My fair Sadie: Allan Sherman and a paradox of American Jewish culture.

Author:Cohen, Mark
 
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In a 1993 essay entitled The Paradoxes of American Jewish Culture, Stephen J. Whitfield found no shortage of them, including the following: "[The] American Jewish subculture looks drab in the light of an American culture that Jews have helped to energize, a mass culture that has dazzled the world. " (1)

A good deal of the work done by scholars of Jewish studies has been energized by the desire to settle this paradox. There has been an attempt to rebalance the scales, to reinvigorate the Jewish subculture by claiming ownership of Hollywood, musical theater, comedy, Tin Pan Alley, and other cultural goods the Jews presented to America without asking for a receipt. Toward this end, Jewish cultural studies counters "the devaluation of Jewish difference" in order to "make Jewish literature, culture, and history work better to enhance Jewish possibilities for living richly." (2) For Whitfield, the future health of American Jewry is linked to the success of this cultural reclamation project. His exuberant and fascinating In Search of American Jewish Culture is a lost-and-found of Jewish inventiveness he believes is crucial to a full appreciation of that culture, and essential also for American Jews who must decide "what they and their descendants might want to live for." Whitfield's account of American Jewish culture includes Jews "who did not want to serve a manifestly ethnic or communal purpose." (3) He is content to ignore their wishes.

Whitfield is not alone. Though important critics such as Robert Alter and Harold Bloom are committed to what Whitfield has termed a maximalist approach to Jewish studies, a stance that views as Jewish only works that "bear directly on [the Jews'] beliefs and experiences as a people," the ascendancy of Jewish cultural studies in the 1990s heralded the arrival of a rigorous minimalism. (4) In an attitude that might be summarized as waste not, want not, Jewish cultural studies eagerly mined American mass culture for the hidden contributions of assimilated Jews. Critics have found in Betty Boop cartoons, Milton Berle's television career, female vaudevillians who suppressed their Jewish identities, Mezz Mezzrow (a Jewish jazz musician who decided he was essentially an African-American), and even Barbie dolls, material that broadened and deepened our understanding of American Jewish culture. (5)

Jewish parents who once told their children to clean their plates because people in Europe were starving might well recognize the mood informing Jewish cultural studies. Like those Jewish parents, cultural historians feel that American Jewish culture is starving and that nothing of value should be thrown away. For Whitfield, the crisis is caused by another paradox of American Jewish culture. As he writes, "The very hospitality of this Diaspora site has threatened the vitality of the community that has spawned such talent." (6) Jewish scholars have fought fire with fire, paradox with paradox. If Jewish talent has entered American life without Jewish markers, thus weakening Jewish culture, then the revitalization of Jewish life will depend upon a judiciously applied minimalist approach that can judaize apparently un-Jewish creations. (7)

Allan Sherman and the Jewishness of Broadway

Allan Sherman employed this minimalist approach in the 1950s when he wrote a collection of Jewish parodies of Broadway musicals. Sherman exposed the Jewish origins of Broadway's musical theater in order to reclaim its achievements for the Jewish community. He had long been attracted to the great Broadway stage tunes of Porgy and Bess and Oklahomat., written by the legendary teams of George and Ira Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. These musicals were embraced by the nation as authentically American. Few attached any importance to their creators' Jewish roots. In a dazzling bit of prescience, Sherman did.

He sensed in the Broadway musical a Jewish sensibility decades before the Norton anthology of American Jewish literature included Broadway show tunes as examples of the Jewish imagination; (8) before scholars such as Andrea Most, Whitfield, and Hilene Flanzbaum pointed out that the musicals were built on themes Jews could be expected to investigate (the thrill of becoming Americans in Oklahomat!, (9) bigotry in South Pacific, (10) social advancement in My Fair Lady (11)); and before Philip Roth conjured a Jewish interpretation of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" (that in them Berlin "de-Christs" the holidays, thereby making American culture less threatening to Jews). (12) Once Sherman got his hands on these works, there was no need for ingenious interpretation. He made the Jewish connection explicit. My Fair Lady became something that could be called My Fair Sadie. (13) As for South Pacific, which Most terms a story of "Jewish assimilationist desires," it became South Passaic. (14) Sherman turned "There Is Nothin' Like A Dame" into "There Is Nothin' Like A Lox," and transformed its red-blooded celebration of woman into a hearty appreciation of food, which for reasons of survival and dietary law has long been a Jewish obsession.

