If you ever visit Wisconsin, whose motto is bizarrely just ‘Forward’, make sure you take a drive to Sheboygan.
Sheboygan has a history that includes being the ancient home of Native American tribes like the Potawatomi, Ottawa, Winnebago, and Menominee. And, the Chippewa, who gave Sheboygan its name. Well, actually, they called it Shawb-wa-way-kum, but, hey, settlers.
It was also the last refuge of the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown people, after the Americans decided to trick them from their homes and put them somewhere else where they didn’t want to be.
Once the tribes had given up living, migrants from other parts of the United States, and escapees from the Irish famine, from German repression and Dutch anti-Protestantism, and from far-flung Slovenia, moved in to Sheboygan, many taking up lumbering, the felling and processing of trees, not the slow-moving, awkward bumbling shuffle around town.
One people who couldn’t settle in Sheboygan in the nineteenth century were African Americans, because Sheboys (which is only a guess, because Sheboygan doesn’t seem to have a demonym) decided to ban people of color in 1887.
Anyway, by the 1920s, Sheboygan was a far more multicultural town of around thirty-thousand souls, including a thriving Jewish population, with synagogues, hazzans, bagels, Volvos, and rabbis.
One such rabbi was Rabbi Eli Maza, born in Minsk, now the eleventh most populous city in Europe, and capital of Belarus, who led his congregation with enthusiasm, philosophical sermons, and just a little humor.
And, it’s here that this story begins.
Because Rabbi Maza had a son, also destined to be a rabbi, as had his grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather, and who’s name was Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza, though he changed it for the stage, to Jackie Mason.
For his time, Mason, who stood one meter sixty-five centimetres, and had a career that spanned sixty-six years, was a giant of comedy.
But it didn’t start with comedy, it started with the Torah.
At the age of five, Rabbi Maza moved his family to Manhattan, New York City, so his sons could celebrate Jewish religious life at a yeshiva school, and maintain Yiddish as their first language. During holidays, Mason went to work as a busboy, a restaurant worker who sets tables, removes used plates, and supports the wait staff, in the Catskill Mountains, where Jewish families would often spend warm summer nights with friends, family, and a host of Jewish comedians whose culturally-rich humor they could absolutely relate to.
He recalled that in ‘twenty minutes, at the Pearl Lake Hotel, I broke all the dishes. [So] they made me a lifeguard.’ He mentioned he couldn’t swim, and was told to keep schtum.
Eventually, Mason graduated with a degree in English and sociology, and became a cantor, a prayer leader, before receiving semikhah, and finally being ordained as a rabbi, along with his three brothers. It was as a rabbi that Mason realized his calling wasn’t bending over and following the first five books of the Hebrew bible with a yad, but being funny.
‘I started telling more and more jokes,’ he said, ‘and after a while, a lot of gentiles would come to the congregation just to hear the sermons,’ and so, he resigned his post as a rabbi to become a comedian at the age of thirty.
‘Somebody in the family had to make a living,’ he said, and he did.
Beginning on the famous Borscht Circuit in New York as a recreation director, Mason wrote most of his own material, delivering his gags rapidly, with one joke flowing into the next, in what was described as ‘contagious rampaging surrealism’, as the groundswell of audience laughter gathered and rose.
After refusing to change his thick Yiddish accent when the William Morris Agency suggested he do so, because he sounded, one critic said, like ‘an immigrant who just completed a course in English. By mail’, he went on to insult as many people as possible, including the Beatles, who he quite accurately described as ‘four kids in search of a voice who needed haircuts’.
He performed on all the big shows across every network in the United States, appearing on The Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show, The Perry Como Show, and The Dean Martin Show, earning as much as $85,000 a week (in 2021 value), but also never being far from controversy.