HaDag Nachash: Atypical Israel band hip-hops to Hollywood

Adam Sandler, a.k.a. Israeli Mossad super-agent Zohan, saunters through the streets of Tel Aviv gyrating his cut-off-jeans-clad hips, delighting Israeli beachgoers with an exaggerated display of hacky-sack skills and putting on a super-human show of strength in a game of tug-of-war as a bikini-clad beauty perches on his shoulders.

The soundtrack playing throughout this opening sequence of “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” is the hip-hop/funk “Ma She Ba Ba” by one of Israel’s top bands, Hadag Nahash.

Later, as Zohan faces his Arab nemesis, The Phantom, the band charges up a fast-paced chase scene with the rapid beat of “Hine Ani Ba.” The catchy track, which translates to “Here I Come,” repeats during the closing credits and is featured prominently in the film’s trailers.

So how did a song released in 2006 by a 12-year-old Israeli band become the theme song of a major Hollywood release?

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Brooks Arthur brings stars’ hearts and humor to ‘Jewish Songbook’ CD

The decor in Brooks Arthur’s office chronicles what Billboard calls his “career as a behind the scenes superstar of the record industry.”

One photograph depicts Carole King hugging Arthur while working with him after her LP “Tapestry” hit in the 1970s. Nearby is a picture of Bruce Springsteen, who recorded three albums (and his hit song, “Born to Run”) at Arthur’s old 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, N.Y. Pasted to the wall are images from the comedy albums Arthur produced for Jackie Mason, Robin Williams and Adam Sandler, who has employed Arthur as the music supervisor on most of his films — including the new Israeli action spoof “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.” Arthur’s office, in fact, is directly across the hall from the comedy impresario’s office at Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions in Culver City.

Sandler is just one of the artists featured on Arthur’s latest endeavor, “The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People,” a recently released CD of new and veteran artists performing classic Jewish songs. Sandler croons a heartfelt (and joke-free) rendition of “Hine Ma Tov” in a duet with his cantor, Marcelo Gindlin of Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue (the sheet music from that recording session is taped above Arthur’s desk).

The album’s other 12 tracks include comic Rob Schneider doing the 1940s novelty tune “Bagels and Lox”; saxophonist Dave Koz in an instrumental version of the Yiddish song “Raisins and Almond,”; comic Robert Smigel adding irreverent new lyrics to “Mahzel (Means Good Luck)” in the persona of his puppet character, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog; and “Seinfeld” alumnus Jason Alexander in “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max,” an Allan Sherman ditty about a salesman with too many relatives.

Promo Video: ‘The Jewish Songbook: The Heart And Humor Of A People’

Arthur, sporting a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, says the idea for the “songbook” stems from the childhood years, when he worked at his father’s Brooklyn candy store and avidly listened to Jewish radio.

“All four of my grandparents came from Russia and Poland and spoke Yiddish fluently,” Arthur recalled. “I used to love getting together with them and my parents and listening to the Yiddish station WEVD, because the music made them so happy. After the shows were over, they would go back to their daily routines, but I used to witness them coming alive listening to the Hebrew and Yiddish songs interspersed with comic ditties.

“It’s a dying art form,” Arthur said of that format. “I wanted to produce an album that hearkens back to those days.”

On the CD, Arthur himself performs “Sheyn Vi Di L’vone” (“Beautiful Like the Moon”) with Lainie Kazan; he says he discovered he had a voice while humming along to such tunes on WEVD.

“My parents’ candy store was at the subway station at 22nd Avenue-Bay Parkway, and, at age 9, I’d take the train another five stops to Coney Island, where I could pop some quarters into a booth and make a little acetate recording, a ‘single’ of myself singing,” he recalled.

Arthur also was cantor of the junior congregation at his Orthodox shtibl before launching a career as an audio engineer, overseeing 1960s hits such as “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “The Locomotion” and “Leader of the Pack.” Eventually he won grammys and produced LPs by artists such as Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli.

He segued into movie work when producer Jerry Weintraub asked him to be the music supervisor for his film “The Karate Kid” in 1982. The same year, Weintraub introduced Arthur to Chabad of Westwood, where the musician experienced a Jewish reawakening while dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah.

“I began to take Hebrew lessons and became very interested in learning,” Arthur recalled. “I found myself sponging up Judaism; I hadn’t been drinking that kind of elixir since my bar mitzvah.”

Arthur drew Sandler’s attention in the early 1990s, after he earned a Grammy nomination for producing Jackie Mason’s “The World According to Me.”

“I absolutely loved Adam on ‘Saturday Night Live,'” said Arthur, who demonstrates by imitating Sandler’s florid “SNL” character Operaman. “I loved his brand of humor, and I’m so lucky that he liked me.”

Their first album, “They’re All Gonna Laugh At You,” went double platinum, and Arthur went on to produce all five of Sandler’s CDs (copies are lined up on the console of Happy Madison’s recording studio next door). Arthur became a regular member of Sandler’s creative posse of friends and collaborators, co-writing Sandler’s animated Chanukah film, “Eight Crazy Nights,” and even playing a part in the success of the legendary “Chanukah Song.”

