I got interested in writing about Allan Sherman because I thought there was an interesting story there about suppressed ethnic identity in America and its emergence. That's why substantial numbers of non-Jews bought Sherman's first album, My Son, The Folk Singer. They found in Sherman's dialect parodies ("The Streets of Miami") and proud announcement of Jewish family names ("Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max") a surrogate for their own ethnic identities. (The other part was Sherman was funny.)
Or, in the case of non-ethnic middle Americans, they found an attractive distinctiveness, like the guy who marries the Greek girl in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
But it took a couple of years of research to discover just how serious Sherman was about getting Jewishness into the public sphere. He was obsessed with it. And that tied in to a big idea that has fascinated me for a long time.
"For the Jew in the modern world Jewishness forms only a portion of his total identity," wrote historian Michael A. Meyer. "And yet external pressures and internal attachments combine to make him often more aware of this identification than any other."
That is me. That is a lot of people. And that was Sherman. It was only part of who he was, but those "external pressures" (1920s and 1930s anti-Semitism, Hitler, etc.) and "internal attachments" (his beloved Yiddish-speaking grandparents) made Jewishness something he could have sang, if he was a Jewish Willie Nelson, was "Always On My Mind."
Even when he was 13.
Sherman's first Jewish song parody was published in the 1938 John Burroughs Junior High School BURR, a publication by and for graduating 9th graders of that Los Angeles school, which is still in operation. Sherman's name then was Allan Segal, but that's another story. In a piece called "Mother Goose of 1938" he wrote his first Jewish parody.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a train
Happily singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen";
All the conductors and all the porters,
Couldn't get Humpty out of his quarters!
Think of it as Sherman's bar mitzvah speech, his 13-year-old's declaration of identification as well as a complete outline of his fate: joy in singing, a joy in singing Jewish material, along with an unforgiving assessment of himself as a portly and already deeply damaged egg man that would never be put together again.