For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays.
I complained a lot more as a child than I do now. Things were probably a lot better for me back then (I definitely had more time to watch cartoons), but kids are naturally more likely to ask incriminating questions about the status quo, because it has yet to break their spirit. One year, when my family was at the airport on the way to see my grandparents, I looked at my surroundings, turned to my mother, and asked, “Why do all of the decorations say ‘Merry Christmas?’ Don’t they know not everyone in the world is a Christian?” This is the question that animates Jonathan Kesselman’s 2003 film The Hebrew Hammer, one of my favorite pieces of holiday entertainment. Admittedly, options are limited for young Jews, which is the whole point.
The plight of reasonably well-off Jewish kids is not the biggest problem in the world, but for 7-year-old me, it was an introduction to something most people continually learn: Often, the world around us reflects a group that does not look like you. And it’s representative of the way Christmas—something that is still weirdly ubiquitous in a time when the last strains of monoculture have started to die off, making it easier for us to choose our own surroundings, for good or for ill—boxes everything else out for the last month or two of the year.
That’s something a young Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) learns at the beginning of The Hebrew Hammer. Carver attends a comically depressing, Gothically-styled, public elementary school where all of the students and teachers wear pastel sweaters and mispronounce “Hanukkah” in every way imaginable. (My favorite is “Chanoonookah.”) He’s bullied about a series of Jewish stereotypes, forced to submit to a condescending version of “tolerance” that still belittles his religion, and finally mocked by a Santa Claus who steps on his dreidel. Cut to a couple decades later and Carver is The Hebrew Hammer—a certified, circumcised dick and the baddest Hebe this side of Tel Aviv. He wears a tallit as both a religious and fashion statement, drinks his Manischewitz straight, and says cool things like, “It’s your bar mitzvah, Jack. I’m just reading the Torah portion.”
Mordechai Jefferson Carver is the Jew who saves Hanukkah from the evil Santa, Damian (Andy Dick, basically playing himself). Recruited by the Jewish Justice League’s Chief Bloomenbergensteinenthal (Peter Coyote) and working in tandem with the Chief’s femme fatale daughter Esther (Judy Greer) and the Kwanzaa Liberation Front’s Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles), he engages in a series of loosely tied-together genre parodies—the noir private investigator’s office, the Western bar fight, the undercover spy. The Hebrew Hammer, moving through each of these tropes, is the rare action hero and role model for the young Jewish man, a modern-day Maccabee: He beats up skinheads, looks cool with a gun, and is even a sex symbol, albeit a reluctant one. (“I’m tired of being treated like a piece of meat,” he says in the best post-coital conversation ever from a holiday film.)
The greatest thing about The Hebrew Hammer, though, is that his competency fits comfortably with his neuroticism. His Judaism, his concern, and his unhealthy attachment to his mother aren’t treated as weakness or subsumed by action hero qualities. He can complain about the pressure he’s under while beating up some neo-Nazis. Guilt is a secret weapon, and he uses it while sitting cross-legged on the floor! Goldberg, who deserves several of Tom Cruise’s action roles, does a fantastic job managing to be a viable hero and a bit of a putz at the same time. He’s strong because of, not in spite of, his Judaism, a role model for nervous young members of the tribe.
It does help that Goldberg is surrounded by actors who, for the most part, support his performance. Nora Dunn ladles on the schmaltz and suffocating love as the mother Mordechai has to eat by for Shabbos. Dick is a twitchy, coked-out, religious nut who isn’t religious at all, firing off insults that are at least funny in a juvenile way. (Though one of the worst parts of the movie is the weird subtext that Damian is gay, which never has a point other than giving him a reason to be creepily attracted to Mordecai and have an equally creepy relationship with Tiny Tim.) Coyote brings appropriate kvetching, lox-smashing, and at least some sense of authority to an extended homage to Moshe Dayan, while Greer, Goldberg’s primary scene partner, makes a fantastic straight man for his action and antics. Their dirty talk is a wonder to behold. Fancy but not fancy-schmancy, indeed.
