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Comedian Jackie Mason—Who Turns 82 Sunday—Is Still Really, Really Funny

But in an in-depth interview with Tablet Magazine, he also gets serious about Israel, anti-Semitism, and why Italians love him

David Evanier
June 06, 2013
Jackie Mason in Times Square, New York, December, 1990.(Mark Lennihan/AP)
Jackie Mason in Times Square, New York, December, 1990.(Mark Lennihan/AP)

I met Jackie Mason for the first time a few months ago at the kosher Great American Health Bar on West 57th Street in Manhattan. My friend Mike Fiorito went up to him and told him a joke. “What kind of a shmuck tells me a joke?” Mason said. I introduced myself and gave him my card. A month later he called me. We’ve been shmoozing together ever since.

Mason looks like his pictures from 20 years ago, with black hair and sad, alert eyes. He is intelligent, youthful, and nimble and strides across the street without looking right or left. Usually, he doesn’t have to. Wherever he goes, he is a conspicuous celebrity. Every time we walk down a Manhattan street together, he is greeted like a rock star by scores of people from all ethnic groups who go crazy at the sight of him. They run up to him and embrace him. Before he was 25, Mason left the hearth in Sheboygan, Wisc., and made his way to the Catskills, where he became an overnight sensation. He has remained a star in a much broader arena ever since.

What does it mean to you to be a Jew?

It means that the chances are you are going to be a more intelligent person, and you’ll have more decency, and you’ll help people whether they deserve it or not. And no matter what crime any person from any denomination commits, somehow you’ll always convince yourself it’s your fault.

Why have you stayed so identifiably Jewish in your accent and your subject matter?

I didn’t emphasize my Jewishness because I wanted to. I just happen to have been raised in a family where everybody happened to talk like this, so why would I talk like somebody else? And it’s not true that my act is about Judaism. It sounds like Judaism, but my act is about all kinds of people, but because I sound so Jewish, people are too stupid to separate the sound from the substance.

How did you become attracted to comedy?

I became attracted to it because I was a rabbi. And I started to tell jokes in my sermons.

As everybody told me how funny I was, I said to myself: I’ll try it. And I also didn’t want to get up at eight o’clock in the morning. Come the summertime, I found out that all the Jews went to the Catskill Mountains for the summer, and it would be more fun to go to the Catskills than do what I was doing. And while I was there, I saw I could get a job there. Everybody who was going to college was paying for tuition by working as a busboy or a waiter there. So, I said I’ll do that too. It was a way to make a living. I started as a busboy, but I stunk as a busboy because the dishes were very heavy to carry. They kept flopping out of my hands. The boss came over to me. He liked me because I was a character on the grounds; I was funny to the people, and everybody was enjoying me. So, he didn’t want to lose me altogether. So, he said to me, “Would you like to be a lifeguard?” I said to him, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t swim too good.” “Do you swim at all?” I said, “Very little.” He said, “You don’t have to tell anybody. Nobody has to know. Keep your mouth shut.” So, I became a lifeguard. It started to become known among the guests that I couldn’t swim, and it became the big joke of the place. Everybody threatened to push me into the pool. People started to tell jokes about it: “Hey, my kid can’t swim. Do you want to be responsible? It’s going to be your problem if he drowns.”

Then they started to have amateur nights. Anybody could get up and entertain. Now they call them “Open Mike” or “Karaoke.” So, then I told all the jokes about being a lifeguard. I said, “I want to warn everybody here. If you can’t swim, be careful. If you go into the pool, you’ll be endangering your life and you’ll also be endangering the life of the lifeguard.” Those were the jokes I was telling. Then I started to play other hotels because I was a hit there as a comedian. I got $25. Very quickly I started to move up from the small hotels to the middle hotels to the very top hotels. By the time the season was over I was playing Grossinger’s and the Concord. In one season, I went from $25 a show to $135 a show.

Did you take notes for your comedy, or was it directly out of experience?

