In 1994, Adam Sandler played “The Hanukkah Song” for the first time, on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”. The song was later broadcast on the radio and released on CD. Jewish and non-Jewish people alike could be heard chanting the lyrics “OJ Simpson not a Jew”. The popularity of Sandler’s song was a sign that Jewishness had become “cool” in the US.
How did this happen? Why have Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, embraced popular culture figures like Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld?
Mark Cohen’s Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman depicts the birth of post-World War II Jewish humor through the example of Allan Sherman. Cohen, who specializes in Jewish culture, is eminently qualified to write this definitive autobiography, with works such as Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim and The Last Century of a Sephardic Community. The publication of Overweight Sensation in the Brandeis Press Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life testifies both to Cohen’s expertise and to Sherman’s importance as a Jewish pop icon.
Indeed, Sherman was larger than life, both literally and figuratively. He brought laughter to American audiences through television, records, and live shows.
Cohen’s biography shows the transformation of Jewish culture in America. In the first half of the 20th century, America debuted Jewish vaudeville actors such as Sophia Tucker and released The Jazz Singer (1927), starring the multi-talented Al Jolson, a movie about the son of a Jewish cantor, as the first talkie. But for the most part, this era was inhospitable to Jews, leading many to take their Jewishness underground. Sherman single-handily brought Jewishness out of the shadows with his humorous song parodies, which introduced Jewish culture into mainstream American culture.
To demonstrate how America plotzed for Jewish humor, Cohen narrates Sherman’s life story, intertwining Sherman’s family history with the history of American Jews. We learn of Sherman’s mother’s multiple marriages, her poor parenting, and her disinterest in Jewish culture. Sherman and his mother moved from city to city, finally landing in Chicago, where they lived until his mother’s death. His father was absent for most of his life and perpetually disappointed him.
Only during his brief time living with his immigrant grandparents, Esther and Leon Sherman, was he introduced to the Jewish world that his mother had rejected. During these years, Sherman fell in love with Jewish culture: “He basked in the attention of his grandparents, learned to speak some Yiddish and understand more, [and] enjoyed regular meals of traditional Jewish cooking” (Cohen 25).
Though Sherman toyed with Jewishness and humor in his youth, his interest blossomed in his years at the University of Illinois, where he joined the staff of the Hillel newspaper and wrote for the school’s paper, the Daily Illini. In school, he created plays with Jewish anti-assimilation themes, such as the Golden Touch, which Cohen claims made audience believe that “chopped liver [was] better than pâté”(64).
Cohen narrates several early experiences in Sherman’s life that inspired his later work, including his venture at a Jewish summer camp, which provided fodder for his popular hit Grammy Award winning single, “Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder (A Letter from Camp)”. Tracing Sherman’s struggle and journey to success, Cohen reveals how a nation’s perspective on culture can change over time.
In the ’50s, attitudes toward Jews in the US began to change, and Sherman felt more comfortable embracing his Jewishness. Over the course of the decade, he wrote over 20 Jewish parodies. “Sherman’s generation of Jews were now adults, and the ‘fine balancing act’ of being a Jew and an American was tipping away from the early twentieth-century ideal of the Melting Pot toward a new hybrid formula that allowed for Jewishness”(85). Jewish culture was now in demand.
It took a while for Sherman to achieve fame, and he had to start out at as an entertainer for parties. Interestingly, Cohen suggests that Sherman’s biggest break was in the ’60s, when President Kennedy was in the White House. Kennedy’s preferred forms of entertainment included satire and folk music, which contributed to America’s yearning for someone like Sherman (120). In fact, Kennedy became Sherman’s biggest fan with the release of Sherman’s first album, My Son, the Folk Singer, recorded by Warner Bros. in 1962: “Sherman’s album hijacked a collection of folk songs, took them on a joyride through his Jewish imagination, and turned them into a hit album that left critics wondering what was going on in this country” (121). Cohen claims that what made Sherman’s music unique was that it “revealed that when no was looking the line between Jews and everyone else ha[d] blurred” (121).
One of his major hits was “Sarah Jackman,” a parody of “Frère Jacques”. He quickly produced another successful album, My Son, the Celebrity, which included such hits as “Harvey and Sheila”, a takeoff on “Hava Nagila”, and he appeared on popular television and radio shows throughout the US and Canada.
Cohen vividly describes the “Sherman fever” of the time: “Reports of 1960s music fans ‘actually breaking down doors’ of record stores to buy a star’s latest hit song sound like news about a teen sensation, but in the summer of 1963 they were about overweight sensation Allan Sherman’s smash single, ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp’”) (170) found on the My Son, the Nut album. This single epitomized American Jewish culture, as Jews were “‘at the epicenter of the summer camp marketplace” (176).
With this rise to popularity, Sherman struggled to balance the Jewish character of his work with his effort to appeal to Americans at large. “His parodies grew out of his public effort to find the proper Jewish-American middle ground, but his success attracted many Jews wrestling with the same problem, and the large Jewish audience threatened to tip Sherman’s hard-won balance to the too-Jewish-side” (187). But he continued to attract a broader American audience and, according to Cohen, was instrumental in breaking down the barriers between these two audiences, leading to cultural changes that enabled America to handle and embrace a play like Fiddler on the Roof (205).
Though Cohen predominately focuses on Sherman’s impact on Jewish popular culture in America, he also briefly mentions Sherman’s passivity toward the Civil Rights Movement. He also notes that in spite of this passivity, Sherman supported African-American comedians, including Bill Cosby, whom he helped produce his first two albums (194). Toward the end of his career, Sherman worked less with Jewish material, but his legacy remained in his contribution to American-Jewish culture.
Cohen’s Overweight Sensation will probably not make you fall in love with Sherman, but it does convey his great contribution to Jewish and American culture. Jewish humor was not a cure-all like chicken soup, and Sherman struggled in his roles as husband and parent. Yet in his public life, he tore down the walls between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds so that Jewish humor could permeate American culture.
Sherman’s life had little of the lighthearted joy of his whimsical parodies. He endured a long and treacherous road to what he called “Ollavood”. When he finally made it, Sherman’s comedy soon turned tragedy, as his comedic style began to decline along with his health.
Cohen brings Sherman’s voice to life through both narrative structure and a clever interspersal of Sherman’s songs and parodies throughout the text. His frequent use of oral history makes you feel like the characters are sitting next you. You laugh, you cry, and you share Sherman’s struggle to make Jewishness a part of America’s cultural landscape. The chronology of Sherman’s life is sometimes hard to follow, but Cohen makes up for this with his compelling portrayal of Sherman’s creative work. At the end of the book you cannot help but hum, “Hello Mudder Hello Fudder, Here I am in Camp Grenade…”