From the Archives | Borscht Belt Humor Hits Broadway

Yea or Oy Vey?
Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason

This article was originally published in a 1998 issue of Moment.

Is Borscht Belt humor back? Those snappy jokes and put-downs with their Yiddishisms, their homey feel and their often Jewish orientation? You know the kind: “I should have been a doctor. In what other profession can a man tell a woman to take off her clothes and send the bill to her husband?” 

Remarkably, this joke hasn’t been making the rounds at Grossinger’s, but on Broadway, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Even more surprising, the comedian is none other than Jackie Mason, the 53-year-old, fast-talking, Yiddish-spewing, often insulting social commentator and former rabbi. Mason’s one-man tour de farce, The World According to Me, has been one of Broadway’s hottest shows since it opened in December 1986. 

It’s the same old Jackie Mason. Older, and perhaps wiser than the comedian who was banned from the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 for allegedly making an obscene gesture. (Mason denies having made it.) He still uses stereotypes and put-downs, pointing out the idiosyncrasies and the real and perceived differences between ethnic groups. His act overflows with Jewish jokes, gentile jokes, Chinese jokes, Puerto Rican jokes. Everybody and everything is fair game. 

“I hate Chinese,” says Mason. “They never eat in a Jewish restaurant. I never saw one Chinaman who said to me, ‘I’m looking for a nice piece of gefilte fish.’ “

“My best friend is half Italian, half Jewish. If he can’t buy it wholesale, he steals it.”

“Two-thirds of the world consists of water. Do we really need all that water? Maybe the gentiles need it. But most Jews have a swimming pool.” 

His acerbic wit covers politics as well: “People say I shouldn’t pick on Nixon. He’s got phlebitis. I say it’s syphilis. You can’t screw 200 million people and wind up with phlebitis.”

But Mason’s sharpest satire is reserved for his fellow Jews. His observations walk the narrow line between good jokes and bad taste. Some would say he crosses it. 

“Every Jew loves food,” he says. “What do you think Jews talk about for breakfast? Where to eat lunch. At lunch, where should we have dinner? Dinner, where should we have coffee . . . The only people who never had a cockroach are white Protestant American gentiles. There’s no food in the house. After all, how much can a cockroach drink? . . . You never see a Jew in a bar, except if he gets lost looking for a piece of cake.”

Why is a Borscht Belt comedian playing to standing-room-only crowds on Broadway in 1988? The great Hillel might have said “If not now, when?” But then, Hillel never played Broadway. 

Mason owes much of his success to his audience, a group composed of the suburban, nouveau riche Jews he parodies. It is a group that is not overly religious, yet secure in its Jewishness; a group that has grown up with a strong (post-1967) Israel and that identifies with the Jewish state. Twenty-five years ago they might have gone to see him at Grossinger’s. Today they go to Broadway. 

They applaud when Mason says, “The toughest army, man for man, in the world today is in Israel. That’s right,” he chuckles, “there’s always two Jews who get excited when you say that. You should be proud. I was there. I saw that army. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that they were Puerto Ricans. Who do you think drove the Jewish tanks in that war? Puerto Ricans. You think that a Jew is going to get out of his Mercedes to drive a tank?” Insisting that he detests ethnic jokes, Mason quickly “apologizes.” “I love the Puerto Ricans. I go to Puerto Rico all the time. I like to visit my hubcaps,” he laughs. 

He jumps quickly from one cultural stereotype to another.” The Jews could have had the Suez Canal in that [Six-Day] war, but they didn’t want it. There’s no boardwalk . . . Jews themselves were never fighters,” he says. “I never see four black people walking in the street and saying, ‘Watch out! There’s a Jew over there!’ Let’s be honest. Did you ever see anybody afraid to walk into a Jewish neighborhood because he might get killed by an accountant?” 

Mason’s act is based on the theory that people laugh together if they have a shared experience or emotion. Whether this affinity happens to be based on stereotypes doesn’t matter. His audience loves the insults, the outrageousness, the rapid-fire jokes, the Jewish accent, the Yiddish words and, most of all, the subject matter they feel a part of.