It was out of experience; I’m not going to lie to you. But I didn’t just walk on the stage of the Concord and take a chance of just telling a joke. I was thinking all day about ideas for comedy. I didn’t write down much of it, but I gave myself notes and lines and ideas in my head. I figured out a routine, and I worked on it to perfect it.

Do you feel out an audience?

Every comedian feels out an audience. As you’re telling jokes if they’re not laughing at this, you change the subject. Don’t you do that in a conversation? An intelligent conversationalist doesn’t sit there and watch the guy fall asleep.

Have you experienced much anti-Semitism in your life?

I did 45 years ago, but I haven’t in the last 30 because the Gentiles in America have changed from looking down at a Jew 40 years ago to looking up to a Jew today. They used to condescend to a Jew; now they apologize to me for not being a Jew. They say their sister-in-law is a Jew, they’re married to a Jew, they’re trying to move into a Jewish neighborhood, they want to be a Jew. The only anti-Semitism that I suffer from today is from Jews.

Would you agree that you have never really been a “Catskill, borscht belt” comedian? Whitney Balliett in his profile of you in The New Yorker in 1988 said that your comedy is “contagious, rampaging surrealism. It immediately lifts [your comedy] from its purposed level of Catskills comedy (which it has never been anyway) to that giddy plane where W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers sport.”

Your question is based on the preposterous, popular assumption that Catskills comedy is either crude, simple, or lowbrow. Actually the opposite is true. It comes from the embarrassment that the Jewish people always felt about being the refugee without status: an outsider and an imposter who never quite belonged in America. I don’t think of it as a compliment when people say I’m not a mountains comic. I started as a Catskills mountain comedian, and if people would understand what that means, they would see why I’m proud of it.

Can you explain why you’re proud of it?

I’m proud of it because it is a reflection of the culture and the character of the Jews as a people. Jewish behavior, Jewish values, Jewish attitudes, everything about the world, the life of the Jew is encapsulated in this kind of comedy. Comedy is only an exaggeration of the truth. And it reflected the basic characteristics of the Jewish personality. So, you saw all the different elements, why and how Jews behave as they do in this country. Comedy doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a basis of truth in it. Because you wouldn’t laugh at it if you didn’t recognize yourself or your neighbor in it. I’ll tell you a secret. It doesn’t have to be profound to be funny. It doesn’t have to be original to be funny. It’s just funny. My comedy became popular because people in general identify with it. They feel that I’m basically talking about them, and I’m reflecting on their lives; it’s a kind of a mirror of their behavior. Not only that, it’s a commentary on it, an evaluation of their behavior. Comedy has a point of view and basically, you can see what I think of it by the way I express it, by the attitudes of the comedy I find in it. That’s why it becomes a kind of social or psychological commentary. When I talk about the obsession with luxuries that some Jews have, that tells you very much about their whole personality problem: desperation for identity, for status, for position. He is involved in a contest with everybody around him to prove that he’s achieved more than the next person. And the best way he can prove he’s more successful than you is by what he buys, what he owns. And how expensive it is. That’s why Jewish people very often buy a thing for 10 times the money that everybody else thinks it’s worth. They can’t even figure out why they bought it. But because it’s expensive they’re anxious to pay for it to prove to themselves they can afford it and prove to you that they can buy it. That tells you more about a person’s personality than a hundred books. This is the way they achieve respect. If I can buy a $5,000 pocketbook, I suddenly become more successful than you through the pocketbook. What they can afford has become more important than anything else about their behavior. They have two problems. First they have to buy it. Then they have to figure out how to make sure you know it. That’s why Jewish jackets can be 10 times louder than Gentile jackets; that’s why their cars are 10 times longer.

And you came out of a very different tradition when you grew up.

I came from a religious family. I was so absorbed with religion that I didn’t think about material things. We weren’t involved with Jewish contests, with status. There was no status among the Orthodox Jews. How can you judge a person as more successful because he has a more expensive car? A fancier jacket? A bigger apartment? A nameplate on the shoes? You judge a person by how far they went scholastically, if he or she became a philosopher, a thinker, a writer, an artist, a scientist. A grand rabbi. They don’t wait to see his shorts or his shirts. Look at this new pope: how humble he is. He’s already made himself popular.

