“Glory, glory Harry Lewis
Glory, glory Harry Lewis
Glory, glory Harry Lewis
His cloth goes shining on.”
That’s how the song, set to the melody of “Glory, glory hallelujah,” begins, and those lines are the solemnly sung refrain. They lead to a couplet that admittedly is miniature in scale but whose last few words sparkle in jeweled perfection:
“Oh Harry Lewis perished in the service of his Lord.
He was trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored.”
The drapes of Roth! Brilliant.
Okay, it’s only funny if you know the original music and words, and that the “drapes of Roth” is a twist on the “grapes of wrath.”
To go by the evidence of the audience on “My Son the Folksinger,” parodist, wit, singer, and songwriter Allan Sherman’s 1962 debut album, everybody there got it. They roared.
So what does this have to do with Selichot?
Surprisingly more than you might have thought, according to Rabbi Joseph Prouser, who will lead a singalong, with some discussion, he’s calling “My Son the Penitent” before traditional Selichot services at his shul, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes. (See box for more information.)
Allan Sherman, who was enormously successful in the early to mid 1960s, was a clever, complicated, overweight, deeply Jewish performer whose rise and fall were entwined inextricably with his own genius, his visible and hidden demons, and the transitional time in which he flourished,
“I have a fairly complex analysis of Allan Sherman, which I will be presenting over the course of the evening,” Rabbi Prouser said. However, “this will be an experiential evening. We will play the music, and people can sing along. I will not talk the theme to death. I want people to explore it.”
There are seven main points he will make through music, he added.
First, how did he come to know about Allan Sherman? Rabbi Prouser grew up as the youngest of a household of boys who loved Sherman’s work. He would have been too young to have found the music himself, but it was already there, in the air at home. He heard the songs constantly and now has them lodged permanently in his head.
But the High Holy Day themes?
The first one, he said, is “Allan Sherman’s sensitivity to language. I love his puns, and he has very sophisticated rhyme schemes. And a sensitivity to language is a huge part of the High Holiday liturgy. We list our sins repeatedly, and fully a third of them are related to our use of language. And we repeatedly engage in complex liturgical poems. So his really careful use of language — his thoughtful, calculating use of language — reflects the experience of the High Holidays.”
What about an example? Rabbi Prouser cites “One Hippopotami.”
“One hippopotami cannot get on a bus/Because one hippopotami is two hippopotamus,” Sherman sang. “In that song, he explores irregular plural nouns,” Rabbi Prouser said; Sherman goes on to mention goose and geese, mouse and mice, moose and meese. (Whoops! Moose and moose. Such an unimaginative plural…)
The second reason is “that Allan Sherman almost singlehandedly established a Jewish presence in this period of ethnic pride and expression,” Rabbi Prouser said. “In the early ’60s, all different kinds of groups were talking about their unique ethnic experiences and perspectives. It all found its way into popular culture.
“And then Allan Sherman jumped on that national trend and imbued it with Jewish content.”
Examples? “Some of his earliest songs were explicitly Jewish in content,” Rabbi Prouser said. He pointed to Sherman’s parody of “Greensleeves,” called “Sir Greenbaum’s Madrigal,” and to “My Zelda,” based on Harry Belafonte’s “Matilda.” But really most of his first album is Jewish; you could pick almost any one of those songs as an example.
The third reason is that “his music and his audience’s response are reflective of a more innocent time,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Part of what we are doing over the days of repentance is exploring the extent to which we can reclaim a more innocent, simple, carefree way of living with integrity. Whenever Allan Sherman strays anywhere close to anything that might be off-color or untoward, the audience just falls to pieces. But it is such mild stuff! In “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max,” there’s a line that goes, ‘And here is your cousin Yetta, who expects another kid.’
“It’s just the suggestion of pregnancy, and it gets a wave of laughter. The songs don’t get much more unseemly than that. He doesn’t get blue. It makes you recall a time when humor was possible without getting into the gutter.
“And that segues into the next category,” Rabbi Prouser said. “The truth is that Allan Sherman was not such an innocent, wholesome guy. He had his demons and his excesses and his appetites — eating and drinking and womanizing and gambling.” He died at 48, of a range of diseases, officially of emphysema. “The dark side of the holidays is that we really examine our own demons. We look at our dark side. We have to confront our excesses.”
“There is no song about that,” Rabbi Prouser continued. “But there is one line that I wonder about. It might be autobiographical. It’s in the song about the righteous Sir Greenbaum.” That’s the song where he says that being a knight is “no job for a boy who is Jewish.” Just a few lines below that, he adds:
“All day with the slaying and slewing, and smiting and smoting like Robin Hood/
Oh, wouldst I could kick the habit, and give up smoting for good.”
“It might be a veiled reference to his own addictive personality,” Rabbi Prouser said.
The next point — “and one of my favorite things about him, is that he was not a world-class singer,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He could deliver a song, and he could work an audience, and he was a first-class wit and a first-class mind, but he was not a first-class singer. From my perspective, it’s all about stretching beyond our personal perceived limitations.”
Remember, he said, Allan Sherman “made his name not in writing or in standup, but in song.”
Next, there is his Jewishness. Rabbi Prouser referred, as he did frequently, to a biography, published in 2013, Mark Cohen’s spectacularly titled “Overweight Sensation.” As Mr. Cohen made clear, Sherman came from a secular family. All these points overlap; Rabbi Prouser said that Mr. Cohen “described Allan Sherman as a damaged human being who could be made happy by singing Jewish-oriented songs.” It’s similar to an earlier point, that he used Jewish references, but here it’s something a bit deeper. “He injected Jewish consciousness and content into his life and his work,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It is not piety. It is not religion. It is Jewish identity. It is connecting with the Jewish people.”
That brings Rabbi Prouser to the strongest point, the underlying or perhaps overarching one. “The most important reason that Allan Sherman is my choice for Selichot is that classically the High Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy,” he said. “It is not supposed to be a somber, serious, staid affair. The Mishna talks about Yom Kippur as one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish tradition. It and Tu B’Av,” the traditional holiday of love, the minor holiday that closely follows Tisha B’Av, springtime to Tisha B’Av’s winter.
“The holidays are happy because we get a new start, and a second chance. It makes sense to me to open the holiday season in a new way, in a way that is fun and joyful and entertaining. Too often people get all serious and mournful at Selichot.
“We will have enough time for sobriety and staidness over the course of the holidays, but it is important to remember that we should approach them with joy. And really there is no better way to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than with an Allan Sherman singalong.”
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser
What: Will present a pre-Selichot program about Allan Sherman
Where: At the synagogue he leads, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes
When: On Saturday at 9 p.m.
Traditional Selichot services will follow at 10:30, led by Rabbi Prouser and a guest cantor, Lori Weber
For information: Go to www.tenfjl.org or call (201) 560-0200