Article on The Hebrew Hammer by Rebecca Traister

(The New York Observer, 5/2702)

On a recent Sunday, actor Peter Coyote stood behind the bench in the imposing, faux-marble-columned Brooklyn Surrogate Court and yelled in phlegmy Yiddish tones, "Sheket B’vakasha! Sheket B’vakasha!"

Nearly 20 men dressed in yarmulkes, payess and prayer shawls threw their fists in the air and shouted "Hey!" before heeding Mr. Coyote’s call for quiet.

The assembled men were not, as it may have looked, wading into the increasingly murky waters of Middle Eastern politics. They were filming a comedy. Though matters Jewish tend to be fraught with anger, sadness and tension these days, a group of young filmmakers financed by producer Ed Pressman are hoping to make moviegoers laugh until they plotz with what may be the world’s first "Jewxploitation" movie, a Hebraic homage to Shaft called The Hebrew Hammer.

The Hammer, a.k.a. Mordechai Jefferson Carver, is the creation of first-time writer-director and University of Southern California film-school graduate Jonathan Kesselman. Carver, played by Saving Private Ryan actor Adam Goldberg, is a private eye who wears leather and payess and drives a souped-up Cadillac painted to look like an Israeli flag on wheels. He is variously referred to in the script as "a baaaad Jewish brother," "the baaddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv" and a "Semitic super stud." And according to the script, the Hammer must summon all of his badness to battle the evil son of Santa Claus—played by Andy Dick—who’s trying to abolish Hanukkah.

Mr. Goldberg got the part after the Big Three of Jewish actors—David Schwimmer, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller—turned it down. According to producer Sofia Sondervan, all three passed because "they were too big for this."

Goldberg said, "The film, taken on the surface in the sort of current political context, could be misconstrued. It is not taking a stance on Israeli politics or the Middle East, even though a lot of that imagery is used. It is an out-and-out parody of these blaxploitation films of the 70’s."

So far, the filmmakers said, there has been only positive reaction from the Orthodox communities in which the bulk of the film has been shot.

Ms. Sondervan, one of the film’s producers, said that when she worked on Miramax’s 1998 film about the Hasidic community, A Price Above Rubies, production was regularly stopped by protesters in Brooklyn’s devout Orthodox Jewish Boro Park neighborhood. This may have had something to do with Texan Renée Zellweger being cast as a Hasidic housewife.

"Twenty minutes in Boro Park, and 400 angry Hasidic Jews would come prepared for a demonstration," Ms. Sondervan said. "Now we have 400 Hasidic Jews who want to be extras and Hasidic girls saying, ‘We love Adam Goldberg!’"

Lazer Lichtenstein, a 29-year-old Modern Orthodox Jew from Boro Park, was among the extras taking part in the scene with Mr. Coyote, who plays the head of the Jewish Justice League. Mr. Lichtenstein said that this was his second day of extra work. On the first, he’d shot a scene at the Cotton Club in Harlem, which had been renamed the Golden Menorah.

"I have not been offended at all," said Mr. Lichtenstein. "I really don’t care what other people say. It’s just a comedy, a fun thing. I had a couple of friends with me. We were chilling out with the cast and everything, taking pictures on the set."

Of course, the Orthodox community aren’t the only ones in danger of getting offended. A recent script with the Jewish Justice League scene included a character named "Harvey Weinstein—Chairman, Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy." In the screenplay, the fictional Mr. Weinstein haggled with fellow League members about the relative merits of Adam Sandler movies and suggested that David Copperfield might be a good hero to battle Evil Santa.

As it turns out, the filmmakers had approached New York’s Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, to play the fictional one, but he declined to take part in the movie.

"I understand that his people didn’t want him to participate," said Mr. Pressman, The Hebrew Hammer’s executive producer.

Mr. Pressman, who has long been a patron of maverick writer-directors—he has either produced or executive-produced Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Abel Ferrara’s The Bad Lieutenant and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—was visiting the set for the Jewish Justice League scene and said that he had hoped to keep the name and use a look-alike Mr. Weinstein. But, he added, the production’s "lawyers said we couldn’t get away with it."

Perhaps the lawyers changed their minds, because when George Hosmer—the dark-haired, heavyset actor chosen to play Mr. Weinstein—hit his marks wearing a black mock-turtleneck sweater under a gray suit, he looked more than a little like Miramax’s front man.

Mr. Weinstein’s spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik, begged to differ, however: "There are plenty of dark-haired, heavyset Jews, but there’s only one Harvey," he said.