In evaluating Mason, it is helpful to look at Lenny Bruce, who died in 1966 and has today, unfortunately, gained a reputation as the Eddie Murphy of his time because of his use of obscenities. But Bruce was one of the most perceptive comedians of his generation. A keen political satirist, he was also an observer of the human condition, of people and cultures and particularly of the differences between Jews and gentiles: 

I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai B’rith is goyish. Hadassah, Jewish. If you live in New York or any other big city you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish. Kool-Aid is goyish. Evaporated milk is goyish even if the Jews invented it … Lime Jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish. All Drake’s Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish and, as you know, white bread is very goyish …

Although Bruce grew up on Long Island, completely assimilated, and changed his name (from Leonard Schneider), he was eager to confront his Jewishness when he performed. He loved using Yiddish, which he learned from another New York comic. When the police would stand in front of the stage and wait for him to swear so they could arrest him, Bruce would begin swearing in Yiddish. Presumably there were no bilingual police officers. 

Bruce was also one of the first to include “Jewish” material before audiences that were not exclusively Jewish. “Christians are lucky, because your God, the Christian God, is all over,” he said. “He’s on rocks, he saves you, he’s dying on bank buildings—he’s been in three films. He’s on crucifixes all over. It’s a story you can follow. The Jewish God—where is the Jewish God? He’s on a little box nailed to the door jamb. In a mezuzah … I told the super, don’t paint God!” 

Brace’s routines, as well as those of other Jewish comedians, frequently have drawn criticism from parts of the Jewish community who feel threatened by the comedic commentary on Jewish culture and values. And this is the kind of criticism Jackie Mason is hearing today.

Pointing out the warts and the idiosyncrasies of Jewish life through satire and stereotype is a role that should be reserved for the anti-Semites, these critics say. But Mason and a host of other comics like him are not self-hating Jews. Rather, they are proud of the characteristics that differentiate Jew from gentile. Instead of hiding the differences, Mason laughs out loud at them. 

“Jews somehow think that if it’s Jewish it’s got no class,” he says.”Why do you think that in Miami everybody is named Goldberg or Horowitz, but every building they live in is called the ‘Condominium of the la tres de la mer?’ “

Veteran comic actor Jack Gilford, who has starred in movies like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Cocoon and made comedy record albums like “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish,” marvels at the success of Mason’s show. Although he finds it extremely funny, Gilford said in a recent interview that much of Mason’s material was just “polite anti-Semitism. Twenty-five years ago it couldn’t have been done anywhere but the Catskills or the clubs.” The difference, he noted, is that today people accept making fun of themselves. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that people respond with greater sensitivity to jokes that directly affect them. A religious Jew will be more offended by jokes attacking beliefs sacred to her or him than less religious Jews who might enjoy the same jokes. Likewise, the more observant might find jokes about Reform Jews to be more their cup of borscht. Thus the popularity of stories like the one about the three Reform rabbis who are bragging about who has the most progressive temple: The first notes that his has ashtrays in the pews so that the congregants can smoke during the Torah reading. The second tops him, saying that his temple serves ham sandwiches during Yom Kippur. “Not bad,” says the third rabbi, “but in our temple, when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come around, we just put up a big sign: ‘Closed for the Holidays.’ ” It’s fun to poke fun at rabbis, but not if you’re in their congregation. 

Ironically, it is probably the less observant Jews that most enjoy the Jewishness of Jewish jokes. It remains a source of recognition and pride in their religious upbringing and culture. Moreover, it is a way for them to maintain identification with the community without the accompanying religious baggage, a way to mock a part of the culture with which they do not feel completely comfortable. 

An important factor in the success of Jackie Mason and the appeal of Jewish jokes is the delivery. Jewish jokes must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. A story from Leo Rosten vividly points this out: 

During a gigantic celebration in Red Square, after Trotsky had been sent into exile, Stalin, standing on Lenin’s tomb, suddenly and excitedly raised his hand to still the acclamations: “Comrades, comrades! A most historic event! A cablegram—of congratulations from Trotsky!” 

