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One Mean Heeb

Jonathan Kesselman brings the baddest Chasid to the screen in the first Jewsploitation film.


by Naomi Pfefferman

January 9, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Adam Goldberg as the title character in Jonathan Kesselman's "The Hebrew Hammer."

Adam Goldberg as the title character in Jonathan Kesselman's "The Hebrew Hammer."

At one point in Jonathan Kesselman's "Jewish exploitation" comedy, "The Hebrew Hammer," Mordechai Jefferson Carver strides into a seedy skinhead bar wearing a long leather coat, a black fedora, pais, a tallit and an oversized gold chai. A chalkboard advertises beer on tap such as Old Adolf, but the titular superhero orders "Manischewitz, straight up." Then he crashes a bottle over the bartender's head, whips out two sawed-off shotguns and shouts, "Shabbat Shalom, Motherf------s!"

In this outrageous world of the Hammer (Adam Goldberg), the Orthodox Jewish hero must battle the evil son of Santa (Andy Dick) to save Chanukah.

Call it the Jewish "Shaft." The farce is Kesselman's homage to 1970s "blaxploitation" films such as "Superfly," "Foxy Brown" and "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song."

"It's the world's first 'Jewsploitation' movie," says the 28-year-old director, whose film premieres at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 16-26). &'9;

The Hammer, dubbed the "baddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv," drives a low-riding baby blue Cadillac with white fur interior (which resembles an Israeli flag on wheels). His favorite expletive is "G-dash-D damn it!" &'9;

But don't tell Kesselman his superhero is distasteful. "The movie is a love letter to being Jewish," said the writer-director, a self-professed "nice Jewish boy from the Valley." &'9;

He says the farce is his response to Hollywood's nebbishy and neurotic depiction of Jews. "Just as blaxploitation films exaggerated the hell out of black stereotypes to take away their power, the Hammer exaggerates every Jewish stereotype," he said. "He's both ultracool and ultraneurotic."

While Superfly in the 1972 film snorts cocaine off a crucifix, the allergy-plagued Hammer sniffs antihistamines off his chai. When Santa pushes bootleg copies of "It's a Wonderful Life" on Jewish kids, Carver arranges for videotapes of "Yentl" to hit the streets. The Hammer's idea of talking dirty to his lady, Esther Bloomenbergansteinthal: "I want to have lots of children by you." &'9;

The film -- which also features an organization called The Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy -- is part of a new trend of in-your-face ethnicity touted by hip Jewish artists (think Heeb magazine and New York's "Jewsapalooza" music festival). Canada's Globe and Mail hailed the "Hammer" as "perhaps the zaniest, brainiest example of [this] new wave," although its director is more clean-cut than in-your-face.

On this Friday morning, Kesselman is dressed neatly in immaculate blue jeans and a linen shirt. Polite, funny and good-natured, he admits he does share one unfortunate trait with The Hammer: "I'm the most neurotic Jew you'll ever meet," he said. "I whined on the 'Hammer' set. I've whined incessantly to every girl I've dated. It's not that I'm unhappy; it just makes me feel better." He paused, then said, "Can you mention [in the article] that I'm single?"

Nevertheless, Kesselman, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, had enough chutzpah to quit his "soul-sucking" computer job and apply to USC's film school in 1998. When the rejection letter came, he said he submitted the exact same application again "out of spite" and, as a catharsis, began writing a screenplay about "two idiot film students, one of whom is making a Jewsploitation movie."

"Although the notion of a Jewsploitation film initially was a joke, it dawned on me that a badass Chasidic Jew is the ultimate comedic discrepancy," said Kesselman, who was accepted to USC in 1999. "So I rented a whole bunch of blaxploitation films to figure out how the genre worked. I learned that what I needed was some twist on the source of oppression. I asked myself, 'What as a Jew really pisses me off?' It hit me when I was walking around a mall in December: I hate Christmastime. There are always all these Christmas decorations and a pathetic little menorah tucked away in a corner."

Kesselman's USC "Hebrew Hammer" short went on to the semifinals at the 2000 Austin Film Festival and interested producers at Universal. "But they wanted to turn it into a black-Jewish buddy film -- they were thinking Chris Rock and Ben Stiller -- which was going to ruin it," he said. &'9;

Ignoring the advice of his career advisers (and his mother), Kesselman passed on the deal. He was rewarded when ContentFilm offered to finance the movie with himself as the director in October 2001. "Jon's script was hysterical and unlike anything we'd ever seen," said Sofia Sondervan, Content's head of East Coast production. "It makes fun of everyone without being offensive."

Nevertheless, the filmmakers worried that angry observant Jews might shut down the production when the Brooklyn shoot began in spring 2002.

Sondervan recalled how Chasidim had crashed the Boro Park set of the provocative Chasidic saga "A Price Above Rubies" while she was working at Miramax in 1997. "I warned everyone," she said. "But that didn't end up happening with 'The Hammer.' Instead, all these Chasidic girls stood around asking Adam Goldberg for his autograph."

Kesselman, for his part, was relieved when his Orthodox relatives loved the movie, including his cousin, who lives in the West Bank. "The Hammer celebrates being Jewish," he said. "It's a badass Jew kicking ass for the tribe."

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