The "Jewsploitation" craze

Jonathan Kesselman's "The Hebrew Hammer" is the manifesto for a hip, hype-driven "new Jewishness." But here's a news flash: American Jews aren't actually black, and anti-Semitic stereotypes aren't automatically funny.

Published December 23, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

For New York Jews in Los Angeles exile, Canter's Deli is a glimpse at the Promised Land. An L.A. eatery with enough chutzpah to pretend "Atkins" and "low carb" don't exist -- diet, you say, in the land of kugel and knishes? -- Canter's, born in 1924, churns out 4,900 pounds of pastrami every month. Close your eyes and smell the borscht. You're suddenly in the land of milk and honey (Ratner's, Katz's or any other high-holy deli on New York's Lower East Side).

This morning, though, nothing can drown out Los Angeles. Jonathan Kesselman, writer/director of "The Hebrew Hammer" -- fresh off its run on Comedy Central and now schlepping into theaters in New York and Los Angeles, with other cities to follow -- is eating breakfast, talking movies and waxing neurotic about ethnic slurs.

"I don't get it. You can't say 'kike' on TV, but you can say 'nigga.' You can't say 'n----r,' though, just 'nigga' -- except if it's a Richard Pryor film, in which case everything goes." Kesselman sips his coffee and sighs. "Why can't I say 'kike,' for God's sake?"

Kesselman's kvetch is prompted by the bleep-heavy Comedy Central version of "The Hebrew Hammer." Though he was thrilled to see his film on network television, Kesselman remains distressed by the watering-down process that comes with such exposure. He'd prefer, for instance, that lines like "Shabbat Shalom, motherfucker!" live a long network life. And that the "Kikes Go Home!" sign, prominently displayed in an early scene, survive the cutting-room floor.

If such phrases offend you -- if they leave you stifling the urge to notify the Anti-Defamation League -- then Kesselman's joke is on you. The 29-year-old Angeleno's film revels in stereotypes and slurs, joyously mocking those old-fashioned and unhip enough to be affronted by them.

The film recently landed on the cover of Time Out New York, which set Kesselman among the "new Super Jews," one of the "edgy young tastemakers" crafting today's "hip new Jewish identity" and responsible for such things as "Jewsapalooza," a two-day music festival; art-house films like "Kissing Jessica Stein" and The Believer; satirical Web sites like Jewsweek and International Jewish Conspiracy; and T-shirts reading "Jew Wannabe" or "Jewcy."

One might sip He'Brew, the "chosen beer," while enjoying the music of the Hip Hop Hoodios (a Latino-Jewish group), novelty rapper 50 Shekel (you can find him "in da shul"), or tunes like "Hanukkah with Monica" and "Hot Jewish Chicks" (from the New York variety show "What I Like About Jew").

But peer beneath the hype of this so-called new Jewishness, and you might find something old and familiar there. Especially when it comes to the film genre it's spawned -- the genre Kesselman calls "Jewsploitation."

Like '70s blaxploitation -- boldly black flicks including "Shaft," "Foxy Brown" and "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," which stuck it to whitey by spinning African-American stereotypes into brash action films -- "The Hebrew Hammer" is Kesselman's effort to explode Jewish clichés. Its protagonist, played impeccably by "Dazed and Confused's" Adam Goldberg, is Mordechai Jefferson Carver, aka the Hammer: "certified circumcised dick," boy from the "chood," a "big-nosed biblical brother" hired by the Jewish Justice League to save Hanukkah from nefarious non-Jews. Kesselman has created an over-the-top Jewish superhero who still isn't good enough for mother. Hammer is, he says, "essentially a black Jew."

"His speech is black American speech mixed with Yiddishisms. And yes, he has a large penis. The idea is to take black stereotypes and Jewish stereotypes and blend them together to create --" Kesselman pauses, grasping for the right phrase -- "well, one big stereotype."

The one-of-a-kind cast list for "The Hebrew Hammer" could be a page from "Typecasting for Dummies." There's "Shlomo," "Chaim Feygele," "Mohammed," "Jamal," and "Black Teen." There's "Gentile Boy #1," "Gentile Boy #2," "Freckle-faced Gentile" and "Blonde Gentile Girl." There's "Chairman of the Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy," "Skinhead Bartender," "White Accountant," "Macabee," and "Sassy Black Prostitute." There's even "Edward I. Koch" -- played by the only one who can do Koch justice: himself.