When The Transom asked Mr. Hosmer if he was trying to channel Mr. Weinstein in his performance, he smiled. "Just a smidge," he said. The actor quickly added, "It’s a composite of lots of different producers," and he also casually mentioned that he is "a great admirer of Harvey."

Of course he is.

The script also calls for a scene in which the Hammer penetrates Santa’s North Pole lair to find Senator and former Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman tied to a chair. Mr. Pressman said that a professional Lieberman impersonator had already been fitted for his costume, but backed out because "he thought it would be in bad taste." But the faux Lieberman was quickly replaced by the actual Ed Koch. Mr. Pressman said that a few weeks ago, the former Mayor of New York gamely allowed himself to be tied to a chair and abused by Mr. Dick.

Rock in Hammer?

While he was at U.S.C. film school, Mr. Kesselman, now 27, made a short about the Hebrew Hammer that screened at the Austin Film Festival in Texas and got him a lot of attention in Hollywood. Around the time that Mr. Kesselman was graduating from U.S.C., he was beginning to talk about turning Hammer into a full-length feature with Marc Platt, who has a production deal with Universal Pictures.

According to Mr. Kesselman, Universal producers saw the project as a "black/Jewish buddy picture." Ms. Sondervan was franker when she said, "Marc Platt wanted to make a Chris Rock vehicle."

Producer Lisa Fragner soon found the project and brought it to the attention of Ms. Sondervan, who in turn brought it to Mr. Pressman, who, last September, had founded the ContentFilm production company with former October Films co-founder John Schmidt.

Mr. Pressman decided to include the film in his company’s first slate of pictures, which includes the Sept. 11 drama The Guys with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia; Party Monster with Macaulay Culkin and Marilyn Manson; The Cooler with William H. Macy; and the psychological thriller Love Object.

In return for being one of Mr. Pressman’s "discovered" directors, Mr. Kesselman has entered the low-budget world of independent filmmaking: more than 30 locations in 22 days! What Mr. Goldberg called "limited Craft Service offerings!" Extras culled from the crew!

Among the authentic Orthodox Jews in the Jewish Justice League scene were a number of goyim, including the set’s still photographer, who Ms. Sondervan admitted to hiring because he looked like Jude Law. The photographer was sporting unconvincing payess, as was James Parvin, a half-Irish, half-Iranian filmmaker asked by Mr. Pressman to chronicle the making of The Hebrew Hammer.

The film also features cameo appearances by non-Jew Nora Dunn of Saturday Night Live fame. Ms. Dunn plays the Hammer’s mother, who’s less concerned with saving Hanukkah—"It isn’t even one of the high holidays!"—than with the fact that her "boychick is almost 30 and has yet to settle down."

The Hammer’s "Semitic siren" love interest, Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal, is played by a rail-thin shiksa from Michigan named Judy Greer, who has appeared in The Wedding Planner and Jawbreaker.

"I mispronounced every word at my audition," Ms. Greer said with the nasal flatness of a true Midwesterner. Her near-platinum blond tresses were also dyed darker for her role.

Ms. Greer said she was enjoying her time as a Jewess and raved about the Shabbat dinner she recently attended, along with Ms. Dunn and Mr. Goldberg, at the Long Island home of the Kesselmans’ Orthodox Long Island family.

Jewish Notting Hill

"It was so fun. And they do that every week!" enthused Ms. Greer, who added that "the food was so good! I’d never eaten that way before, but now I’m not scared of it anymore!"

Mr. Kesselman’s family had invited everyone they knew and kept Mr. Goldberg signing autographs all night. "It was like a Jewish Notting Hill," said Mr. Kesselman, referring to the scene in the romantic comedy where the movie star played by Julia Roberts attends a dinner party with regular people.

Mr. Dick is cast as Damien, the son of Santa Claus, who orders his benevolent father gored by a reindeer. The elder Claus’ dying words are "Et tu, Blitzen?"

"The reindeer took direction well," said Mr. Kesselman.

Apparently too well. One set source told The Transom that the reindeer assembled at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field had actually attacked Mr. Dick. Ms. Sondervan conceded that this was sort of true, though she added that "he was supposed to be yelling at them for his Evil Santa character."

Actor Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote, directed and starred in 1971’s blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, will make a cameo in The Hebrew Hammer as Sweetback, and his son Mario is playing the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front.

Other appearances include current Saturday Night Live star Rachel Dratch as the Hammer’s Long Island secretary. Mr. Pressman and Mr. Kesselman said that they had also approached Mel Brooks about a small role, but that he turned down the part. They did not say whether Mr. Brooks also thought he was too big for the small-budget film.


Location Photos:

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The Cotton Club becomes The Golden Menorah

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Adam Goldberg with an extra on break