Over the years, many people have asked me what it is like to be the nephew of a famous celebrity. Indeed, till this day, there is rarely a place that I go that someone does not say to another, “Do you know who his uncle is?” When the other person asks who, my canned response is a reference to one of my other uncles, both famous Rabbi Mazas (similar to my father, Rabbi Joseph Maza, z”l), even though it’s obvious that the uncle that is being referred to is my professional comedic uncle Jackie Mason.
I admit that I too was awestruck with my uncle’s celebrity status, and one of my earliest memories was the excitement when, as a 5-year-old, my parents let me stay up for the Saturday night show on Shabbos Nachamu at the former Catskills hotel, Pioneer Country Club, to watch my uncle give his headline act. I recall my uncle being whisked in through a back fire escape to the backstage by a hotel security guard, who had an uncanny resemblance to our dining room waiter, and then introduced to an overflowing audience that to my young eyes must have seemed like a sell-out at Madison Square Garden. Of course, at that tender age, I didn’t understand any of my uncle’s jokes, but that didn’t stop me from laughing along as I mimicked the crowd, many of whom were literally crying from non-stop howling laughter. As it was way past my bedtime, I fell asleep in mid-act and have no recollection of any after party.
As I got older, I would still enjoy the privilege of seeing my uncle entertain at the many Catskills hotels and even sneaking out of camp to see him entertain Saturday nights at Kutshers or the Concord hotels at some of the late late shows offered at those resorts. After the show I would kibitz with him, although it was impossible to even walk a couple of feet without someone interrupting to tell him some tidbit of useless information such as that they knew him way back from the Lower East Side or once gave him a ride from my relatives in Kew Gardens Hills, etc. He would be gracious and then sometimes turn to me and glibly say in his unmistakable accent, “Every yenta thinks that they somehow know me from somewhere.”
The years passed and fast forward to my single years on the Upper West Side, which coincided with my uncle’s resurgence as a top act with nightly sellouts on Broadway with his award-winning one-man shows. This was indeed the perfect date, as who could possibly turn down an opportunity to score orchestra tickets to see Jackie Mason and even meet him backstage! One of those dates was with my present (and only) wife, Lauren, who when I took her backstage to meet my uncle, was asked incredulously by him what she was doing with a putz like me. Thankfully that didn’t ruin the shidduch.
There was always some excitement at the theater as I would meet tons of other celebrities, including Michael Douglas and Jerry Seinfeld, just waiting backstage to see my uncle as everyone was coming to the show and wanted a few minutes with Jackie. I recall attending one of the shows when Donald Trump showed up in the best orchestra seats. It did get a bit uncomfortable at one point when one of the jokes focused in an unflattering manner on Mr. Trump’s former wife Marla Maples and the future president sat there stone faced as the crowd cheerfully applauded.
It was before or after some of these shows that I would get to spend a few alone minutes with my uncle in which he would ask me some family questions about how everyone was doing. I would talk to him about my music aspirations, as at that time, while I performed with various wedding bands I didn’t yet have my own entertainment company. He would encourage me and once said to me, “Kid, when you have a passion to do something, it’s a sin to ignore it,” and if I had a dream to become a band leader, I should persist and find a way to make it happen.
My mother, of blessed memory, related the story of how when my parents were dating they were strolling along East Broadway with the then-teenage Yaakov Maza who, upon passing the glowing marquis of a theater, exclaimed: “One day you will see my name up there in lights.” As we know, this turned out to be prophetic.
There are many who would disapprove of the path taken by my uncle, as unlike my beloved father and his brothers, and my esteemed zaidee, Rabbi Eliyahu Maza, zt”l, my uncle would not be considered religious in our traditional sense. However, through his unrelenting pursuit of his passion to be a renowned entertainer, he rose to iconic status in the show business world and was cherished for his hilarious performances by so many in the Jewish community and beyond who identified so closely with his brand of humor and wit. While I certainly did not have a conventional uncle, I did learn from my Uncle Jackie the value of pursuing dreams so as not to look back and wonder as to what could have been. May his memory be for a blessing.
Avi Maza performs regularly at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other simchas along with his band the Avi Maza Orchestra and DJ. He has also served for many years at various congregations as High Holiday cantor and on Pesach programs as cantor and entertainer. Avi and his wife Lauren and their family reside in Highland Park, NJ. For more information about Avi’s band and other services, including live music, DJ and acappella, contact 888-AVI-MAZA (284-6292) or email [email protected]