The Hebrew Hammer marks its 20th anniversary since the comedy premiered on the mountains at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
I’ll be honest. I’ve been going to Sundance for quite a few years now and couldn’t believe that this film premiered at that same very festival. When I think of Sundance, The Hebrew Hammer is not a film that I think about. And yet, today is the anniversary of its world premiere at the Egypian Theatre. What a sight that must have been! The very premiere would end up launching Jonathan Kesselman’s career. As for me, my first viewing came in December 2003 when Comedy Central started airing the film. This was back when I didn’t have a DVR and was at the mercy of being in the dorm room when it aired. But in any event, it became an instant classic. Twenty years later, we’re still talking about the Jewxploitation spoof, for better or worse.
Kesselman opens the film with Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg/Grant Rosenmeyer) being tormented and growing up to be a Jewish superhero. After the Jewish Justice League learns of Santa’s murder and Damian Claus’ (Andy Dick) evil plan to ruin the current religious tolerance and destroy Chanukah, they send in Chief Bloomenbergensteinenthal’s (Peter Coyote) daughter, Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal (Judy Greer) to recruit him. The JJL scene gets in several jokes that play into Jewish stereotypes but I can’t help but chuckle when at the Chief’s response to the mention of Steven Spielberg’s name as a candidate: “He made E.T.! How tough is that?” If you’re not familiar with Peter Coyote, he also appeared in the earlier Spielberg movie.
Damian’s plan to decrease Jewish pride is by giving out bootleg copies of It’s A Wonderful Life. The JJL responds by mass producing films with a Jewish protagonist in a positive light: Fiddler on the Roof, Yentl, and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. If you’re looking for some more films with Jewish representation, check out the TCM listings.
Mordechai is reluctant to take things on, citing his previous history with the JJL. Meanwhile, Esther makes an agreement with Mordechai’s mother (Nora Dunn) and he ends up doing the job. They’re aided in their pursuit by Kwanzaa Liberation Front leader Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles) and also find themselves on the Underground Jewish Railroad. The pursuit takes them to the Jewish Atomic Clock. I can’t help but think that someone like MTG might think it’s a real thing. There is no such thing as a Jewish Atomic Clock. It is a work of fiction! But I digress.
There are definitely things in the comedy that do not age well. For one, the casting of Andy Dick. Much like the evil Damian Claus, his career is effectively over. That’s all I’m going to say about the actor.
Adam Goldberg and Judy Greer are absolutely perfect in this film. To think that in another universe, it might have been Adam Sandler, David Schwimmer, or Ben Stiller in the role. Goldberg was one of Kesselman’s top choices for the film and knew he had to do it when he saw “Shabbat shalom, motherfuckers!” in the screenplay. Here’s to financing coming through for The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler because I want that film to happen!
Beyond a certain actor’s casting, the film is chockful of Jewish stereotypes. Kesselman really knows what he’s doing when it comes to spoofing the genre and giving it a Jewish twist, Would a filmmaker do the same thing today? Probably not. When The Hebrew Hammer premiered in 2003, it was in the same vein of the many Mel Brooks comedies over the years. We’ve had Chanukah movies come and go through the years. Some are good and some are bad. I’m not kidding around when I say that The Hebrew Hammer is in a league of its own. We can’t compare it to films like Menorah on the Middle or Hanukkah on Rye. These are the best Chanukah movies to come out since 2003. Interestingly enough, Disney premiered Full-Court Miracle in November 2003!
As the film celebrates its 20th anniversary, it is also screening in France on January 30. This marks the first time that the film is screening there with subtitles. The fact that the film is still screening at Jewish film festivals shows how popular it remains two decades after its release.
Twenty years after its premiere, The Hebrew Hammer is a cult comedy classic and one of the best Chanukah movies ever made.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Jonathan Kesselman
CAST: Adam Goldberg, Judy Greer, Mario Van Peebles, Peter Coyote, Nora Dunn, Richard Riehle, Sean Whalen, Tony Cox, and Andy Dick
The Hebrew Hammer premiered during the 2003 Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight section on January 23, 2003. Grade: 5/5
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