June 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“Who fixed your nose?” he asked.

He wasn’t the first to pose that question, and I had come up with a reply that I hoped made questioners think about what a dumb and offensive question it was. I never knew if it was meant as a compliment or simply to get the name of a good surgeon. Maybe both.

“No one; it was never broken.”

Jackie laughed. He had an infectious laugh that gladdened hearts.

It was a Saturday night and my husband and I were in Newark. The city was still reeling from the riots that had decimated a once-vibrant metropolis and thriving Jewish community. Portuguese immigrants were moving in and working to revive it. We had come to see Jackie Mason.

He was not performing in NJPAC, which wasn’t even a blip on the horizon in those days. We were in a factory that manufactured drafting tables, flat files and other furniture used by engineers, architects and artists. My husband’s partner had a cousin who was a producer. He needed to borrow a factory or warehouse in which to shoot a scene.

You don’t say no to mishpacha, especially if they’re bringing Jackie Mason along. And what was a Borscht Belt comedian doing in a film? He was making his film debut, and had the starring role. “The Stoolie” was about a police informant trying to become a respectable citizen. The movie wasn’t one of his box office hits, but it did become a cult classic.

Maybe Jackie Mason considered it a step toward the respectability he had enjoyed as a rabbi from a family of rabbis going back many generations. His father and three of his brothers remained in the rabbinate. Jackie chose the Borscht Belt—or rather it chose him. Irrepressible, irreverent and quick-witted, he saw the humor in everyday life. Hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, status-seeking and herd mentality were the subjects of his gleeful monologues. He railed against human faults and foibles. Mason was like a latter-day prophet and philosopher who delivered his often-scathing messages in ways that made people laugh, but also listen, learn and strive to be better.

He was born 93 years ago as Yacov Moshe Maza to immigrants from Belarus who soon moved their family to a Jewish neighborhood, the Lower East Side. An ordained rabbi and graduate of CCNY, he led two congregations before he changed his name and exchanged the pulpit for the stage. Curiously, he retained a Yiddish-inflected accent. No one hearing him would guess that his native home was Wisconsin, the heart of the dairy industry.

You can’t make cows laugh. People are a different story, and his appeal was universal. He never needed to stoop to profanity to make people laugh. Millions upon millions of people, Jews and non-Jews, laughed themselves silly. Even Queen Elizabeth II was a fan. Too bad she doesn’t speak Yiddish.

My brothers and I never laughed as hard as when we heard him do an impersonation of Jimmy Cagney, which he peppered generously with Yiddish words and expressions. (Not so far-fetched, as the Irish-American actor grew up on the Lower East Side and spoke Yiddish fluently.) Mason was a great mimic, and the act was hilarious. And for that audience, it was a wonderful conclusion to a week that began on a more solemn note.

Our families were together for Pesach in the Poconos. Sounds funny, I know, but a smart and entrepreneurial caterer from Borough Park rented out the big honeymoon hotel for the holiday of liberation. He knew he could fill it with Jews who wanted to be liberated from hard labor. Those nights were different from all other nights because we didn’t have to step into our kitchens. The community sedorim weren’t a big hit for our family, who preferred our own seders, but fun and delicious food was had by all. The highlight of the week was Mason’s performance.

None of us suspected that the man who made us laugh when he was on stage, and even in the elevator, would later be honored with Tony awards for his Broadway shows. Or that the kid from the Lower East Side would be such a hit in sold-out performances on London’s West End. Or that he would be invited to a debate at Oxford.

Last week Mason left this world for a more rewarding and venerable venue. Would it surprise me to learn that he’s now playing heaven and making the angels laugh? No, not at all.

By Barbara Wind

 

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