Dedicated -- with a nod to Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 "Sweetback" -- to "all the Jewish brothers and sisters who had enough of the gentile," The Hebrew Hammer takes on the most potent of them all, the über-gentile known as Santa Claus. At home among the recent crop of bumbling, big-screen Santas -- in "Bad Santa" or "Elf," for instance -- Kesselman's is a campy, coke-snorting anti-Semite played by lowbrow comedian Andy Dick. He and his sidekick, Tiny Tim, set off to eradicate Hanukkah by, among other schemes, fomenting Jewish Christmas Envy: Free copies of "It's a Wonderful Life" leave visions of Hanukkah bushes dancing in little Jewish heads.

Manischewitz jokes abound. The Pentagon is a Jewish star. Hammer works for a man named Bloomenbergansteinthal. The point is more than made after about 20 minutes -- the original length of "The Hebrew Hammer," before it evolved from Kesselman's USC film-school short into a feature-length version of a bad "Saturday Night Live" skit: What's at first brilliantly funny becomes deadened by excess.

To some, however, the film was never funny in the first place. While most Jewish circles have embraced "The Hebrew Hammer" -- it's been applauded at festivals from New York to Berlin, screened before Jews and non-Jews alike -- Kesselman recalls that at the Berlin screening, a "older Israeli consulate member walked out." And in Orange County, which was foreign territory to Kesselman -- "I thought Jews everywhere were liberal, but this is a conservative place" -- the director found himself justifying blaxploitation and "Jewsploitation" to an offended female viewer.

"It threw me for a loop," Kesselman recalls. "I was like, 'Wow -- is this stuff really offensive?' But then I realized that certain people don't have a sense of humor. And those people tend to be older and religious."

Kesselman himself -- like most members of Time Out's "new super Jews" -- is neither. He's ethnically, not religiously, chic, sporting Jewish pride with fashionable aplomb, all the while spoofing everything Jewish or Jew-ish. Though neither Kesselman nor Hammer have "Jewfros" (Jewish Afros), both consciously align Jewishness with hip-hop, African-American pop culture and, occasionally, actual African-Americans ("I hate to say it like this, but I have lots of black friends," remarks Kesselman).

Inspired by this alignment (a bond that seems to exist more in the minds of today's young Jews than among blacks), "The Hebrew Hammer" is a black-Jew buddy film: Hammer joins forces with Mohammed of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, fellow foe to Santa and, we learn, friend to the Jew. He's played by Mario Van Peebles, who, to Kesselman's delight, approached him about the role; Mario's father Melvin, father to the blaxploitation genre, also has a cameo.

Kesselman thus wears his homage on his sleeve, plainly tapping the blaxploitation paradox: Just as a figure like Gordon Parks' Shaft simultaneously bucked and milked black stereotypes -- the polar opposite of genteel Sidney Poitier, he's the potent, oversexed black man -- Hammer is both a rarely seen Jewish masculine presence and a classic caricature of Jewish manhood. After saving the day with a secret Jewish weapon -- what else but guilt? -- his mother, who wants only a wife and a stable job for her little Hammer, fills his plate and remarks, "It's only Hanukkah. If you'd saved Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah -- that'd be something to brag about."

Oy, the poor Jewish mother. Butt of a thousand jokes, and only she wants for her bubbeleh to be a little happy and comfortable. Kesselman's outrageously overbearing Mrs. Hammer makes her archetype -- Philip Roth's Mrs. Portnoy -- look downright WASPish.

"Actually, I haven't read it," says Kesselman of "Portnoy's Complaint," the 1967 novel that took Jewish gender caricatures to hilariously new heights. Half in jest, Kesselman adds that he hasn't read any book since film school.

I'm surprised, I tell him, considering how crucial Roth is to the stereotypes that "Hammer" toys with, and also considering the similarities between critiques of his film and those leveled at Roth, when "Portnoy" gave a whole new meaning to the term "self-hating Jew."

I toss out another seemingly obvious reference point: Woody Allen. Surely "Annie Hall" and Alvy Singer are part of the equation here.

"Actually, I'm more into Mel Brooks," Kesselman says. "And really," he adds, "I'm just as influenced by black humor," by Richard Pryor or Rusty Cundieff (director of the now-classic hip-hop spoof "Fear of a Black Hat").

What Jewish humor is relevant to him? "Seinfeld," he says. Later Kesselman, joking about New York Jews, remarks that "in New York, even if you're not Jewish, you're Jewish." So he's a Lenny Bruce fan, I inquire, assuming that Kesselman is consciously quoting Bruce's classic Jewish-goyish routine. "He said that, about New York?" Kesselman asks. "I didn't know."

