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  • My Fair Sadie:Allan Sherman and a Paradox of American Jewish Culture
  • Mark Cohen (bio)

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 [End Page 51] 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 Oklahoma!, 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. [End Page 52]

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 Oklahoma!,9 bigotry in South Pacific,10...


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