VIDEO: Israel tries to sex up its image

Britains’ Sky News reports from Tel Aviv on an Israeli advertising campaign to sex up its image.

One Mean Heeb

At one point in Jonathan Kesselman’s "Jewish exploitation" comedy, "The Hebrew Hammer," Mordechai Jefferson Carver strides into a seedy skinhead bar wearing a long leather coat, a black fedora, pais, a tallit and an oversized gold chai. A chalkboard advertises beer on tap such as Old Adolf, but the titular superhero orders "Manischewitz, straight up." Then he crashes a bottle over the bartender’s head, whips out two sawed-off shotguns and shouts, "Shabbat Shalom, Motherf——s!"

In this outrageous world of the Hammer (Adam Goldberg), the Orthodox Jewish hero must battle the evil son of Santa (Andy Dick) to save Chanukah.

Call it the Jewish "Shaft." The farce is Kesselman’s homage to 1970s "blaxploitation" films such as "Superfly," "Foxy Brown" and "Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song."

"It’s the world’s first ‘Jewsploitation’ movie," says the 28-year-old director, whose film premieres at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 16-26). &’9;

The Hammer, dubbed the "baddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv," drives a low-riding baby blue Cadillac with white fur interior (which resembles an Israeli flag on wheels). His favorite expletive is "G-dash-D damn it!" &’9;

But don’t tell Kesselman his superhero is distasteful. "The movie is a love letter to being Jewish," said the writer-director, a self-professed "nice Jewish boy from the Valley." &’9;

He says the farce is his response to Hollywood’s nebbishy and neurotic depiction of Jews. "Just as blaxploitation films exaggerated the hell out of black stereotypes to take away their power, the Hammer exaggerates every Jewish stereotype," he said. "He’s both ultracool and ultraneurotic."

While Superfly in the 1972 film snorts cocaine off a crucifix, the allergy-plagued Hammer sniffs antihistamines off his chai. When Santa pushes bootleg copies of "It’s a Wonderful Life" on Jewish kids, Carver arranges for videotapes of "Yentl" to hit the streets. The Hammer’s idea of talking dirty to his lady, Esther Bloomenbergansteinthal: "I want to have lots of children by you." &’9;

The film — which also features an organization called The Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy — is part of a new trend of in-your-face ethnicity touted by hip Jewish artists (think Heeb magazine and New York’s "Jewsapalooza" music festival). Canada’s Globe and Mail hailed the "Hammer" as "perhaps the zaniest, brainiest example of [this] new wave," although its director is more clean-cut than in-your-face.

On this Friday morning, Kesselman is dressed neatly in immaculate blue jeans and a linen shirt. Polite, funny and good-natured, he admits he does share one unfortunate trait with The Hammer: "I’m the most neurotic Jew you’ll ever meet," he said. "I whined on the ‘Hammer’ set. I’ve whined incessantly to every girl I’ve dated. It’s not that I’m unhappy; it just makes me feel better." He paused, then said, "Can you mention [in the article] that I’m single?"

Nevertheless, Kesselman, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, had enough chutzpah to quit his "soul-sucking" computer job and apply to USC’s film school in 1998. When the rejection letter came, he said he submitted the exact same application again "out of spite" and, as a catharsis, began writing a screenplay about "two idiot film students, one of whom is making a Jewsploitation movie."

"Although the notion of a Jewsploitation film initially was a joke, it dawned on me that a badass Chasidic Jew is the ultimate comedic discrepancy," said Kesselman, who was accepted to USC in 1999. "So I rented a whole bunch of blaxploitation films to figure out how the genre worked. I learned that what I needed was some twist on the source of oppression. I asked myself, ‘What as a Jew really pisses me off?’ It hit me when I was walking around a mall in December: I hate Christmastime. There are always all these Christmas decorations and a pathetic little menorah tucked away in a corner."

Kesselman’s USC "Hebrew Hammer" short went on to the semifinals at the 2000 Austin Film Festival and interested producers at Universal. "But they wanted to turn it into a black-Jewish buddy film — they were thinking Chris Rock and Ben Stiller — which was going to ruin it," he said. &’9;

Ignoring the advice of his career advisers (and his mother), Kesselman passed on the deal. He was rewarded when ContentFilm offered to finance the movie with himself as the director in October 2001. "Jon’s script was hysterical and unlike anything we’d ever seen," said Sofia Sondervan, Content’s head of East Coast production. "It makes fun of everyone without being offensive."

Nevertheless, the filmmakers worried that angry observant Jews might shut down the production when the Brooklyn shoot began in spring 2002.

Sondervan recalled how Chasidim had crashed the Boro Park set of the provocative Chasidic saga "A Price Above Rubies" while she was working at Miramax in 1997. "I warned everyone," she said. "But that didn’t end up happening with ‘The Hammer.’ Instead, all these Chasidic girls stood around asking Adam Goldberg for his autograph."

Kesselman, for his part, was relieved when his Orthodox relatives loved the movie, including his cousin, who lives in the West Bank. "The Hammer celebrates being Jewish," he said. "It’s a badass Jew kicking ass for the tribe."

Labor Lore

In 1776, printers in New York City organized and declared a strike in support of the newly formed United States of America.

In 1999, New York physicians led the fight to form a national labor organization in their field.Between these dates, millions upon millions of workers built America’s premier city, fought against sweatshops and exploitation, and set the pattern for the nation’s labor union movement.

Throughout the 20th century, as the modern city took shape, waves of cheap immigrant labor built the vast infrastructure of skyscrapers, bridges, subways and factories that undergirded the city’s growth and wealth.Immigrants provided the sinews for the gargantuan effort, with some 17 million newcomers arriving at the port of New York between 1880 and 1919. They came from every European country, but the largest ethnic wave consisted of Russian and other East European Jews, who, by 1920, accounted for one in every four New Yorkers.

They came to play an extraordinary role on the picket line and in the leadership of the labor movement, and later in the struggles for civil and women’s rights.

Among the book’s “resonant voices and images that evoke the chutzpah, tenacity, creativity, and fire of working New Yorkers,” in the authors’ words, are those of many Jews.

First, there is Samuel Gompers, who as a teenager organized his fellow cigar makers in the 1860s and later founded the American Federation of Labor, serving as its president for 37 years.

Another voice is that of Natalie Zuckerman, growing up in a working class home on the Lower East Side in the late 1910s and early 1920s, who recalls that “the toilet was out in the hall, and when you wanted to take a bath, the sink in the kitchen served as a washtub.”

Jewish workers founded their own associations, beginning with the United Hebrew Trades in 1888, which fought for better conditions for fur workers. The Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) enshrined in its 1897 constitution the motto, “Let us help one another, while we build a better world for all.”

The Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 by the needle trade unions to educate their fellow Americans about the spreading dangers of Nazism and fascism.

The handsome coffee-table book is profusely illustrated with 170 black-and-white photos, many never published before, and includes the words of hundreds of workers spanning the decades of the 20th century.To the two authors, the book represents a work of professional scholarship and filial devotion. Both work at New York University, Debra Bernhardt as director of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and Rachel Bernstein as a teacher in the public history program.

Bernhardt grew up in an extended Michigan family of unionized school teachers and iron miners. Bernstein, a native Angelena, is the daughter of Harry Bernstein, for many years labor editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Joanne Farrell Bernstein, who worked as a labor organizer in the South during the 1950s.

“Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: A Pictorial History of Working People in New York City” by Debra E. Bernhardt and Rachel Bernstein. New York, New York University Press, 240 pp. $29.95.nIn 1776, printers in New York City organized and declared a strike in support of the newly formed United States of America.