Of course, The Hebrew Hammer’s swagger is, in part, if not almost entirely, jacked from the characters of the Blaxploitation films to which Kesselman is paying homage. The fingerprints of Super Fly, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Dolemite, among others, are all over this movie. Beyond his attire, which blends the garments of a Hasidic Jew with the cast of The Mack, Hammer works closely with the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, and Melvin Van Peebles himself even puts in a brief appearance as Sweetback, supporting Hammer in the struggle against The Man. The wanton replacement of “black” with “Jewish” has the potential to go awry, but for the most part the movie keeps its homage overt enough to avoid stumbling while winking—there’s a missing scene somewhere in the flashback open where an angry, disaffected young Mordechai finds a VHS copy of Shaft.
Though there’s a long, complicated history of relations between the American black and Jewish communities, this works, because it’s historically one of cooperation not antagonism. The Hebrew Hammer is no Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abdul Rahim isn’t Martin Luther King Jr.; this is a movie where Dunn repeatedly changes the dirty diaper of a dilapidated cat named Mazel Tov, so this is maybe the best viewers can expect. And the nods to Blaxploitation lead to some inspired gags, especially the “Pusherman” montage where Damian’s henchman Tiny Tim foists off bootleg copies of It’s A Wonderful Life on unsuspecting Jewish children. This scene is funny, but, for me at least, it’s also a little scary, and the most effective moment of the movie. The first time I saw Mordechai come upon shaken kids looking to convert and get in the Christmas spirit, it was legitimately chilling. The appeal of Christmas, its message of all-encompassing unity and oneness, is powerful, and, no matter how hard we try to be “inclusive,” someone is always going to get left out.
In comparison to Christmas, Hanukkah isn’t really that important of a holiday. The whole miracle is that some candles lasted for longer than we thought they were going to. Sure, the Maccabees (Jewish guerilla fighters) defeated Antiochus (oppressive Greek king) and protected the Jews’ religious freedom, but basically every Jewish holiday is a celebration of some time we avoided getting killed. (Think about it, my Hebrews: Passover, Purim, Tisha B’Av—even Rosh Hashanah basically comes down to, “Wow, we made it another year without being wiped out.”) Like the Maccabees, The Hebrew Hammer is basically a man of action, a tough Jewish protagonist in a world filled with crazy Gentiles. That’s why, although everyone tells Mordechai how important it is that he save Hanukkah, when he tells Damian that the evil Santa doesn’t understand the true meaning of the holiday, he’s unable to get anything out. This is the moral of the holiday special, and it’s… something to do with dreidels?
If you want Hanukkah entertainment that tries to be about the holiday, try the Rugrats Hanukkah special or Eight Crazy Nights, I guess. Really, the secret of The Hebrew Hammer’s success is that, even though it’s tackling theoretically sensitive material, it’s fundamentally inoffensive, more Undercover Brother than Black Dynamite. Some of the Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn’s Borough Park even agreed to appear in the movie—there might not have been a uniformly enthusiastic response from that community, but it’s still a win. It’s possible to imagine Jews being offended by some of the stereotypes at play, but then the target audience was never rabbis, the brotherhood of a synagogue, or really any adult Jews at all. It was my younger self, complaining about the Christmas decorations in the airport. In that light, the film’s primary distribution on Comedy Central (where I first saw it) looks a lot more kosher.
The conclusion of The Hebrew Hammer is an alliance between a good Santa, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah—there’s never any suggestion that the Jews are better than anyone else, just deserving of the right to worship and celebrate their own holidays—and it’s deeply multiculturalist, in a sense. More than an insightful, or even a good movie, The Hebrew Hammer is a goofy movie with a big heart, one that tries to encompass everyone who’s not a murder Santa. And isn’t that what the holidays are all about? The Hebrew Hammer is by no means perfect. It’s a bit slow, over-reliant on gross-out humor, and a lot of the jokes are mostly funny to me for nostalgic reasons. But isn’t that how most people see the Christmas entertainment of their childhoods? (Though The Hebrew Hammer’s silliness certainly didn’t stop me from forcing my first Gentile girlfriend to watch the movie.) In that respect—the very fact of being able to grow out of my obsession with it—The Hebrew Hammer is the perfect Hanukkah movie.