Iconic Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, z”l, who passed away last weekend at the age of 93, was the classic Borscht Belt performer. Born Yaakov Moshe (Jacob) Maza to an Orthodox family, Mason came from a long line of rabbis but made his impact not in the pulpit but in comedy. He received semicha and briefly practiced as a rabbi, but ultimately traded it in for his first love, the stage.
For those who recall vacations spent in Catskills hotels like the Concord, Kutshers and others, memories of Jackie’s performances in the hotel nightclubs still elicit laughter. And after the Catskills as we knew them were no more, we remember seeing Jackie in his Tony-winning performances on Broadway, or even outdoors at the then-Garden State Arts Center, now PNC Bank Arts Center, and being brought to tears by his humor. Whether he was poking fun at himself, politics, religion or even comedy, his jokes were always biting, witty and fiercely on point.
In his Jewish-inflected style, which was uniquely his own, he often joked: “I didn’t emphasize my Jewishness because I wanted to. I just happen to have been raised in a family where everybody happened to talk like this, so why would I talk like somebody else?”
Although he may not have lived the life his rabbinic ancestors envisioned, Jackie remained fiercely committed to Judaism, once saying, “I have a great identification with Judaism as a religion and as a culture, and all the values that created such a great history, and the Jewish contribution to the betterment of all humanity.”