You Don’t Mess With the Samson

I promised myself that I would not think too hard about You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler’s comedy film this summer. But alas, reading about the story of Yiftach in the haftorah reading this past shabbat, I couldn’t help but think of the context of Zohan within the context of Jewish legendery strong men: biblical, Diaspora, and modern Zionist. (For those who haven’t seen the film yet, go see it. There are a few minor spoilers below.)

Zohan fits well within a pantheon of fantastic He-Man stories of the bible beginning with a fugitive young Moshe (Moses) defending Midianite women and ending perhaps with Moshe “Muki” Betser’s largely successful IDF hostage-rescure mission at Entebbe. Zohan is a “Golden Boy,” capable of near miraculous feats of perfect timing, detail, dexterity, strength and endurance. In the Torah, as in other Mediterranean mythologies, the source of Zohan’s talents would have been identified early on as Divine; that Zohan’s are not, points to the story being couched within a modern and secular worldview.

Zohan is really a new take on the story of long-haired Israelite strong man, Shimshon (Samson), and his clever Philistine lover and hair cutter, Delilah. Just to make sure you don’t miss the parallel, Robert Smigel named Zohan’s Palestinian love interest Dalia (played by Emmanuel Chriqui).

The connecting motif is hair. For Samson, hair represents his Nazirite status and by extension, his divinely given strength. This is a critical point since in his story both Samson and the Philistines make the mistake of perceiving his hair as the actual source of his strength, while in reality it is just an outward, if sacred, symbol. In Zohan, this understanding is implicit, since Zohan’s strength isn’t his curly Jewfro (or much discussed giant bush of genital hair). Rather, Zohan’s strength is his passion to fulfill his dream of self-becoming (a hair dresser). This is impressed in the film so many times when he tells the Paul Mitchell hair salon, and afterwards, to Dalia that he’s ready to cut hair in his salon, not because he has any prior experience but because he has the passion and desire to do so. For Samson, his strength is ultimately given to the selfless call to war and ultimately, martyrdom. Zohan’s sacrifice of what his mother calls his “safe career” as a macho war hero for his “faygele” dream of becoming a hair dresser turns this theme of sacrifice on its head. It is through his striving to realize his personal dream that Zohan discovers, achieves, and in the end help to safeguard a place on earth where Israelis and Palestinian Arabs can live together in peace and love.

Just as Jonah learned, Zohan can’t really run away from his calling; he is a born leader, a defender of his people, and his past does catch up with him. But significantly, Zohan has given up on Israel as the place where his dreams can be realized. And this is why You Don’t Mess With the Zohan has been called post-Zionist. The film speaks to the frustrated desire of many Israeli Jews to make peace with their neighbors and get on with the fulfillment of the Zionist dream to achieve self-determination within a land of their own. However, the peace that must sustain the reality of this self-determination is shown to be shallow and fleeting. The leisure of Zohan’s parade through Tel Aviv’s beachfront, through its myriad of beautiful hedonistic people, is shown to be just so fragile and fleeting. Without warning, an IDF helicopter comes to break the peace of his ocean side BBQ.

But in America, the dream of simple success trumps all nationalist and ethnic division. And here we see the difference in worldviews between Zohan and the Hebrew Hammer (2003). Only a few months ago, for the first time, five years late I watched Jonathan Kesselman and Adam Goldberg’s Hebrew Hammer . Here was a film that speaks to a diaspora Jewish identity struggling with assimilation and acculturation. Just as with the Zohan’s unapologetic clownish macho sabra-ness, the Hebrew Hammer has no interest in arguing with stereotypes. The Hammer appropriates guilt and angst into a rubric of traits that include badass decidedly non-Orthodox Jewish tattoos and pre-marital sex. In embracing tattoos and sex, the Hebrew Hammer not only presents an alternative take on Jewish identity, it arguably reflects the reality of not a few proudly Jewish hipsters.

The difference between Zohan and Hammer, however, is in the attitude towards America as either an immigrant’s dream or as the continuing challenge of diaspora Jewish identity. As a first generation immigrant, Zohan is self-confident in his identity as an Israeli Jew. As a fourth or fifth generation descendant of European Jewish immigrants the Hammer represents the insecurity of diaspora Jewry as the angry defender of a cultural world under attack. If buffoonish and over the top, Goldberg’s Hammer and Sandler’s Zohan are archetypes (if not role models) for relating to Jewish identity in the US. While the Hammer took some plenty of identity from religious Judaism, it took none from Israeli secularism, and the reverse is true for Zohan. The difference points to real divisions in Jewish diaspora and Israeli Jewish ethnocultural identities.

I promised myself I wouldn’t think too hard about this film. It’s totally enjoyable if you’re Jewish or Israeli and I’m hopeful that for all the non-Jews I saw this with at the AMC theater in Northern Kentucky it delivered a bit more nuance and sophistication into their understanding of Jews and Arabs. (After all, we can all agree that the real problems in this world are caused by greedy capitalist WASP real estate developers. Right?)

The UK release date for the film is August 18th, so Israeli cinemas can’t be too far behind. I’ll be very curious to hear how Israelis receive the Zohan.

[crossposted to Jewcy]

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes. He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

Leave a Reply