Jewish comedian Jackie Mason reflects on his legendary career

Mason discusses his comedy career, his stint as a rabbi, his advocacy for Israel and support of Donald Trump.

Jackie Mason doing stand-up at one of his highly acclaimed international performances. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jackie Mason doing stand-up at one of his highly acclaimed international performances.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I recently had the distinguished honor of meeting up with the legendary Jackie Mason in Midtown Manhattan. Mason, 92, is an American stand-up comedian, an accomplished film and television actor and is considered one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time.
He has won multiple Emmy Awards and a Special Tony Award for his 1986 one-man show titled The World According to Me. Later, his 1988 special Jackie Mason on Broadway won another Emmy Award (for outstanding writing) and another Ace Award, and his 1991 voice-over of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski in The Simpsons won Mason a third Emmy Award. He has written and performed in six one-man shows on Broadway along with classic film performances on the big screen in Hollywood.
Early in his career, he performed in New York City nightclubs and on The Steve Allen Show (his first national TV appearance, in 1962), in addition to the Tonight Show with Steve Allen, as well as on The Perry Como Show, The Dean Martin Show and The Garry Moore Show. He made several appearances as a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show during the 1960s and in 1962 you came out with his initial LP record, a best-seller titled “I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows It Yet,” followed by “I Want to Leave You with the Words of a Great Comedian.”
Mason, who is from a long line of rabbis, was born Yacov Moshe Maza on June 9, 1928, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the fourth and last son (and first born in the US) in a family of six children.
His parents were both born in Minsk and moved to the US in the 1920s. When Jackie was five years old, his family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, largely so that he and his siblings could pursue a yeshiva education.
Mason graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in his double major of English and sociology from the City College of New York. He became a cantor at the age of 18, and at age 25 he received smicha from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and was ordained a rabbi in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He led congregations in Weldon, North Carolina, and Beth Israel Congregation in Latrobe.
After his father died, he resigned from his job as a rabbi to become a comedian because, he says, “Somebody in the family had to make a living.”
Mason married Jyll Rosenfeld, his manager, in 1991, and they reside in the heart of Manhattan. If you’re lucky enough, you just may bump into them as I did four years ago when I originally met them. During our interview, we talked about some of his classic films and friendships with Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, Jerry Stiller and others. If you look at any successful comedian in Hollywood today, it is hard to not see a trace of influence from Mason’s classic performances and films.
What struck me the most about Mason was not just the list of accomplishments that he has achieved on both the big screen and Broadway, but how he has utilized his large platform to stand up for what he believes is right and defend the Jewish people. He loves Israel, is very proud of his Jewish heritage and is an extremely down-to-earth gentleman. He paved the way for many aspiring and successful comedians who came after him. His life’s work is a testament to the fact that he broke barriers and paved the way for a new generation of talent.
I began by asking him about his past to gain a deeper understanding of how he was able to achieve his status as a legend in the world of comedy.
You come from a long line of rabbis, who included your father, your grandfather, your great-grandfather and your great-great grandfather. How did you get into comedy?
I was a rabbi at a shul in Weldon, North Carolina, and I used to do comedy in my sermons to keep people entertained in what I was saying. Word got out that I was so funny that gentiles started coming to my sermons. At one point I had more gentiles than Jews in the congregation. That is when I realized I would be a comedian.
What would you consider your breakthrough that allowed you to arrive at where you are today?
Ed Sullivan definitely made me a star. I did more comedy performances on his show than any other comedian, but Steve Allen discovered me.
What are some of your best memories from working in both the film industry and Broadway?
I hated making movies. I hated doing my sitcom, Chicken Soup. I felt like a prisoner. The only thing I really enjoy is getting on that stage and performing in front of audiences. That is the ultimate ego trip.
You have been an outspoken advocate of Israel who is not afraid to stand up to antisemitic groups and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. How does Israel and your identity as a proud Jew play a part in your personal life and especially in a left-leaning society such as Hollywood today?
My motto is that there are three things in life that are definite: death, taxes and antisemitism. Never has antisemitism been displayed more than it has in the last 15 years. I never thought I would live to see the day that the Democratic Party became so hateful towards Israel. Hating Israel is hating Jews. I know the standard line that “My best friends are Jews, but I think Israel is too aggressive to Palestine.” That’s a bunch of BS! If you hate Israel, you hate the Jews, plain and simple. So I feel as probably one of the most famous Jews still living today, it is my obligation to speak out on this issue.
What compelled you to be an outspoken advocate of former US president Donald Trump and what would you like to see be done for Israel under US President Joe Biden, moving ahead into the future?
I was one of Trump’s original supporters. I believed he was going to be a great President and I believe I was proven right. As for Israel with a Joe Biden/Obama-like presidency, I am concerned about the return to the catering of the Palestinians and I am overly concerned about how the new president will deal with the other Arab states that forged alliances with Israel. I hope and pray that my fears are unwarranted, but I am a realist. Let us all just cross our fingers and hope that we get through the next four years.
How do your Jewish heritage and roots impact your work and the fulfilling career that you have had?
All of my comedy is rooted in truth and real life situations. When I perform on the stage I try to teach people so when they leave the show they walk out learning something and I believe all of that is from my Rabbinical studies.
As a Jew who believes in God and loves Israel, how has both the survival of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel played a role in your personal life?
It teaches you never to back down, never to give up and I wouldn’t even be alive to do it if not for Hashem (God).
To what do you attribute the longevity of your success and what is some of the current work that you are doing today?
Tenacity and pure genius. These days I am doing personal videos on cameo and can be found under Jackie Mason and also on “The Ultimate Jew,” which is the name of my YouTube page (
What’s the best joke you ever heard?
I really do not have any favorites. I have many routines in my act that help me get loose and warm up an audience, but I can’t say I like any joke or routine more than any other. If it gets a laugh at the moment I say it, then it’s my favorite at that moment.
What makes you laugh?
Political hypocrisy makes me laugh.
As a New Yorker, what do you think of coronavirus and how it has affected your everyday life?
Coronavirus has had its perks. My wife can’t go shopping so much. So I’m saving a fortune.  ■
The writer is a financial adviser who resides in New York City, and is involved in Israel based and Jewish advocacy organizations