You were a big hit at the Oxford Union and in the English parliament. You have had an endowment Chair in Judaic and Hebraic Studies at Oxford University for the past 20 years. You have a radio show in England that is top-rated among intellectuals. And you are widely loved in Ireland. You say that you are even more popular in these countries than in America. Why is this the case? Can you talk about your experiences in these countries and how you feel about it?

Whenever you hear an English accent, in your mind you elevate the person to a higher level of intelligence. Because immediately you think you’re talking to Shakespeare. And you’re very honored that an Englishman respects you, because you feel he comes from a higher culture, a finer level of scholarship. He has some kind of a unique education that you can’t identify, but you somehow think it’s on a higher level than yours; you don’t know why. A guy could be a murderer but he says he kills people with an English accent and you can’t believe he killed somebody, because he sounds too cultured to do anything wrong. That’s a better mask than a mask. And ironically they don’t think of Americans as more highly educated than they are.

But they envy Americans because America is such an all-encompassing country and the center of all the popular culture in the world. The English are considered the most cultured people, but the most popular culture is the American culture. It’s ironic that while we worship the British for having Shakespeare and Dickens and what we think of as the great scholars of the world, the operas of the world, everything that represents high culture, the fact of the matter is that we’re 10 times more popular than they are. Cultured people know that they’re speaking to a limited audience. And when they see something that’s universally popular, they can’t help envying it. It’s a big thing to be a star on the stage in England. But the biggest star’s dream is to be a big star in America. In America we don’t dream of being a star in England. I never heard of an American prizefighter, an American actor, a baseball player, anybody, saying that his greatest dream is that he should captivate Leeds. No, what bothers him is that he never played Madison Square Garden.

As to the Oxford Union and the English parliament: Because the British envy America, they enjoy seeing an American character like me. And I represented America to them. And Jewish. A Jewish New Yorker is a colorful interesting novelty to them, because they think of it as some kind of exotica. It becomes an experience. It’s like going to the circus: You see tricks you never saw before. And this is a trick they know they can’t see in England. So, I saved them a trip to America by coming to them, and they got a kick out of it as soon as I said “Hello.” Before I went over, everyone thought I would bomb. Because they couldn’t imagine it. Since Americans have an inferiority complex toward England since they see it as the culture capital and we’re supposed to be the street corner capital. So, they all felt the British would look down on me, they wouldn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I felt they were full of crap because all I knew was that whenever I spoke to an Englishman, he laughed.

When you went over you were that sure it would work?

I felt positive of it, right. What were the most popular sitcoms in America? The blacks. But it took them 50 years to get on television with a black sitcom because the executives thought whites would never identify with a black family situation or black characters in their own world. They thought it was a different world from the whites and they would never understand it or enjoy it. And it was exactly the opposite. Because it was so different was the reason they liked it so much. They thought the opposite. It was a stupid supposition to start with.

Tell me about your experiences going to Israel during the Gulf War. I know you almost got killed. Why did you go? What were the soldiers’ reactions?

The Jews were all nervous and scared about what might happen because nobody was able to predict the level of danger that would be involved. All they knew was that the Arabs had scud missiles that could come down at any time and place. The Israelis had some kind of system that was supposed to intercept and block these missiles. But we didn’t know how effective they would be and what would happen to the country. There was a real fear that they could wipe out the whole state of Israel. Everybody in Israel got panicky, and a lot of people started leaving the country. When I took the plane coming in, the plane was packed with people coming out. And when I told the Israelis I was coming, they looked at me like I was a maniac. They didn’t know if I was such a great patriot or just a nutcase. The Israeli embassy initially discouraged me from going. Because they couldn’t imagine someone coming into Israel at a time like that. But I was insistent. I felt it was a moral obligation for a Jew to show support at a time like that when the fate of the state was imperiled.