The hordes cheered and Stalin read the historic cable aloud:

JOSEPH STALIN

KREMLIN, MOSCOW

YOU WERE RIGHT AND I WAS WRONG. YOU ARE THE TRUE HEIR  OF LENIN. I SHOULD APOLOGIZE.

TROTSKY

You can imagine how the crowd exploded in astonishment and triumph. But in the front row, below the podium, a little tailor called Stalin over and whispered to him: “Such a message, Comrade Stalin. For the ages! But you read it without the right feeling.” Whereupon Stalin raised his hand and stilled the crowd. ‘ ‘Comrades! Here is a simple worker, a loyal Communist, who says I haven’t read the message from Trotsky with enough feeling! Come, Comrade worker. Up here! You read this historic communication!” Whereupon the tailor cleared his throat and read:

JOSEPH STALIN

KREMLIN, MOSCOW

YOU WERE RIGHT AND I WAS WRONG? YOU ARE THE TRUE HEIR OF LENIN? / SHOULD APOLOGIZE??!!..

TROTSKY!

Jackie Mason is also much funnier in person than on paper. His fast-talking, yeshiva-bocher chanting and sing-song delivery, his Eastern Ashkenazi English accent, his gestures, facial expressions and intonations all add vital elements to his jokes. 

There is something particularly humorous about a Jewish accent or dialect in jokes. From Billy Crystal to Robin Williams to the grandfather of them all, Mel Brooks’ “2,000-Year-Old Man,” the Jewish accent has become a standard. Mel Brooks sees the Jewish accent as a way to preserve a fading culture. “Within a couple of decades there won’t be any more accents like that. They’re being ironed out by history, because there are no more Jewish immigrants. It’s the sound I was brought up on, and it’s dying.” Frequently the accent itself gets the laughs and not what is being said. As Jack Gilford points out, “I can talk in Jewish dialect for an hour and get laughs every few seconds. The Jew with the dialect, who is not quite American, can say almost anything and it will come out humorous.” 

At the same time, Yiddish is one of the best ways to express ideas and feelings for which there are no fitting English words. Thus, the story of the doctor who goes to deliver the baby of a wealthy, assimilated Jewish matron. The doctor suggests to the husband that they wait in the other room and play cards, since it is not yet time. After a while the woman’s cries reach the men. “Ah, mon Dieu, comme je suffre!” The husband jumps up, but the obstetrician reassures him: “That’s nothing; let’s play on.” A little while later the woman in labor is heard again. “My God, what pains!” Again the husband rises to go in. The physician says, “No , it is not time yet.” At last there comes from the room the cry “Ai, Ax, Oy vey ist mir!” The doctor quickly throws down the cards saying, “Now it’s time.” 

Mason learned early in life the importance of holding an audience. Born into a family of rabbis, he seemed destined to follow in their path. While delivering sermons, however, he “started to tell a few jokes to make it more palatable. As the jokes got better I started to charge a cover and a minimum.” And, he says, “pretty soon I was the only rabbi with a gentile congregation.” 

Perhaps it was natural for him to go into comedy. After all, a good many of his co-religionists did. From Woody Allen to Alan King, from Morey Amsterdam to Zero Mostel, from the Marx Brothers to the Ritz Brothers, Jews have disproportionately dominated the field. A character in the movie My Favorite Tear noted that Jews know two things: suffering and where to find good Chinese food. Add to that, comedy. 

Where does Jackie Mason fit into the range of Jewish comedy as diverse as Gene Wilder and the Three Stooges? In fact, what qualifies something as Jewish humor? Should a Jewish joke be based in Jewish history? Does it have to be told by a Jew? Or does it just have to be told with a Jewish accent? 

Someone once suggested that a Jewish joke is a joke that no guy can understand and every Jew says he has already heard. A more serious analysis, suggested by Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, makes the division between “Jewish humor” and “Jew jokes.” The former category includes more culturally and socially relevant humor, while the latter is made up of more stereotypical and less sophisticated jokes. “Real” Jewish humor, says Waldoks, represents “the last vestiges of Jewish popular culture. It fulfills the historic Jewish pursuit of the oral transmission of history.” Jews have salvaged a great deal of wit and wisdom out of their historical wanderings. As psychoanalyst Theodore Reik noted in his book Jewish Wit, it may be easier to get the Jews out of the Exile than the exile out of the Jews.