“I saw Adam performing it in its embryonic form on ‘Saturday Night Live,'” Arthur said, “and while he was still on the air I called his apartment in Manhattan and left the message: ‘Sandman, this is a reason to make your next album.'” (Sandler awoke him at 2 a.m. to agree.)

Arthur initially assumed Sandler might do a humorous piece for the “Jewish Songbook,” but Sandler said he “wanted to do something that makes your heart hurt,” Arthur recalled. His choice was “Hine Ma Tov,” because hearing his cantor sing the melody reminded him of going to synagogue as a boy in Manchester, N.H.

Arthur says the other “songbook” musicians also turned nostalgic in the studio about their childhood.

“They were conscious of keeping alive these great Jewish songs of the past,” he said.

Balancing humor and current events in ‘Zohan’ proved to be a struggle for Smigel

When Robert Smigel needed inspiration to co-write “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan” with Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow, he recalled an Israeli counselor at a Jewish summer camp he attended in the 1970s — Camp Moden in Maine.

“He was a veteran of the army and was this good-looking guy…. He had a Fu Manchu mustache and long hair, and he actually wore the Daisy Duke short-shorts and sandals,” Smigel said. “I saw his face a lot when I was thinking of dialogue.”

“Zohan,” which opens nationwide on June 6, follows Zohan Dvir, a skilled and sexually provocative Israeli counter-terrorist super-agent (Sandler), who fakes his own death to pursue a hair styling career in New York. Haaretz describes the film as “‘Shampoo’ meets ‘Munich’ meets ‘Happy Gilmore.'”

Although “Zohan” walks a fine line between offensive and playful humor, it isn’t the first to marry the Mideast crisis and comedy. Ari Sandel’s musical comedy, “West Bank Story,” a “West Side Story”-style tale of feuding Israeli and Palestinian falafel stand owners, won the 2006 best live action short Oscar.

And like “West Bank Story,” Smigel says his intent in making the film was to find humor in a situation fraught with daily tension.

“It’s such a part of our lives that people need to laugh at it; it’s just a way of coping,” he said.

“Zohan” marks Smigel’s first major screenwriting credit, following a well-established career in television. A writer with Saturday Night Live since 1985, he is perhaps best known for the “TV Funhouse” cartoon shorts that include “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Younger fans might know Smigel as the puppeteer behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” where he served as head writer from the show’s 1993 launch until 2000.

Sandler, Apatow and Smigel had originally started work on “Zohan” in 2000, but the script was shelved following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In early 2007, Smigel got a call from Sandler saying he was interested in resurrecting the project.

A New York native, Smigel said he never really planned to become a writer. His father, a dentist who invented a special bonding technique, encouraged him to continue the family practice. After failing as a pre-dental student, Smigel moved on to writing and performing improv in Chicago for the Players Workshop of The Second City, where he met fellow “SNL” writers Conan O’Brien and Bob Odenkirk. Three years later, he moved to New York to write for “Saturday Night Live” during its critically panned 1985-86 season.

Smigel was among the few who retained a job after Lorne Michaels fired most of the “SNL” cast and writing staff after that season. He went on to write memorable sketches, including William Shatner’s “get a life” speech at a “Star Trek” convention, and he performed in front of the cameras, most notably as Carl Wollarski in the “Bill Swerski’s Superfan” sketches.

He said that “Zohan” has a similar vibe to two sketches he wrote for “SNL,” “Sabra Shopping Network” (Sandler’s first “SNL” sketch) in 1990, and 1992’s “Sabra Price Is Right,” which stars Tom Hanks as a pushy Israeli game show host, Sandler and Rob Schneider as its presenters and Smigel as a cigarette-smoking announcer, all pushing third-rate electronics.

Smigel, who has had cameo roles in Sandler films (an IRS representative in “Happy Gilmore” and a mailman in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”), appears in “Zohan” as Yosi, an Israeli electronics salesman with one-time aspirations of becoming a hand model.

The film also stars Moroccan Jewish actress Emmanuelle Chriqui as Dalia, the Palestinian salon owner and Zohan’s love interest; John Turturro as Phantom, a Palestinian terrorist; and Rob Schneider as Salim, a Palestinian cabdriver.

When it came to Palestinian characters, Smigel consulted a few Arab friends for thoughts and suggestions.

“We were constantly showing the script to people from both sides,” Smigel said. “We make fun of both sides in a fairly gentle way. On both sides, we’ll be offensive. If it was only one sided, I’d be concerned.”

And he made a point to portray both sides as Americanized. Smigel holds that the message of the film is that the two groups are very similar, especially when in the United States. They are just trying to survive and make a living doing what they want to do, he said.

While the movie doesn’t “pretend to have any answer to the Middle East crisis,” Smigel said, it is “critical of both sides in different ways.”

And even on the set, Arab and Jewish cast members got along: “Each side was able to see the humanity in the other side,” he said.

Although the film has received mixed early reviews, Smigel said he’s been around long enough to know that you can’t please everyone.

