‘The Hebrew Hammer’: Our father would be proud
by Josh Kesselman
In 2002, I produced a movie called The Hebrew Hammer. Ever hear of it? Some people call it a cult classic – I call it a classic! I was a youngster then – I was building my list of clients and was so damn excited about the business. I remember how jazzed I would get when I would close a scale deal for a writer client. It was like Christmas — ahem, I mean Hanukkah!
The Hebrew Hammer was a parody of Shaft, but with a Jew. Adam Goldberg played a Jewish superhero hellbent on saving Hanukkah from the evil son of Santa Clause – played by Andy Dick. Ring a bell, now? Ha!
My younger brother, Jonathan Kesselman, wrote a brilliant script based on his USC archived short film (right next to Lucas’s Electronic Labyrinth: THX) of the same name. I remember I was at the Austin Film Festival speaking on a panel (strangely, I just got back from there for the first time since) where I met fellow producer Lisa Fragner. At the time, she was just leaving Fox Searchlight and wanted to find something to collaborate on. I showed her the script and Lisa made one submission: Ed Pressman. Ed had just started a company called Content Film and they were looking for low budget movies to make for a million dollars or less. Little did Ed know, he should have been financing horror films.
So… It goes like this – 1 year after 9/11, my brother and I were making a movie together in New York. Both of our parents grew up there. Dad from the Bronx – Mom from Jersey. We felt like we were going back to our roots and we were doing it together. We hired line producers who were in over their heads, cast the movie up and we were off!
33 locations in 22 days in New York City. We had an amazing crew and my brother directed masterfully! We shot at The Cotton Club, the Hasidic section of Williamsburg, a loft in Dumbo, downtown, a real life sweat shop and so many other colorful locations. My brother and I felt like we were taking on the world and winning. It was an amazing experience.
As we write these stories, we are told to think about the soul of the business and how our stories relate to that. I must tell you, it doesn’t get any more soulful. Our father was a soldier who was proud of his cultural identity. With Orthodox brothers, he chose to fight for Israel in the War of Independence, instead of going to temple.
Our movie was all about cultural identity: being proud to be a Jew. He brought us both up as a divorced parent and did the best he could. My brother and I fought constantly. It was so hard for him to see that.
When we made this film 10 years after his death, we both knew he was looking down and smiling from ear to ear watching the two of us work together and finally bond as the brothers we had always been.
After our last day of shooting, I was walking back to my apartment from the production office on 36th Street. It wasn’t a great part of town and I would always see the same street vendors and panhandlers. Never once in my entire time there were there ever any Observant Jews in this part of town.
“Ring, ring, ring” – I looked up and standing in front of a plastic fold up table was an Orthodox Jew ringing a bell. “Tzedakah, tzedakah” – he was shouting out. (“Tzedakah” is a Hebrew word literally meaning justice or righteousness but commonly used to signify charity.) I’m not really sure what he was raising money for. I remember being so exhausted from the shoot as I hadn’t slept in weeks! I pulled out my wallet, reached in for my last five dollar bill and handed it to him. He grabbed my wrist and stared straight into my eyes and said “Your father would be proud.”
At that moment in time, I didn’t really think twice about it, gave him the money and started walking away. When it finally registered what he had said, I turned around to look at him and I shit you not – he disappeared. He wasn’t there, his table wasn’t there. Gone. I stopped in my tracks, took out my wallet to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating and sure enough the wallet was empty.
To this day, I know that my father reached out to let me know that he was indeed proud of us. That day, I was proud, so so proud.
P.S. We sold the movie to Comedy Central at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.Tags: Adam Goldberg, Andy Dick, Ed Pressman, Film shooting in New York City, Hanukkah, Hollywood, Independent film, Jewish cultural identity, Jonathan Kesselman, Josh Kesselman, Lisa Fragner, The Hebrew Hammer