But Jewish humor is also a source of pride and identity. It is what Professor Stephen Whitfield of Brandeis University termed “one of the dominating threads of memory and group consciousness, a style that disarmingly proclaims that ‘we’ are still different from ‘them.’ For even the most assimilated Jew, Jewish humor can be an anchor not only to his history, but to the essence—stereotyped or not—of his culture and religion, his community and social life. Thus the popularity of jokes like: ‘How many Zionists does it take to replace a light bulb? Four—one to stay home and convince someone else to do it, a second to donate the bulb, a third to screw it in, and a fourth to proclaim that the entire Jewish people stands behind their actions.’ “

Jewish humor is about the Jewish condition: the culture, the pain, the joy, the family and any baggage that goes along with it. It is a humor often associated with what Freud called “mishpochitis,” from the Yiddish word for “family.” It is a quality that is difficult to describe succinctly but easy to identify. When someone says that the only Jewish holiday they observe is violinist Jascha Heifetz’s birthday, we sense it is both Jewish and funny. Likewise, characters like Leo Rosten’s fictional hard-boiled detective, Silky (Sidney Pincus), have this quality:

‘Your Dog! .. . A schnauzer?’

‘No, a mamzer . . . Izzy, kum avek fun ihr . . . He don’t understand English, Miss Marsh. I know, I know: He don’t look Jewish. That’s because he’s looking at you straight on . . . He won’t touch food if it ain’t kosher. He’s gone ape for chopped liver.’

“Good” Jewish humor is immediately distinguishable. This may be simply because the comedian takes material from his own past; a past that, like Jackie Mason’s, often has a familiar ring to it. 

Comedian Robert Klein has fashioned much of his humor from his own background. Once, as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman,” he showed movies from his bar mitzvah, the highlight of which was a Ferris wheel centerpiece made out of toothpicks and pickled herring. “You waited for the fish you wanted to come down,” he explained, “then you picked him out of the seat and ate him.” 

Woody Allen is another who parodies and exaggerates his experiences and culture to create comedy. For instance, he relates that “I once won two weeks at an interfaith boarding camp, where I was sadistically beaten by kids of all races and colors.” Another time he got a job where he was paid to look Jewish. But he got fired for taking off too many Jewish holidays. And when his character in “Hannah and Her Sisters” is thinking of converting to Catholicism, in preparation he buys white bread and mayonnaise. 

Much of Allen’s humor stems from his juxtaposition of the mighty with the commonplace; the mensch with the nudnick. For instance, his parents’ values were “God and carpeting.” But Allen, like Max Shulman and S.J. Perelman before him, is aware that humor often parodies profundity. Compare Allen’s own writings—”Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage”—with a real religious parable—”A boy asks Rabbi Mendel Kotzker, ‘Where does God live?’ The rabbi answers, ‘Wherever He is admitted.’ “

Allen’s debt to the Jewish intellectual and religious tradition is extensive. In Annie Hall he cracked that two Jewish intellectual magazines Dissent and Commentary had merged and formed Dissentary. His college courses were in Truth, Beauty and Advanced Truth and Beauty. This, before he was expelled for cheating on a metaphysics final: He looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to him.

Much of Jewish humor makes fun of intellectual traditions, perhaps because Jews have always been so disproportionately represented in these activities. Even Jackie Mason is acknowledging the historical Jewish emphasis on intellectual pursuits over mechanical ability when he says that Jews can’t fix things. “Every gentile home is a workshop. Every Jewish house is a museum . . . Jews can’t even fix a car. A gentile car breaks down and they’re under the car right away. A Jewish car breaks down and you always hear the same thing. ‘It stopped.’ And the wife says, ‘it’s your fault.’ ” 

Mason credits much of Jewish humor to the need “to battle back from persecution.” Some psychoanalysts, including Freud, go so far as to say that Jewish jokes are often masochistic, in an effort to deflect the danger from persecutors. As psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn wrote, “You do not need to attack us. We can do that ourselves, and even better.” Even Albert Einstein realized the unique consequences of being a Jew: “If my theory is proven correct,” he said, “Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.” 

