Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Jackie and Rav Moshe - a Lesson for Our Time

Jackie Mason (center) his wife (left) (Jewish Press)
Much like many other people I know, I too have guilty pleasures. A guilty pleasure is defined as taking enjoyment from something that might be considered inappropriate. One of those for me was the late Jackie Mason who passed away recently at age 93. I used to laugh hysterically at his comedy routines. Which mostly made fun of everything – especially his (our) own people, the Jewish people. While his brand of humor was politically incorrect (to put it mildly), it was impossible not to laugh at all of his onstage antics. 

What made him so objectionable to his co-religionists of the Orthodox persuasion is the fact that he was the classic Shana U’Pirush – a Jew who had studied the Torah, knew what Judaism s is all about and then abandoned it. These are people that we should not look to for entertainment. Much less giving him our approval by attending their comedy concerts. Doing so might be considered tantamount to approval some might say. With a degree of validity. Which is why I consider attending Jackie Mason comedy concerts and thoroughly enjoying his humor - a guilty pleasure. 

But is it as simple as that? If Jew is a Shana U’Pirush should we shun them? I think the answer is no.  At least that seems to be how the person that gave him Semicha felt. For those who don’t know, that person was Rav Moshe Feinstein, considered by many to be the Gadol HaDor at the time of his passing in 1986. (I recall asking Jackie that at one of his performances and he corroborated it, and asked me how I knew. I told him that was the rumor folating around Frum circles those days.) 

Jackie was a member of an illustrious family of Talmidei Chachomim. Some people considered his father to be one of the Gedolim of his generation. To the best of my knowledge the entire rest of his family was – not only observant - but Charedi.

After Jackie got Semicha he became the rabbi of a Shul using his tremendous talent at humor during his Shabbos Drashos. He was so funny that his reputation extended far beyond the walls of his Shul and he started attracting non Jews to his drahshos . 

He eventually quit the Shul and began his career as a comedian. (Not sure at which point he abandoned observance – but it was probably about that time or shortly after.)  Somehow the late Ed Sullivan had heard about him and booked him on his vafeirty show. Which at the time was one of the most widely watched programs on TV. 

That gave Jackie instant fame which lasted until Sullivan misconstrued a gesture Jackie made on his show as obscene. And never booked him again. That ended his fame and fortune for the moment. But not his career. 

He continued performing at smaller venues to  smaller crowds. Eventually Broadway rediscovered him and gave him his own show. It became one of the most successful shows Broadway ever had to that date. Once again achieving - and even surpassing the success that eluded him for so many years. 

Although I’m sure Jackie enjoyed his massive success, he knew how he stood in the Orthodox Jewish community that was once his home. But he never returned. He remained a Shana U’Peirush to the end of his life. 

I recall an interview he had with Babara Walters at the peak of his success on Broadway. She asked him if he thought his late father would have been proud. He answered by saying the one thing he was absolutely sure of was that his father would definitely not have been proud. 

What might be interesting to know is that Jackie’s abandonment of observance did not include abandoning his former community About 25years ago I recall an Avreich in the Mir telling me that Jackie supported all of many his nephews in Kollel. One of whom was a friend of that Avreich’s in the Mir at the time. 

What I did not know, however, is that he maintained his relationship with Rav Moshe. A very positive one, it appears. That is what he told Rabbi Moshe Taub, a Charedi Rabbi in New York who managed to score an interview with him last May, a few months before his (Jackie’s) death. From Rabbi Taub’s interview as reported in the Jewish Press:  

“Tell me, do you recall Rabbi Moshe Feinstein?”

“Sure! He was my rebbe…he gave me semicha.”

“Do you still have the semicha, that paper?”


“Tell me about Rav Moshe.”

He shared how Rav Moshe loved him, always stopping during his shiur to smile at him as Rav Moshe would then laugh and say, “Nu, Yaakov Moshe, nu?” as if asking the young student if he enjoyed the novel insight.

“But tell me more about him.”

“He always smiled when I walked into a room. He loved everyone.”

Still trying to get a sense of their relationship, I gently pushed, “That is so special, but tell me, what was he like?”

“Do you know what the word anav means?” Jackie Mason asked. I nodded and he continued, “Well, that was Rabbi Feinstein. He was the most modest man, and he had every reason not to be.”

Finally, I asked the question I’ve been saving until the end.

“When was the last time you saw Rav Moshe?”

I would have assumed it was in the 1950s or 1960s, soon after he left that world.

Before answering, he asked, “Remind me, when did Rav Moshe pass away?”


Thinking for a moment, he then said, “So, the last time I saw him was around 1983 or 1984.”

He went on to explain that he visited Rav Moshe frequently, never losing his respect and love for the gadol.

“You know his son and my friend Dovid, who was just niftar?” he asked, referring to Rav Dovid Feinstein. “Up until a few years ago we talked on the phone a few times a year. He would call me, and sometimes I would call him.”

I was then surprised to hear myself ask him, “What did you speak about with Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Dovid while you were this famous celebrity comic? Did they plead with you to return?”

“Just love. They only showed me love.”

Jackie Mason then looked me dead in the eye and said the following three words:

“Oheiv es chaveiro [love your friend/fellow Jew] – that is what they represented.”

One must be a pikayach (shrewd) to recognize each person’s needs and what will keep them close or turn them away. Rav Moshe loved Torah more than life itself, yet was able to bite his tongue if he felt it was a moment for love, affection, and warmth.

I am willing to bet that no one would have expected a Shana U’Pirush like Jackie Mason to remain on good terms with his former Rebbe. Let alone with someone like R’ Moshe. 

I am certainly not in a position to judge R’ Yaakov Moshe HaKohen Maza. I have no clue why he went OTD. But if I were to be Dan L’Kav Zechus, I would say the following. Judaism has a very positive view of humor, As the Gemara in Taanis (22a) indicates, people that cheer up the depressed through laughter are destined for the world to come. If nothing else, Jackie Mason made people laugh better than  anyone I know. That has to be worth a lot.