In an environment where media and popular culture constantly dominate everyday life, it can sometimes feel a bit daunting. It can be a nice break to take a step back and analyze what is really going on every once in a while, and that’s why I did just that. Over the last seven weeks I’ve done some delving into myself to find out what it really means to be me, and how that person is portrayed in popular culture.
The first thing I did when starting out this project was pick out several different “identities” of myself, for example, I am a man, a dog-person, an athlete, and a Jew. For this project, I decided to pursue my Jewish identity and its representation.
Although there are many Jews relevant in pop culture, I decided to choose three specific examples. I’ve found that in the entertainment industry, Jewish people are often aware of their differences from the “norm,” and make use of self-deprecating humor to overcome the uncomfortableness that stems from that as a way to relate to the larger Jewish community as a whole.
The Hebrew Hammer
The Hebrew Hammer is a Comedy Central film released in 2003. It was released in American theatres on December 19th, the day before Hanukkah started that year.
In the film, the main character is the Hebrew Hammer, whose real name is name is Mordechai Jefferson Carver. His love interest is Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal. The Bloomenbergensteinenthal family name is an obvious satire on Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewish names, which are usually difficult for Westerners to pronounce. Examples are Goldstein from Harold & Kumar, my family’s maiden name: Tulsky, or even Jon Stewart, who changed his name from Leibowitz due to people frequently mispronouncing it. Other than just the names, the character’s sport stereotypical Jewish garments, including Mordechai’s black broad-brimmed fedora, his kippah or yarmulke, and a large golden “Chai” necklace.
Another detail that seemed stimulating to me was his regular use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or phrases, as such:
The character’s overuse of these words, to the unknowing, may seem a bit much, but it is more than true. Whenever I have a conversation with my great-grandmother, Yiddish usually gets thrown around (mostly by her). She uses some of the same phrases as the characters in the movie, perhaps most commonly, schlep. A schlep is a long or uncomfortable journey or walk.
The main purpose of the film is as Samantha Baskind explains, “a film that pokes fun at Jewish stereotypes and easily/happily announces religious elements.” In her article, “The Fockerized Jew? Questioning Jewishness as Cool in American Popular Entertainment,” she explains further that “The point, though, is that to Jews the Hebrew Hammer, Ben Stiller’s multiple characters, and the public figures of Adam Sandler and Jon Stewart are cool. We want these Jews to be cool!” In this way, the characters are used to relate to the greater Jewish community as a whole.
Saturday Night Live – Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song”
Sandler starts “The Chanukah Song,” by dedicating it to all the Jewish kids who, like him, feel or have felt excluded during the holiday season without a Christmas tree. In this way, the song uses self-humor to bring the Jewish community together. During the song, Sandler sings about a whole lot of different Jewish celebrities that Jewish kids can look up to and not feel so alone during the holidays. He starts by mentioning David Lee Roth, the vocalist of band Van Halen, and throughout the song he mentions various other entertainers and celebrities.
The first line of the song was incredibly appealing to me. When he explains the “struggles” of being a Jewish kid during the holidays, he is absolutely right. It reminds me of the beginning of The Hebrew Hammer, where the same premise is put in place. The film begins during the holidays and a young Mordechai is the only kid playing with a dreidel, and at the same time, all the other kids are busy with Christmas themed things. I can directly relate to that scenario, because I was the only Jewish kid in my small town while growing up.
The song can further be used to illustrate Jewish humor and relating to other Jews by looking at Stephen Witfield’s article, “Voicing the True Meaning of Sandler’s ‘Chanukah Song.’” In the article, he draws a comparison between the already mentioned song and Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1983 song, “Light One Candle.” Witfield notes that Sandler’s song is much more upfront about his Judaism compared to the other band, and that “he did know how to touch a tender place in the heart of the American Jewish family, at a season of special vulnerability.”
