JERUSALEM — Your name is Mendel. You’re an Orthodox Jew in 19th century Russia. Your mission is to retrieve as many holy books as possible. We’re counting on you Mendel, but one more thing – watch out for Cossacks!
This is the premise of a new Android app that describes itself as the first “running-jumping-punching game that has distinct Jewish motifs.” As Mendel, you go from level to level in traditional Hasidic garb collecting books, challah bread and the occasional Torah while dodging Russian attackers wielding sickles and hurling cabbage.
And then of course there is the Steampunk time machine, a rabbinical Yoda figure, random spurts of Yiddish (“Gevalt!”) and a deluge of Klezmer music.
Angry Jew was made as a side project on nights and weekends over the course of a year by Gil Elnekave, Avishai De Vries and Edo Frankel, three Jewish, Israeli app developers – a fact they advertise very clearly with a large “Made by Jews” sign on the main screen.
According to Elnekave, what was originally conceived as a simple, humorous game about an Orthodox Jew traveling through time became increasingly problematic.
At every turn the team encountered difficult, borderline decisions. The initial idea was for Mendel to travel to dangerous points in Jewish history to recover lost holy books. Why books? “The obvious thing would be to collect money. All the games, all the creatures collect money. But for a Jew…,” says Elnekave.
So where should he travel to? The Spanish Inquisition? The Holocaust? In the end they settled on the Russian Pogroms.
“Pogroms were a pretty long time ago,” Elnekave says. “The Holocaust, no matter what you do, you couldn’t make it ok. We talked about it for so long. People said, why, it could be even funnier but I can’t really imagine that. Just imagine an enemy who is a Nazi.”
The difficulties only expanded from there.
“Every element we had to talk about,” Elnekave says. “At first we had this pig mode where you jumped on a pig and start running and it smashes everything in its way. But him touching a pig seemed inappropriate. Another thing, he had this weapon, the teffilin [a leather strap religious Jews wrap around their arms when praying] that he used like a whip and it would catch fire. But we thought it might be too radical. And some people suggested using Jesus as the boss of a level and Muhammad.”
Generally they tried to avoid potentially offensive material, but once in a while they took the opposite approach and fully embraced the stereotypes. With the nose, for instance, they decided to go big… really big. During gameplay, in fact, it would be fair to say that Mendel’s entire face is one giant nose. And having the band of Cossack attackers throw a boisterous party every time Mendel dies could be considered risky.
So what’s the result? Is it more David Duke or David Ben-Gurion?
While the game’s average rating on the app store is a relatively high 4.3 out of 5 stars, there has been some backlash. “How dare you do such a thing?!” one commenter wrote. “Big and ugly nose! Halloween background and evil Jew who kill everything who come across him!… Shame to you, the developer who claim to be a Jew! … Shame to the world that allow such a thing to be!”
Jonathan Vick, as the Anti-Defamation League’s cyber hate expert, is the go-to authority on such matters. He received complaints about the game when it was launched a few weeks ago but says most of them weren’t substantive. They were mostly from people who saw the name “Angry Jew” and rushed to complain – simple kneejerk reactions.
In his opinion, the game is relatively harmless.
“You can always get it wrong,” Vick says. “That’s always a possibility. And you’re not going to make everybody happy. Somebody’s going to see the title ‘Angry Jew’ and complain or open it up and see the nose and say – big nose, stereotype, nope!”
“It’s all about trying to do the right thing,” he says. “These guys displayed that they care.”
Vick verified however that they dodged a few bullets in production. Setting the game in the Holocaust would have, at the very least, provoked a much more serious debate inside the ADL. And according to him, having Mendel collect gold coins, right or wrong, might have been taken badly. The important thing, Vick says, is intent. In this game, the creators showed that their intent was positive.
Angry Jew is free and in the three weeks since it was launched, it has been downloaded almost 15,000 times. Most of the users were from Israel but lately as many as 200 Russians a day have been downloading the app as well. The team was surprised at the sudden Russian interest in Angry Jew, especially since Russians are Mendel’s enemies in the game.
If Angry Jew is successful, Elnekave and his team want to send Mendel to other turbulent times in Jewish history. In the next installment, Mendel is slated to travel to the Arab world during the Exodus from Egypt. Oy vey!