You don’t mess with Adam Sandler

By Daniel Treiman, August 22, 2008

The goofy American comedian is today's finest Jewish commentator

Is Adam Sandler the most important living Jewish commentator? Believe it or not, this actually isn't the first time those words have appeared in print. In fact, the question was posed way back in 1999, on the cover of America's national Jewish student magazine, New Voices.

At the time, I thought it was an absurd question. After all, Sandler's brand of humour isn't particularly Jewish, owing more to the bathroom than it does to the Borscht Belt. What can a guy who made his name singing faux-operatic ditties on Saturday Night Live teach us about the Jewish condition? Not much, I thought.

Then I watched 50 First Dates, the 2004 slapstick comedy in which Sandler woos an amnesiac Drew Barrymore. True, in contrast to other films that tackle the perennially funny subject of Jewish men pursuing the affections of non-Jewish women (think Woody Allen in Annie Hall, or Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally), there's nothing recognisably Jewish about Sandler's character - who lives in Hawaii and works as a marine veterinarian - aside from his name, Henry Roth. Until, that is, the movie's ending, when, completely out of the blue, Sandler is standing under a chuppah, sporting a yarmulke and a tallis.

The sudden appearance of these Jewish items is treated with utter nonchalance. Some might find this jarring, but it brilliantly reflects the zeitgeist.

To be an American Jew today is to be, like Sandler, a part of the mainstream. In our daily lives, most of us are not so different from our non-Jewish neighbours. At the same time, we're not shy about expressing our Jewishness. Getting hitched under a chuppah is no longer so exotic. That's why 50 First Dates may very well be the single most accurate cinematic depiction of contemporary American Jewish identity.

Nor is Sandler's contribution to Jewish culture limited to the silver screen. He's also responsible for the single most important Jewish song of the past quarter-century. Seriously, is there a Jewish song in the post-Fiddler on the Roof/Jerusalem of Gold era that is as widely loved as Sandler's Hanukkah Song? The song also represents a revolution in Jewish self-assertion. As critic J Hoberman has noted, "Sandler's open cultural narcissism - identifying a ‘list of people who are Jewish just like you and me' on national TV without fear that this might be a problem - dispensed with the underlying subject of American Jewish comedy. Say it loud. No more anxious self-deprecation. Just the slightest bit of irony!"

For these reasons, I had high hopes for Sandler's latest film, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, in which he plays a cracker-than-crack Israeli commando who pursues his dream of being a hairstylist in New York City.

I wasn't disappointed. You Don't Mess With the Zohan is a stupid movie; I couldn't stop laughing. And if you look beyond the gratuitous animal-cruelty gags, You Don't Mess With the Zohan is also a pretty spot-on send-up of Israeli cuisine and culture, manners and mores.

The movie conveys the national obsession with hummus (which the Zohan uses as a hair-care product, toothpaste and fire-retardant), the wild popularity of cheesy dance music (a disco beat is all it takes to get the crowd at an Israel vs Lebanon sports tournament grooving together), the Sabra directness that can occasionally veer into crudeness (much of the Zohan's well-intentioned salon banter shouldn't be repeated in a family newspaper), and the pushy salesmanship of Israeli electronics merchants (a clerk at a store named "Going Out of Business" insists that there's nothing wrong with an obviously broken piece of audio equipment, suggesting instead that something might be wrong with the customer's ear).

No mainstream American film has ever delved so deeply (or so shallowly) into modern-day Israeli-ness. (For those worrying that Sandler is tarnishing Israel's image abroad, fear not: the film's Arab characters don't come off any better.)

The New York Times has called Sandler's Zohan "basically a less anguished version of the character played by Eric Bana" in Steven Spielberg's Munich. It is not, however, an apt analogy. For starters, Bana's character couldn't catch a speeding bullet with his nostril, let alone make elderly women's hair look "silky smooth".

More broadly, Spielberg's Munich had remarkably little to do with Israel as it actually is. The film grafted a cautionary post-9/11 warning about the dangers of retaliation on to a storyline inspired by the Mossad counter-terrorism efforts after the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, cavalierly rewriting history to suit its thesis.

Granted, You Don't Mess With the Zohan also dabbles in simplistic moralising, the message being that Israelis and Arabs are really the same - so why all the fighting? But at least it doesn't do violence to the historical record. And who really goes to an Adam Sandler film to be educated in the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Sandler's strong suit isn't politics - it's sociology. And You Don't Mess With the Zohan manages perfectly to capture Israel's complicated national mood - the deep-rooted patriotism on the one hand, and the fatigue from the ongoing conflict on the other. "I love my country, but the fighting, it never ends," the Zohan explains to a pair of shaggy dogs with whom he is sharing the cargo hold on a trans-Atlantic flight.

You Don't Mess With the Zohan may aim low, but it also rings true. Then again, I wouldn't expect anything less from the most important living Jewish commentator.

Daniel Treiman is the web editor of The Forward, where a longer version of this article first appeared

Last updated: 2:35pm, August 22 2008