When we arrived, I was surprised: I thought no one would notice my arrival during a time of war. But I was treated like a hero: Generals, admirals, colonels, representatives of the whole government, the mayor of Tel Aviv; all kinds of people in the highest echelons of the government congratulated me and said how much they appreciated my coming there at a time like that. They were obviously very surprised.

You were the only star to come over?

Yes. The moment the press conference started, a scud hit the building nearby. People got killed. They pulled us upstairs to safety. Although there was no such thing as safety; nobody knew what building would get bombed. Every night the bombs went off around 5 or 6 o’clock. Everybody would run out of the dining room and never pay a check. During the day they took me around to visit the troops and army generals. They had the situation room at the Tel Aviv Hilton with the IDF giving briefings on the scuds and the battles. I got the briefings first.

What was it like entertaining the troops?

Just like you saw Bob Hope doing it before the army camps. They laugh before you tell the jokes. They were more anxious to show their appreciation than they even cared about the jokes. So, they were applauding to let me know how happy they were to see me and how thrilled they were that I came to them.

Were you secretly afraid the Israelis might lose?

Never. It never entered my mind. Nobody in Israel was afraid of that. They were just concerned about the uncertainty, the fear of gas missiles, the scuds. Everybody was desperately worried about that. They never thought it would destroy Israel, but they didn’t know where the hell they would fall. Everybody was waiting to hear the sirens. Everybody in Israel had a gas mask. They knew you had to jump out of the way.

Ariel Sharon was the housing minister then. You went to visit him?

He was always crazy about me. We had often spoken about Israeli politics. His opinions of everything. He always confided in me; it was off-the-cuff conversations. So, we go visit him. It was in the afternoon. We had our gas masks and everything. I met with Uri Dan and Sharon and we kibbitzed. I said to my wife Jyll, “We’re probably safest here with Sharon.” So, I said to Sharon, “If there’s an attack, where do we go for safety?” Sharon said, “What do you mean, ‘where do you go?’ ” I said, “Don’t you go somewhere?” Sharon said no. Like he was saying, “If I get killed, I get killed.” It didn’t seem to bother him. There was no safety where he was. No protection of any kind. The house wasn’t a fortress, no tanks or guns. You just saw a Jew in a little building, like an accountant in a little office. He admitted to me if a missile struck, we’d be wiped out in a second. I said other people had all kinds of precautions. He said, “I don’t.” I said, “Then what the hell am I sitting here for?” If he could get killed, who’s going to save me?

How long were you there?

Ten days.

So, you had a tremendous impact.

I would say if it were not for me, they would have lost the war! They were about to lose until I showed up. The whole general staff kept asking me every single day, “What do you think we should do about these missiles? Do you have any suggestions to protect us?” I said, “I’ll tell you what. Next time a missile comes down, give me a call.”

My Italian doctor and my best Italian friends tell me you are their favorite comedian. Why do the Italians love you so much? You told me that Italian audiences are the best.

Because the Italians are not stuck with the pretentiousness and the status-symbol sicknesses that the Jews have. A good percentage of the Jews like to feel that when they’re watching an entertainer that they’re elevating themselves. That’s why they go to an opera they don’t understand. A ballet. You don’t see Italians doing that. Italians go to a show they enjoy. They’re not self-conscious about what appeals to them the most. A certain percentage of Jews are proud to enjoy Jackie Mason, and there’s a certain percentage that like to say that he’s good but not as good as something else. But if he’s that great, then he’s a neighborhood guy who talks like us and that’s all I got and that’s all I know and that’s all I appreciate. It limits them to feel like they’re too Jewish themselves and that’s all they appreciate is a reflection of themselves and that this guy sounds like Brooklyn and I’m from Brooklyn and I’m trying to get out of there and I don’t want to identify myself with him as the main source of entertainment. If you enjoy him too much you’re just like him and it’s embarrassing.

An Italian does not have any of these complexes. An Italian is not sitting there trying to imagine that while he’s working for a living the whole thing is a mistake because he really owns the company. He doesn’t have to pretend that he runs the world from a chair here and he’s really someplace in the hierarchy of running our government. