viewed by families. Still, it does attempt to evoke a sense of Jewish dignity and celebration in its revisionist mythologizing. While the Christians have Santa Claus and Jimmy Stewart as holiday icons, Kesselman introduces Mordecai Jefferson Carver, a.k.a. the Hebrew Hammer (Adam Goldberg). The “Semitic Stud” and a “Certified Circumcised Dick,” the Hebrew Hammer means to make Hanukah cool for Jewish kids everywhere.
The film opens with Santa Claus’ murder at the hands of his son Damian (Andy Dick), who, unlike his dad, hates Hanukkah. Vowing to eradicate it, he intends to brainwash Jewish children into rejecting their faith and embracing Christmas instead. Enlisting the help of Tiny Tim (Sean Whalen), he heads to the Hammer’s “Chood” and begins distributing bootleg copies of It’s A Wonderful Life. It doesn’t take long for the Jewish Justice League to get wind of Damian’s nefarious plans and the Hammer is enlisted to save Hanukkah.
Kesselman borrows heavily from blaxploitation conventions. The Hebrew Hammer is appropriately pimped out, complete with a long flowing black trench coat, fedora, sunglasses, and a low-riding Cadillac that would make Snoop Dogg proud. However, the film’s stereotyping of the Hammer backfires. As tough as he is, he is also kvetching and neurotic, the same Jewish character Woody Allen has played throughout his career, only minus the sharp writing. The Hebrew Hammer and its title character don’t reflect confidence and resistance against a corrupt and oppressive system, as the blaxploitation films did. Rather, the Hammer remains confused and conflicted, almost apologetic for who he is.
An early scene has the Hammer arguing with his mother who constantly compares him to a neighbor’s son, an investment banker. The Hammer, though he serves his community, is made to feel as less than worthy by his own mother. Moreover, when he’s assigned to save Christmas by the Anti-Denigration League, he complains about the responsibility.
The commentary reveals I’m not the only who questioned the portrayal of Jews in the film. Kesselman notes that the Anti-Defamation League (who are renamed the Anti-Denigration League in the film) objected to the script, calling the director “an equal opportunity offender.” These are the sorts of stereotypes that have plagued Jews for years. Most offensive is the Hammer’s “secret weapon”—he saves the day by whining and laying on Damian the dreaded “Jewish guilt,” overpowering him in the process. With this move Kesselman seals the deal in portraying his people as complainers who use guilt to achieve their goals.
Included on the DVD is, Kesselman’s original short film of The Hebrew Hammer, which would serve as the template for the big screen version. In the sharper, funnier and more daring short film, the Hammer hates Gentiles and murders Santa Claus in cold blood. The short film version of the Hammer is the polar opposite of his multiplex counterpart. An oversexed, cocaine-snorting “badass,” he’s a “Semitic Stud,” determined to make the world better for his community. Unfortunately, in adapting his character for the big screen, Kesselman rounded the edges that made short film Hammer so intriguing.
The feature film version becomes repetitive about halfway through, and includes unnecessary detours and chase sequences to fit a (barely) 90-minute running time. Like the worst of Saturday Night Live sketches brought to the big screen (A Night at The Roxbury and It’s Pat come to mind), Kesselman spreads his material painfully thin. And through it all, the Hebrew Hammer personifies and reinforces the worst Jewish stereotypes.