And then I know why much of this "new" Jewish humor, especially "Hammer," has the ring of familiarity: Without necessarily knowing it, it rehashes an old reserve of classic Jewish joke-making. It's familiar stuff, really, stuff we're now fairly comfortable laughing at: Jewish mother jokes, Jewish New York jokes, Jewish/black uncool/cool jokes and Jew-black bonding scenarios (which reach back before Lenny Bruce, back to such early 20th century vaudeville acts as Irving Berlin and Sophie Tucker, who literally and figuratively put on black faces). There's something new in this so-called new Jew review -- but not its irreverence and subject matter, which are old school indeed.

Kesselman takes a final bite of the very treyf sausage on his breakfast plate. Canter's Deli is like Kesselman himself: Jewish in style, but decidedly un-kosher. "I had a bar mitzvah and then I was pretty much done," he says. "It wasn't for me."

What was for him, though, was "being culturally Jewish," which he says he's long flaunted. Raised in a diverse community in the San Fernando Valley, Kesselman found his ethnic identification not a handicap but a neat little accessory, one that his black friends had, too. He and his multicultural posse tossed racial epithets at each other in jest. "That racial discrimination stuff wasn't for us," he says.

Being the product of a comfort zone in which "that racial discrimination stuff" supposedly doesn't apply is precisely what makes Kesselman -- and other artistic Jews of his generation, most of whom come from cities where Jews abound -- comfortable marketing Jewish insider jokes to everyone. That non-Jews might not get the joke isn't really an issue; neither is the line between a joke and a slur, or the fact that outré jokes -- especially when they trickle down to the masses -- can be taken the wrong way.

Howard Stern might be over-the-top funny as Howard Stern, but not when he's reborn as some little kid trying, without finesse or comic chops, to imitate Howard Stern -- and just being racist, sexist and unfunny. Much as I hate to embody the Jewish joke in which Jews can't take a joke, or in which we spot anti-Semitism in a sneeze ("ahh-Jew!"), I have to admit that while comedy can diffuse, yes, it can also add flame to the fire. It takes an optimistic Jew not to think about jokes and their context -- not to see "Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer" (by the performers of "What I Like About Jew") as potential ammunition and not just a laugh.

Kesselman's brief stints in white-bread American college towns -- San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. -- gave him a fleeting sense of otherness: He was a little more, well, New York Jew than his laid-back, college-cap-wearing fraternity brothers. But he noted it, they noted it and he moved on.

"I started to embrace my neurosis," Kesselman explains, and life as a Jewish other has been fun and games ever since. "It's my little club," he says of being Jewish. "Ed Pressman [the executive producer of "Hammer"] says that Jews are the new blacks, and I think that's true."

I don't. Eschewing compare-and-despair contests -- yes, both Jews and blacks have suffered -- it's obvious that though both groups share a legacy of discrimination, Jews are now firmly ensconced in the middle and upper classes. Jews are not now, as blacks and Latinos have been in the past, on the cusp of becoming mainstream; they've long been as close to mainstream as any American ethnic group can be. Today's Jewish tastemakers lust not after inclusion but the edginess that comes from exclusion. Trendy and creative contemporary Jewishness is -- as it has been at least since the Jazz Age, but more so in hip-hop America -- about the coolness factor that its players associate with being black.

What's new about "new" Jewish comedy like "The Hebrew Hammer," then, isn't its jokes or the black-Jew buddy fantasy it indulges, but the way it has recast these things: Jewishness -- otherness -- as a trendy accessory that can be taken on and off at will. This sort of identity-making is in line with today's "big fat [insert ethnicity] wedding" trend, in which ethnicity is both particular and universal at the same time. It's also of a piece with the triumph of the nerd, whose pop-culture poster children include director Spike Jonze and N.E.R.D. über-producer Pharrell Williams. Otherness is cool, as long as it's as kooky, funky and freely styled as the latest trend in Brooklyn's hot Williamsburg neighborhood (the hipster, not Hasidic, section).

The next accessory in this boutique might be more "Hebrew Hammer": An animated series is potentially in the works at Comedy Central, and Kesselman himself is, half in jest, promoting his friend's cocktail concoction: the "Hammer" is one part vodka and one part Manischewitz. I can't resist riffing on Kesselman's shtick: Garnish with a cherry and it's a "Shiksa Hammer." Add a shot of crème de cacao and -- voilà! -- it's the hip-hop Hebrew's drink of choice, the coolest accessory this side of New York: the "Baadasssss Hammer."

By Baz Dreisinger

Dr. Baz Dreisinger is a professor at John Jay College, the author of "Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World," the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline movement, and the Executive Director of the Incarceration Nations Network.

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