Jackie Mason - Not backing down

Legendary Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason has turned his acerbic humor to slamming critics of Israel.

Legendary Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason has turned his acerbic humor to slamming critics of Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Legendary Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason has turned his acerbic humor to slamming critics of Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jackie Mason’s classic comedy routine about the fussy eating habits of the Tribe may have focused on restaurant seating, but it’s easily applicable for the seasonable delight of succa dining.
“You ever see how a Jew walks into a restaurant? Like a partner. ‘Hello! Let me see my table! You call this a table for a man like me? I don’t sit so close to a wall, so far from a window. My wife don’t like to face this way, I don’t like to face that way. Why are there so many people in this section? They could be moved over here.’ The gentiles ate four meals already, the Jews are picking furniture.”
The 83-year-old iconic comedian is still moving chairs around, figuratively, as he refuses to fade quietly into the sunset of his life. Along with the late Joan Rivers, he emerged during the summer’s Operation Protective Edge as one of Israel’s most outspoken defenders, even as his words of endearment might have veered to the far side of political correctness. And targets of his acerbic barbs weren’t only Hamas – he also went after fellow celebrities and liberal American Jews.
In a Jerusalem Post op-ed published August 19, Mason placed the blame for the war squarely on the Palestinians, while skewering American Jewry for not standing up for the Jewish homeland.
“It is amazing that while Hamas rains rockets on the State of Israel, the guilt-ridden liberal Jews of America can’t find any reason to condemn it: They can’t feel comfortable unless they see the Palestinians as victims of Israeli oppression,” wrote Mason. “Palestinian rockets can be storming all over Israel and liberal American Jews are convinced if Israel didn’t persecute them, this never would’ve happened.”
A few days earlier, in a US radio interview, Mason took on Hollywood celebrities like Selena Gomez, Penelope Cruz and Rihanna, who had posted tweets and signed letters during the war that expressed support for the Palestinians in Gaza.
“They come from these kinds of anti-Semitic, low-class backgrounds where a Jew is the most disgusting thing in the world to them,” Mason told Aaron Klein on New York’s AM 970’s The Answer. “The ironic thing is that it’s Jewish people who own these Hollywood studios... And they all hire these people and they depend on them for a living. Every penny they made is made from Jews and they hate every Jew just by nature.”
Two months later, in response to questions from the Post, Mason hasn’t backed down from those assertions and dismisses suggestions that aggressive criticism could be counterproductive and lead to a backlash.
“The better question is why are so FEW Jewish celebrities not concerned about helping Israel, but are actually hostile toward Israel,” says Mason. “And if there is a backlash, that’s too f***ing bad. And how can there be a backlash to what they are – anti-Israel in the first place?” A longtime Republican, Mason includes President Barack Obama in the anti-Israel camp. And despite the high level of support Americans expressed for Israel during the summer war, he claims that US public opinion is turning away from the Jewish state.
“I would say that Obama is trying his hardest to get it to turn so he can push his agenda, but the evangelicals and Republicans are a solid block that won’t budge. The sad fact is that only 30 percent of American Jews are pro-Israel which is tragic and really pathetic,” he says, without providing a source to back up that statistic, which has been shown in polls to be much higher.
But it’s passionate opinion and hilarious chutzpah, not accuracy, that has fueled Mason’s evolution from Yacov Moshe Maza, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin-born son of a rabbi (as were his grandfather, great-grandfather and three brothers) to a Borscht Belt comic to a later-inlife Broadway sensation.
After graduating from City College in New York, Mason joined the “family business” and at age 25 was ordained as a rabbi. However, three years later, he resigned to follow his dream to be a stand-up comedian.
“I never regretted it because I felt I should move in the direction of my best talent,” he explains.
Honing his stand-up skills in the 1950s, he followed the avalanche of other post-World War II Jewish comics – like Milton Berle, Shecky Greene, Alan King and Buddy Hackett – who found a welcome home in the Catskill Mountain resorts favored by Jewish vacationers. They created an ethnic brand of humor that didn’t shy away from confrontation, controversy and improvisation, and paved the way for the biting political style adopted by the counter-culture comics of the 1960s and is still prevalent today in the style of Jewish personalities like Howard Stern and Sarah Silverman.
According to Mason, Jews flocked to comedy because they were trying to fit in to post-war American society.
“The Jews at that time were a persecuted minority and this was the best form of escape,” he says.
Mason felt some personal persecution when a coveted 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show turned sour when the comic flashed an obscene gesture at Sullivan, who was motioning to Mason to finish his routine.
Mason still denies he made the gesture, but the resultant controversy and ban from the show temporarily set back his career and labeled him a hothead.
He eventually came back bigger than ever, after finding a better outlet for his sharp humor on Broadway. His first one-man show – The World According to Me – debuted in 1986 and has spawned many successive sequels, each one more well received by both critics and fans.
Unlike his contemporary Rodney Dangerfield, Mason finally won some respect. He even returned to his rabbinical roots in a manner of speaking – winning an Emmy in 1992 for his recurring voice-over role of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski in The Simpsons.
“I loved it, it was easiest job I ever had,” Mason says of playing the pious father of Krusty the Clown, though his character was killed off at the beginning of the show’s current season. Or was he? “Hold on, you never know, but there might be a surprise coming,” Mason hints.
Krustofski’s working status may be in limbo, but Mason is still keeping busy professionally, despite having ended regular performances of his one-man shows.
“I don’t miss doing long runs at all. However, I’m always doing one-nighters around the country and Europe and I do a lot of private dates,” he says.
“I have achieved everything I ever would want to and have gotten enormous recognition all over the world – six Royal Command performances, nominated for a Grammy, won two Emmys, a Tony award, an Obie award, spoke at the British Parliament. Audiences are still giving me standing ovations.”
That includes the segment of Israelis who embraced his non-nuanced, whole-hearted defense of the country. But when asked if his clear love of the Jewish homeland meant that he would consider throwing his lot in with his people and retire to Israel to enjoy rearranging the succa furniture in Jerusalem, the groundbreaking comic demurs in a typical mixture of humor and honesty.
“No, I wouldn’t move to Israel because I like my doctors and because I’m never retiring.”