We got herring sweet and sour, We got pickles old and young, We got corned beef and salami and a lot of tasty tongue, We got Philadelphia cream cheese in a little wooden box. What ain't we got? We ain't got lox! We got cole slaw, freshly made, And chopped liver, also fresh And a lot of things to please a man Whose name is Moish or Hesh. We got plenty pumpernickel, We got bagels hard as rocks, What ain't we got? We ain't got lox! (15) Both the burgeoning body of work analyzing the Jewishness of the musical theater and Jewish cultural studies' interest in the observations and careers of pop-culture Jews justify the examination of Sherman's Broadway parodies. But it is only natural to be defensive when arguing Sherman's virtues. At a time when few figures in Jewish culture seem unworthy of investigation, he has been the exception. While the song parodies of Mickey Katz have been treated with respect and enthusiasm, Sherman's have been dismissed. Josh Kun celebrates Katz for his aggressively ethnic, loud, and joyously abrasive Jewish presentation, which threatened the assimilating American Jew of the 1950s with a vision "of the Jew as a language-corrupting, racial alien." (16) For Donald Weber, "Katz's Yinglish art provided a space of subculture identification, perhaps even a mode of parodic defense or (at least) temporary resistance against the forces of acculturation." (17) But if Katz meant resistance, Sherman meant surrender. According to Kun, Sherman offered "no Yiddish, no dialect accents, no uproarious klezmer frailachs." (18) In this view, Katz is a foaming chocolate egg cream and Sherman is skim milk.

The argument here overturns that verdict by introducing Sherman parodies that represent an important historical antecedent to today's investigations of the Jewishness of the musical theater. My argument is based on recently released musical recordings and unpublished lyrics made available by Sherman's son. (19) Sherman's Jewish parodies of Broadway songs stake a claim to the musical on behalf of American Jewry and make it clear that Sherman was one of the shrewdest and earliest observers of the paradox cited earlier. Sherman did with parody what scholars have more recently done through research and analysis. He exposed the ethnic nakedness of Broadway's Jewish creators, expelled them from the Eden of pure Americanness, and led them back into the exile of Jewishness.

"Drapes of Roth"

Sherman, of course, burst onto the American pop culture scene in October 1962 with My Son, The Folk Singer, an album of Jewish parodies of folk songs. The album quickly became a national sensation, number one hit, and gold record that turned Sherman, an obscure television producer, into a celebrity. (20) Folk Singer's success had not been predicted, and given the modest sales history of Mickey Katz's parody albums, and the weak sales that in 1960 greeted the Jewish dialect humor of 2000 Years With Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks, there was little reason for optimism. (21) Sherman's "Sir Greenbaum's Madrigal," a parody of "Greensleeves," introduced a Jewish knight who kvetches about spending "All day with the mighty sword/And the mighty steed/And the mighty lance/All day with that heavy shield and a pair of aluminum pants." "Sarah Jackman" turned "Frere Jacques" into a nasal lament about an assortment of family characters, no-goodniks, and teenagers who can't keep their pants on, and "Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max" served up a rapid-fire smorgasbord of Jewish names ("Brumberger Shlumberger Minkus and Pincus and Stein with an ei and Styne with a y") that sounds like something a Long Island caterer might shout during a last minute check of seating arrangements. (22)

Early reviews of the Sherman album in Variety and Billboard agreed that it was funny, but the trade papers looked forward to sales only among Jews, whom Billboard referred to euphemistically as "New Yorkers, Los Angelinos, and other big cityites." (23) Billboard was soon forced to admit it was out of its depth as an arbiter of American cultural trends. Sherman's album was selling big in Atlanta, Georgia. (24) As sales passed a million it was as clear as it was surprising that a significant segment of non-Jewish Americans enjoyed the skewed perspective of a Jewish comedy that knocked American culture off its high-horse and made it mingle with those who had arrived in steerage. Until Sherman, it was not obvious that the frightfully earnest and ur-American "Battle Hymn of the Republic," with its evocation of a sword-bearing God delivering justice, had overstayed its welcome. "The Ballad of Harry Lewis," which shouted hosannas for a garment worker who was "trampling through the warehouse/Where the drapes of Roth are stored," proved that it had. As even the highbrow music scholar Irving Kolodin was forced to concede, Sherman's...

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