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Jackie Mason’s Life and Jokes

July 25, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

The comic, who has died at 93, was a keen observer of Jewish life in America.

Born Yacov Moshe Maza in 1928, Jackie Mason came from a long line of Orthodox rabbis. He followed his father’s footsteps and became a rabbi as well. (His three older brothers also became rabbis; his two younger sisters married rabbis.)

After his father’s death in 1959, Mason adopted his new name and began performing comedy routines in Catskill resorts, New York city clubs and Miami hotels. At first, he received a poor reception from many of his fellow Jews, who felt that Mason’s heavy New York accent and Jewish-inflected way of speaking seemed old-fashioned: “My accent reminds them of a background they’re trying to forget.”

Mason found that even when he strayed far from the religious Jewish world in which he grew up, he retained some of the lessons and universal truths that his Jewish education imparted. “I came from a religious family,” he explained, noting that his background was completely at odds with the shallow materialism and trappings of fame which he later pursued.

“I was so absorbed with religion that I didn’t think about material things. We weren’t involved with Jewish contests, with status. There was no status among the Orthodox Jews. How can you judge a person as more successful because he has a more expensive car? A fancier jacket? A bigger apartment? A nameplate on the shoes? You judge a person by how far they went scholastically, if he or she became a philosopher, a thinker, a writer, an artist, a scientist. A grand rabbi. They don’t wait to see his shorts or his shirts…"

His Jewish education enriched his comedy. “Every time I see a contradiction or hypocrisy in somebody’s behavior,” he quipped, “I think of the Talmud and build the joke from there.”

“I don’t care about money. I give it to the families of my three brothers and two sisters. I have enough to last me the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I want to buy something.”

Mason was a staunch supporter of Israel. During the Gulf War of 1991, he insisted on flying to the Jewish state while it was under attack. He later recalled that “when I told the Israelis I was coming, they looked at me like I was a maniac. They didn’t know if I was such a great patriot or just a nutcase. The Israeli embassy initially discouraged me from going. Because they couldn’t imagine someone coming into Israel at a time like that. But I was insistent. I felt it was a moral obligation for a Jew to show support at a time like that when the fate of the state was imperiled.”

In 1987, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t care about money. I give it to the families of my three brothers and two sisters. We’re very close. I have enough to last me the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I want to buy something.”

Through his long career, Mason was both beloved and reviled. He found himself blacklisted and boycotted after making highly insensitive jokes. Yet his biting humor illuminated the life of many American Jews in secular America in a way that no other comedian could replicate.

Here’s a sampling of Jackie Mason’s jokes, which brought enjoyment to generations of Jews. May his memory be a blessing.

Quotes by Jackie Mason

On starting out as a comic:

“I used to be so self-conscious that when I attended a football game, every time the players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.”

“It’s a big thing to be a star on the stage in England. But the biggest star’s dream is to be a big star in America. In America we don’t dream of being a star in England. I never heard of an American prizefighter, an American actor, a baseball player, anybody, saying that his greatest dream is that he should captivate Leeds. No, what bothers him is that he never played Madison Square Garden.”

“I had to sell furniture to make a living - my own.”

On becoming wealthy:

(Explaining that he earned three million dollars in one year:) “Where do you spend $3 million? Do you know a sandwich that costs three million dollars?”

“I’d rather make a fool of myself in front of two people for nothing than a thousand people who paid for a ticket.”

“Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is. Fortunately I love money.”

On being a Jew:

“(Being a Jew) means that the chances you are going to be a more intelligent person, and you’ll have more decency, and you’ll help people whether they deserve it or not. And no matter what crime any person from any denomination commits, somehow you’ll always convince yourself it’s your fault.”

“The truth is that in this country, Jew’s don’t fight, they don’t. They almost fight, they almost fight...They’ll always tell you, ‘If he said one more word! - He would have been dead today. I was ready. I was waiting. One more word! What’s that word? Nobody knows.”

“It’s easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let's have some cake!’”

“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. Everything about my attitude and my thoughts were impacted greatly by being raised in this culture. My observations...of all of humanity express themselves in my comedy.”

“It’s no longer a question of staying healthy. It’s a question of finding a sickness you like.”

Observations on human nature

“If an Englishman gets run down by a truck he apologizes to the truck.”

“Did you ever hear of a kid playing accountant - even if they wanted to be one?”

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