For some, the line between satire and self-hatred is crossed more often than it is for others. These differences explain why some Jews love Mel Brooks and others are embarrassed by antics like dancing Nazis that are part of his movies. It is why some adore novelist Philip Roth and others shun him.

But even Roth, who has often been labeled the bad-boy of Jewish writing since Portnoy uttered his first dirty word, has written, “I have always been far more pleased by my good fortune in being born a Jew than my critics may begin to imagine. It’s a complicated, interesting, morally demanding and very singular experience, and I like that.”

One type of humor which seems to have crossed the line is the Jewish American Princess (JAP) joke. You have probably heard at least one: Q,—”What does a JAP make for dinner?” A—”Reservations.” 

Originally confined to places like Long Island, these jokes, and the term JAP, have disseminated throughout the nation. What began as a simple, even fond, stereotype of the pampered Jewish daughter, and had its roots in novels like Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Momingstar and Philip Roth‘s Goodbye, Columbus, has become, according to some, a real source of anti-Semitism and anti-feminism.

The concern is so great that in recent months conferences have been held by the American Jewish Committee and on college campuses across the country. The subject has been featured in The Washington Post and TheJVew York Times, on National Public Radio and “Donahue,” with activists protesting things like “Slap-a-JAP” T-shirts.

Even some of the most famous Jewish comediennes, like Joan Rivers (nee Joan Molinsky), use “JAP jokes” in their acts, in self-parody. Other female Jewish comics, such as Gilda Radner and Elaine May, do not. 

May, who is known for her comedy routines with director Mike Nichols, is also a talented writer who uses the warmth and idiosyncrasies of her culture as a source of comedy. In the recent, highly underrated movie, Ishtar, which was written and directed by May, there is a funny routine in which the very gentile character played by Warren Beatty gets mad at someone and calls him a “smuck.” His companion, the more worldly character played by Dustin Hoffman, then attempts to teach him the proper way to say “schmuck.” 

Mason’s use of JAP jokes doesn’t seem to stand out in his act as it does in Rivers’ because these jokes are merely part of the plethora of jokes based on stereotypes that form his repertoire. While not a particularly sophisticated form of humor, stereotypes and parodies have always been an essential part of comedy. The question we cannot answer is, will this be all that is left of Jewish humor? 

The world of comedy today is more vibrant and more sophisticated than it was 25 years ago. These changes make Jackie Mason’s success even more surprising. The proliferation of comedy clubs affords the rising comic the chance to display and hone his or her skills, much the same as the Catskills once did. Now, when a comedian makes it, the possibilities are limitless. Robert Klein hosts a cable television show. Comedian David Steinberg has his own production company, which makes television commercials. This, from another rabbi’s son. 

Even Mason has taken leave from his show to make films, just as fellow Jewish comics Rodney Danger-field, Albert Brooks and Billy Crystal, to name just a few, have done. In fact, in a recent announcement, director Billy Wilder said that he is considering remaking his movie, One, Two, Three, with Jackie Mason in the role that James Cagney had in what was Cagney’s last part before his comeback in Ragtime. 

And what about those left behind in the trenches of stand-up comedy? According to Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City, generally considered to be one of the top clubs in the country, many of today’s young comedians still are Jewish. It’s just that, with some exceptions, most of their material is not.

Like Judaism itself, Jewish humor has been affected by modernization, assimilation and acculturation. Moshe Waldoks has labeled it the parevization of Jewish humor. He jokes that now, when he does a show for younger audiences, he has to explain to them that “nachas is not a cheese chip.” 

But Jewish humor, even in a distilled form, will remain one of the most succinct methods of transmitting history and culture. Comedians like Jackie Mason, our social commentators and tummlers, will carry on the tradition, making some laugh while offending others. There will always be those who worry about the dangers of Jewish humor dying out and there will be others who worry only about the dangers of Jewish humor.

At the end of Mason’s show, gentiles in the audience come up to him to tell him how funny he was. “And you know what the Jews will say?” he asks, “Too Jewish.”

Top photo: Comedian Jackie Mason in 2006. Credit Wikimedia.

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