Articles written for JEWISH WEEK by Leonard J. Lehrman


Music: The Soul of Satire (Tom Lehrer)

August 11, 2000

by Leonard J. Lehrman

[passages in brackets were cut by the editor]

Tom Lehrer (Nearly) Complete In New Boxed Set

"I know there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I HATE people like that!"

Only a Jew with a penchant for logic, ethics and total irreverence could have come up with a conundrum like that, and that's Tom Lehrer: mathematician, teacher and creative musical satirist par excellence. Formerly a faculty member at Harvard, MIT and Wellesley, now 72, he "hangs out" in Cambridge, Mass, half the year, teaching the other half in Santa Cruz, California.

"I'm Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica" is thus only quasi-autobiographical. [("Those Eastern winters, I can't endure 'em, /So ev'ry year/I pack my gear/And come out here/Till Purim.")] That song, one of half a dozen released for the very first time in Rhino Records' new $50 half-century retrospective 3-CD collection, "The Remains of Tom Lehrer," is a virtual catalog aria on the Jewish holidays. Written for and premiered on Garrison Keillor's radio show in 1990 and 1992, it was conceived as "a sort of answer to 'White Christmas,'" since, as Keillor pointed out, "there just aren't any popular Hanukkah songs, because no Gentile songwriter ever thought about writing one, and the great Jewish songwriters were busy writing Christmas songs."

Unfortunately, it doesn't cover all the Jewish holidays. As Lehrer pointed out in a letter to this writer, Pesach is particularly rhyme-resistant, and "All I could think of was 'I always get my ass over/To Tel Aviv for Passover'"-- and then of course it wouldn't be a family song....

[Perhaps Jewish Week would be interested in publishing the sequel by this writer, approved by Tom Lehrer, filling in the other holidays-- maybe around Chanukah???]

Since Tom Lehrer stopped performing publicly a quarter of a century ago, no one has come close to replacing him, in terms of craft, construction, and care in the realm of original musical satire. And, with few exceptions, no one performs his works as well as he does. This despite over 200 productions of the Cameron Mackintosh revue, Tomfoolery, whose original cast recordings from England and Canada have been released, though not the off-Broadway cast recording.

Listen to how he gets away with the self-mocking "Everybody hates the Jews" in the song "National Brotherhood Week," and recall his statement (not included in the album) that "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." Raised as a secular Jew, he carefully covers all bases: "If anyone objects to any statement I make, I am quite prepared not only to retract it, but also to deny under oath that I ever made it."

[May we all live to see the day that, like Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which was also once deemed "sacrilegious," Tom Lehrer's hysterical "Vatican Rag" may be performed (as it was at last week's Eastern Naturist Gathering--au naturel) for the Pope!]