The fondest memory I have of my late mother-in-law Seretta Miller Kleinerman is the date we had in New York in the late 1980s. I had given a talk at NYU, I believe, and she was still living in Englewood, New Jersey as my father-in-law was the chief of Pathology at Mt. Sinai at the time. My mother-in-law loved Broadway, especially musicals. When she asked me what I wanted to see when I came in, I did not hesitate. I wanted the hottest ticket on Broadway at the time—The World According To Me, the one-man show starring Jackie Mason.
Jackie Mason, as the attached obituary notes, was a Borscht Belt comedian who had begun to have some success in the early 1960s only to fall victim to a terrible misunderstanding on the Ed Sullivan Show. The details are not worth describing. Suffice it to say Mr. Sullivan interpreted Jackie’s mimicking of his countdown with his fingers to finish his set to be an obscene gesture and Mason’s career fell apart for twenty years. He clawed his way back. All the way to Broadway and was a hit. Even The New York Times loved Jackie. I had to see this as Mason remained a vague memory to me from his days on television, but so did the Borscht Belt where I worked for two summers in 1966 and 1967 as a waiter and busboy.
There is a rhythm to a Borscht Belt comedy act. It goes something like ta-da-ta-da-ta in English and then the punch line is in Yiddish. Mason refined the rhythm and kept the punch lines in English. He did impersonations that were so over the top that they worked. But mostly, he was Jewish. He was so Jewish. This made sense given that he came from a long line of rabbis and was a rabbi himself. He actually built a set of jokes around that as he noticed that his sermons began drawing a crowd and he started to charge a minimum and a cover.
My mother-in-law and I roared at his stories and his making fun of the audience and especially the non-Jews who flocked to Mason’s performances so that they could be made fun of. I actually sat in the front row of the show the second time I saw it and was pointed at by Mr. Mason as wearing a condom at the time. I had met him outside the theater when I went to pick up my ticket and we had a pleasant chat. I met him again back stage at a show at the Arena Stage in Houston when we took our then ten-year old son Richard to see him. Richard was a very handsome young child and when Mason looked at him said, “Are you sure he’s your kid?”
I saw Jackie Mason again at the Laff Stop on Grey and bumped into him in Manhattan while he ate at a diner on Broadway. He had gone from a young figure on Ed Sullivan to someone I had seen live on four occasions and met a few times as well. He was always pleasant and always funny.
His death leaves a vacuum. He really was the last of the Borscht Belt comedians and an important reminder to me of my roots in Jewish New York and as a busboy “in the country.” His jokes will always be an important part of my family who embraced him as one of our own. He was not one of a kind, but he was the best of the breed. He knew funny. He knew Jewish. He knew us. We shall miss him.