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, or as he is now known, Jon Stewart, uses the quirks and stereotypes of his Jewish heritage to connect with members of the audience that may have a shared heritage. Jon began the above skit by claiming that the show focuses too much on politics, and that he would rather take this time to perform some crafts. Once he began crafting with popsicle sticks, yarn, and glue, New York Senator Charles Schumer interrupts his show.
Senator Schumer walks into the show speaking with a stereotypical nagging “Jewish mother” voice. For example, when asked what he is doing there by Jon, he responds with, “What, that’s all the welcome I get? Not, ‘Hello, how are you three term Senator of the great state of New York?’” When Schumer explained that he was here to talk about their diner experience in New York, Jon says he’s surprisingly interested. Schumer responds with, “Of course you are, Jon! You’re Jewish!” After that, Charles Schumer presents a montage of Jon’s most memorable Jewish moments.
During the montage, Jon refers to his Judaism in every line for about two minutes. He says things like, “I’m a Jew, so I think a lot about illness.” Or, “I’m a Jew, so I can’t dunk.” Later, he is comparing Easter to Passover, referring to the beautiful Easter basket full of jelly beans and color, then pointing at the Passover Seder plate which includes dull-colored horseradish and a bone. In one scene, he looks Tyrese Gibson straight in the eye and says, “Don’t make me break out the Yiddish.” The scene is followed by many others which include him saying various Yiddish words.
When Senator Schumer proclaimed that Jon was Jewish and “a member of the tribe,” I felt a sudden sense of connection. This was much the same with The Hebrew Hammer and Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” With only thirteen million Jews in the world, we indeed feel like a tribe. What Senator Schumer was referring to was the tribe of Israel, or the Hebrew people.
By listening to two Jews relate to each other through our shared heritage, and shared quirks, I felt a great connection to Judaism and the Jewish people altogether. There is a sense of connection between these specific people and the Jewish community as a whole. Even if they aren’t religious, shared heritage and culture bond us together. After all, many people fail to understand that Judaism is more about the community than the religion.
When I first began delving into my Jewish identity, I thought I would find many examples of Jewish men being portrayed as “Nice Jewish Boys.” While I found some examples surely, I didn’t find nearly enough evidence that it was mainstream at all. This was first countered by the Hebrew Hammer, who grew up to become a bad ass in his own right. Even if he portrays some NJB traits, he doesn’t entirely fit the role. This idea was seconded by Adam Sandler, who included the lines, “Oh this lovely, lovely Chanukah/ So drink your gin and tonicah\ and smoke your marijuanikah.” Clearly a nice Jewish boy wouldn’t advocate for those substances.
Another area in which my journey shed some light was near the end. Although during this whole blog post I have been explaining that Jewish entertainers poke fun at their own stereotypes and differences to relate to Jews, I failed to mention that not all Jews may find it funny. For example, Michael Rechtschaffen, a film critique, describes The Hebrew Hammer, as “a crass, sophomoric and, more to the point, offensively unfunny parody that sets out to remake Shaft and his blaxploitation ilk as a Jewish action hero.”
Baskind, S. “The Fockerized Jew? Questioning Jewishness as Cool in American Popular Entertainment.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 25 no. 4, 2007, pp. 3-17. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sho.2007.0099. 6 May 2017.
Rechtshaffen, Michael. “‘The Hebrew Hammer’.” Hollywood Reporter, 19 Dec. 2003, p. 20. Business Collection. 15 May 2017.
Sandler, Adam. The Chanukah song. Rec. 3 Dec. 1994. Adam Sandler, 1995. NBC. Web. 3 May 2017.
Stewart, Jon, prod. “The Daily Show.” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Comedy Central. New York, New York, Television. 3 May 2017.
The Hebrew Hammer. By Jonathan Kesselman. Dir. Jonathan Kesselman. Prod. Lisa Fragner. Perf. Adam Goldberg. Strand Releasing, 2003. Film. 2 May 2017.
Witfield, Stephen. “Voicing the True Meaning of Sandler’s ‘Chanukah Song’.” Jewish Advocate, Dec 07, 2012, pp. 18, Ethnic NewsWatch. 6 May 2017.