“Any time you write a comedy about a subject that’s this serious and that people have passionate feelings about, there are going to be people, particularly on the extreme sides of the issue, that are going to be very hard to satisfy,” Smigel said.

But in the end, he believes that “Zohan” isn’t necessarily a political movie.

“It’s an Adam Sandler movie with some politics in it,” he said.

You want a peace of the Zohan?

At age 60, when even the more virile tend to slow down, Israel has replaced Italy as the native habitat of the sex stud.

That’s the uplifting message from “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” starring Adam Sandler in the title role of an Israeli super commando-turned-New York hairstylist.

Co-script writer Robert Smigel says, “I wrote the Israeli characters as horn dogs,” roughly translated as really, REALLY horny persons of either gender.

The film’s Zohan Dvir is Israel’s super counter-terrorist agent who can leap tall buildings, swim faster than a motor boat, bend opponents into pretzels, save burning buildings by spraying hummus on the fire and wipe out Hamas with his bare hands.

Zohan is also a great disco dancer, skilled chef, muscle man (shot on Tel Aviv beaches) and a nice Jewish boy who loves his parents.

Yet with all these accomplishments, he harbors a secret dream—to become a hairstylist in Manhattan.

The film opens June 6 in the United States and is scheduled for its Israeli premiere in mid-June. No Arab country has yet bid for the movie.

During a recent news conference, Smigel, four of the actors and director Dennis Dugan assured the media that beneath the fun and games was a loftier message.

“Life would be easier if we all got along,” said Sandler, acknowledging that his was not an entirely original thesis. He noted that as a Jewish child, Israeli soldiers were his heroes.

Dugan said he wanted to explore “the ‘West Side Story’ of life.” Rob Schneider, who plays an aggrieved Palestinian, talked about “peace through laughter.”

The getting-along theme is apparent nearly from the start, as Zohan breaks the news about his career aspirations to his mother, played by the veteran Israeli actress Dina Doron.

“When will we have peace?” Zohan asks plaintively. “How much longer will we have to fight?”

His mother responds, “We’ve been fighting for 2,000 years, so it should be over soon.”

But not before Zohan has to match muscle and wits—sort of – with his nemesis, a wily terrorist who operates under the nom de guerre The Phantom.

The Phantom, played by John Turturro, wears dark shades, a glittering costume and gold teeth. Like Zohan, he speaks in heavily accented English.

Zohan finally breaks in at a Brooklyn salon owned by Dalia, an exquisite Palestinian girl played by French-Moroccan actress Emmanuelle Chriqui.

At a place patronized mainly by elderly ladies, Zohan makes a name for himself by employing the innovative technique of following each haircut with a special client service in the backroom—so vigorously that the whole salon shakes.

Word quickly spreads and soon long queues of mature ladies line up in front of the salon. Business becomes so good that Dalia is able to fend off the evil developer who wants to tear down her place.

The neighborhood is populated mainly by Israeli and Palestinian expatriates engaged in cab driving and various dubious enterprises.

Trouble looms when The Phantom, who now runs a Middle Eastern restaurant, reappears to settle scores with Zohan. However, Jewish and Arab supporters are busy building up their own businesses and are in no mood to resume the old battles.

In the end, the factions join hands against a common enemy. Take a guess what happens with Zohan and Dalia.

The film caricatures both Israelis and Palestinians, with plenty of material to offend both sides, though Arabs absorb slightly more insults.

An advance screening of the film produced some laughter, though less than one might expect given the plot line and the talented cast.

Sandler engendered snickers with the frequent barings of his backside, as well as his energetic servicing of the mother of a hospitable friend and the grandmotherly clients at the salon.

The picture is rated PG-13; perhaps we are fortunate to be spared the R-rated version.

“Zohan” features a cast of 175, including large contingents of Israelis and Palestinians. Refreshingly, actual Israelis and Palestinians portray themselves. Extensive auditions were held in Tel Aviv and among the expat communities in New York and Los Angeles.

One of the plum roles went to Ido Mosseri, 30, a Tel Aviv native who has acted on stage and screen since he was 8. He plays Oori, an Israeli expat in New York who becomes Zohan’s sidekick and introduces him to the ways of the big city.

During an interview following the news conference, Mosseri still couldn’t believe his good luck.

“Some of the best Israeli actors auditioned for the role,” he exulted. “The last four months have been the best of my life. I feel as if I had made the NBA.”

Mosseri, who he says is “half Egyptian, one-quarter Polish and one-quarter Russian,” warmly praised Sandler as a “very giving guy.”

“He hugged me when we first met, and we played basketball together on the set,” Mosseri recalled.

In the film, Mosseri plays a clerk in a Brooklyn electronics store in which the staff’s sales techniques match the store’s official name, Going Out of Business.

Apparently, the “can’t we all get along” theme of the film rubbed off on the cast.

“We Jews and Arabs ate together at the same ‘peace table’ and really became good friends,” Mosseri said. “After the film wrapped, we all went on a ‘creative’ trip to Las Vegas.”

The trailer