Monday, October 22, 2012

Allan Sherman, Israel, and the Presidential Debate (with a Bob Dylan mention)

Who loves Israel more, Obama or Romney? Search me.

I half expected the question, "Where would you take Israel on a dream date?" Or Obama and Romney having to answer what each would do if Israel suggested driving out to a romantic spot where the two could get to know each other better. Both, no doubt, would still respect her in the morning.

Being immersed in the very early 1960s moment that saw the rise of Allan Sherman offers a nice perspective on how much things have changed.

At UCLA's Film and Television Archive I watched a March 25, 1962, video of Jackie Mason performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. He did a series of tax season jokes. President Kennedy hosted a lunch for 300 at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel that cost $15,000 (the dollar went a little further then). Mason said, "My bar mitzvah didn't cost that much." It got a big laugh.

But the next joke proved that fifty years ago many Americans were unfamiliar with Israel. Mason criticized Kennedy for having Egypt's Abdul Nasser to the White House. "Let him invite Ben Gurion," said Mason. "I'll be glad to pay for it."

The line bombed.

Sherman did not take Mason's approach. Sherman was interested in American Jewish life and its manners, pretensions, hypocrisies, and kookiness, not Israel. In fact, he lampooned American Jews' schmaltzy love affair with the Jewish state.

On his second album, My Son, The Celebrity, released in December 1962, Sherman dished out to "Hava Nagilah" the same treatment he gave to American folk songs. He parodied it as a sentimental indulgence, what Saul Bellow in Herzog called "potato love. Amorphous, swelling, hungry, indiscriminate, cowardly potato love."

Sherman turned "Hava Nagilah" into "Harvey and Sheila," the story of an American Jewish couple that travel to Europe, not Israel.

(And here's the Bob Dylan mention: Sherman and Dylan had the same attitude toward "Hava Nagilah," and they had it at virtually the same time. Dylan recorded his send-up, "Talkin' Havah Negiliah Blues," in March 1962. Sherman did not know of it. Dylan's song was not released until 1991. But both recognized it as a target ripe for parody.)

I don't think either the Jackie Mason or "Harvey and Sheila" scenario would happen today. Now it seems every American knows the name of Israel's prime minister, and among American Jews Israel has become such a deadly earnest issue that parodying an Israeli folk song seems off limits.

Fifty years have passed, but have we moved forward or back?

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