Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. By Mark Cohen. Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2013. xiii + 353 pp.
Allan Sherman, the self-destructive roly-poly song parodist, perfectly represents a brief but crucial moment in American Jewish cultural history. Mark Cohen, indefatigable in his research, shrewd, generous, and balanced in his selection of detail, and armed with a fan's dedication and a critic's eye, has written a valuable biography of a frequently overlooked subject. We are along for every stop on Sherman's subway ride to fame.
Sherman's moment was between two American Jewish eras. The first one was rife with such potent anti-Jewish sentiment and discrimination that it frequently led to many American Jews feeling as though their Jewishness was a burden that could reduce their worth in the eyes of gentiles. The second era was one that celebrated Jewish ethnicity, that spoke proudly of an unparalleled heritage, a revived nation in Israel, and a wondrous future in America.
Sherman achieved a delicate balance between these eras. There was a growing hunger for more Jewishness brought on by an increased social tolerance, guilt over the death of millions of Jews in Europe, a sense of a new America ushered in by the Kennedys, a more prosperous country, a frustration with the conformity of the 1950s, and other factors. There were signs of such a hunger before Sherman. Herman Wouk published Marjorie Morningstar in 1955. Leon Uris published the sensational bestseller Exodus in 1958. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner introduced a 2,000-year old man speaking with a Yiddish accent in 1961. Judaism was becoming attractive. In 1956 Marilyn Monroe converted to Judaism, as did Elizabeth Taylor in 1959.
As Cohen tellingly points out, what Sherman did in the fall of 1962 when his album My Son, the Folk Singer was released was to make Jewishness a pleasure. Sherman was at ease in his identity. Seemingly, at least, he did not struggle with assimilation. He was enjoying being Jewish too much to worry. In song parody after song parody (including many forgotten ones reproduced in the book), he enjoyed witty puns often centered on Jewish names. One famous example was in The Ballad of Harry Lewis," a parody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The line "His name was Harry Lewis, and he worked for Irving Roth/ He died while cutting velvet on a hot July the Fourth," was eventually followed by "Oh Harry Lewis perished/ In the...