The Numbers:13 Project
of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites; of Saul, the clan of the Saulites. Numbers 26:13
I know I am giving away both my age and my sense of humor when I mention Allan Sherman. The spiritual mentor of Weird Al Yankovic, Sherman elevated the song parody to a national phenomenon. He mostly (in his early work) parodied the songs of the first half of the twentieth century – not surprising, since he grew up then.
I knew most of the originals from the parodies. Songs like “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louis” and “Streets of Miami” made such an impression on me that I was surprised to learn there were original lyrics. (I had to ask my parents what was so funny about the line “he was trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored,” a skewer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)
But no song tickled me as much as “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max.” It is a riff on “Dear Old Donegal,” an Irish pop tune about a man who returns to Donegal after trying out America and is reintroduced to his neighbors Branigan, Flannigan, Milligan, Gilligan and all sorts of others. But I never heard the original until much later. Instead, I committed to memory the Allan Sherman version about a salesman who returns to Brooklyn (so that’s where Ocean Parkway is!) after his long and lonesome season on the road. His mother is there to reintroduce Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi…Stein with an "e-i" and Styne with a "y."
Aside from being a play on the Irish ditty, the song is a not-so-subtle reference to the proclivity of Jews (and others, I suspect) to try to draw connections with people they meet. Stand near two Jewish strangers at a social gathering and eventually you will hear an exploration that begins either with “do you know” or “are you related to.” My last name is pretty unusual in the Jewish community (but familiar to Swedes), so it’s not so farfetched for someone who knows my siblings or cousins to ask me if I am connected to another Moline. But Stein with an “e-i” and Styne with a “y” (from Brooklyn) can provoke an adventure of six degrees or fewer of separation.
Maybe this behavior is a benign parody of the long section of the second census in the Book of Numbers. The twelve tribes of Israel are called by the name of their patriarchs, and afterward the then-current chieftain and then his sons. The families (clans) of the sons are each noted by the name of the current patriarch. Those descended from Zerah, the Zerahites. Those descended from Saul, the Saulites. Well…duh.
The tribes had their territory and the clans had their homesteads. The merchant who returned with his caravan could shake hands with his Uncle Zerah and meet cousins from other tribes – Naphtali, Issachar, Judah and Gad. Jewish geography may not be quite the modern phenomenon we think it is.
A well-known rabbi, so well-known that I won’t identify him, once said that the only false words in the prayer book are chaveirim kol yisrael, which means (a little too literally) “all Jews are friends.” But taking that notion more literally than it is meant brings me back to Allan Sherman’s song. He may not have been so happy to see cousin Isabel (that’s Irving’s oldest girl) or the Tishman twins, Gerald and Jerome, but they all came out to greet him and to wish him welcome home.
Maybe that’s part of the intrigue of the DNA-mapping technology that various companies market. So far, my sample has identified 1216 relatives, about five of which I knew about. Sooner or later I will find out if I am a Zerahite or a Saulite or any of the other -ites who left Egypt. (I already know I am 99% Ashkenazi Jew.) Until then, are you related to……?