When we last caught sight of Mordechai Jefferson Carver, the private detective had just saved the holiday of Hanukkah from oblivion, and in so doing also advanced the cause of Jewish-black cooperation in America. That was at the end of the 2003 movie “The Hebrew Hammer,” which was also how the PI – a “certified circumcised dick,” we are reminded several times – was known by an adoring Jewish public.
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By teaming up with his bro Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim, head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, the Hammer foiled the plans of Santa Claus’ evil son, Damian. At the movie’s start, Damian had murdered his ecumenically minded father, before setting out to eliminate Hanukkah and the African-American festival of Kwanzaa from the December calendar.
The Hammer (played by Adam Goldberg) had been recruited for his mission by Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal (Judy Greer), the enticing daughter of the head of the Jewish Justice League. Although Esther undertook the initial seduction, it is she who is sexually turned on later when the Hammer whispers in her ear, “I want to have lots of children by you. Get a good paying, stable job. Settle down in Long Island somewhere. Someplace nice. Fancy. But not fancy schmancy.”
“Keep going! Don’t stop,” an excited Esther responds.
If it sounds as if “The Hebrew Hammer,” written and directed by Jonathan Kesselman, contained every imaginable stereotype, old and new, about American Jewry, that’s because it did. And by deliberately referencing the so-called “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s – Goldberg is costumed in a long black coat, wide-brimmed fedora and a lot of bling, suggesting a Semitic Super Fly or Shaft – it also touched on a number of stereotypes about African-Americans.
Much to my surprise, I loved the movie, and so did most of the people I dragooned into watching it over the years. The movie is so good-natured and self-knowing, with such a deft combination of playfulness and irony, and the actors perform their clichéd parts with such glee, it’s hard not to be drawn into the fun.
Apparently the people who made “The Hebrew Hammer” enjoyed themselves too – enough that they’re determined to make a sequel, more than a dozen years later. And they are inviting the audience not just to anticipate the viewing experience, but also to take a financial stake in the effort, via a crowdfunding campaign that aims to raise $1 million online (the maximum permitted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission).
Kesselman and his producer, Harrison Huffman, estimate requiring a total of $3 million to produce “The Hebrew Hammer Vs. Hitler,” as the sequel has already been titled.
This past August, Huffman and Kesselman, together with a small crew, convened in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Goldberg was working on the second season of the cable-TV series “Graves,” to shoot a promo trailer for the fundraising effort . (The busy 47-year-old actor previously had memorable roles in “Saving Private Ryan” and Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.”) They were also joined by Greer, who will return as Esther.
As we see in the new clip, Esther and Morty are now married, and he is in retirement in New Mexico. Greer’s Esther covers her hair, in one scene with a wig, in another with a beret, in the style one would expect of a modern-Orthodox woman. The Hammer hung up his crime-fighter’s uniform in 2009, when Barack Obama became president, and this champion of Jewish pride and safety naively thought his country was now beyond racial and ethnic prejudice.
Morty has spent his time as a pensioner apparently doing little more than soaking in a kiddie pool and drinking “Schvitz” beer, so when Esther tells him to turn on the television, he looks as if he’s been asleep for eight years. Indeed, he is incredulous to learn who has just taken the presidential oath of office, and is all the more disturbed to view the collection of Donald Trump sound bites that Esther has assembled for him. We viewers recognize them all, but the Hammer is shocked and appalled by the selection, which suggest America’s new chief executive lacks respect for women, Muslims, Mexicans and Jews – even as he declares, for example, that he is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen, in your entire life.”
Knocking off Hitler
Kesselman and Huffman explain that in the film they hope to begin shooting by the end of 2018, Trump will not play such a prominent role. In fact, Kesselman says that in the screenplay he’s written, the villain whose election gets the action going is a “cheese spray-tanned Trump surrogate who rises to power, and because of which anti-Semitism and racism go through the roof.”
Mordechai Jefferson Carver gives up retirement in order to battle the new wave of violent prejudice plaguing America, and is joined by his old sidekick Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim. They travel back through the years via a “time sukkah” to 1930s Germany in order to knock off Adolf Hitler, thus eliminating the most virulent disseminator of anti-Semitism during the past century and nipping the problem in its bud.
True, that description may sound even less promising than the first movie did sight unseen. But note that Kesselman and Goldberg, who developed the story together, have a track record for making good comedy, so there is reason to be optimistic about “The Hebrew Hammer Vs. Hitler.”
Still, one has to wonder about the reception such a film will encounter in today’s politically raw and divisive environment – where every group feels victimized, its members willing to listen to each other just long enough to respond with indignation and mockery.
Kesselman, who is 33 and made a first short featuring the character of the Hammer while studying film at the University of Southern California at the turn of the century, is confident the sequel will find an audience.
In an online chat with Haaretz, Kesselman says he honestly feels “now is the exact right time for this.” But the fact is that both he and Goldberg have been the recipients of some pretty ugly comments on social media and in email since they announced their crowdfunding drive.
The detractors have included a correspondent who took offense on behalf of Hitler that his name appears in the film’s title as an obvious villain.
Kesselman is convinced Trump’s election has let loose many nasty demons and that “the world is upside-down right now.” His new film is meant to serve as a small corrective.
But if the original “Hebrew Hammer” appealed to Jews on both the left and right and of different levels of observance, isn’t it likely that, nearly 15 years on, the polarization within the U.S. Jewish community is so sharp that people with opposing viewpoints will not allow themselves to come together around such a highly politicized movie? Certainly when the movie’s starting assumption is that Trump is bad for the Jews?
Kesselman is aware, of course, that many pro-Israel Jews, both in America and Israel itself, see Trump as a great friend of the Jewish state. Although he comes from an Orthodox family, and has family members who are settlers in the West Bank, and with whom he enjoys good relations, he is outraged by the idea that Jews could support Trump – whose “support of Israel,” he believes, “is empty and callous.” (When I ask Kesselman whether Mordechai Jefferson Carver is in favor of the two-state solution, he responds “yes” without hesitation.)
As far as Kesselman is concerned, the president “is directly responsible for anti-Semitism and racism [being] suddenly at full tilt in the U.S.”
Trump, insists the filmmaker, “only loves himself. Israelis should heed that warning. He is no friend to Israel.”
Time will tell how well that message goes over in a comic Jewish movie.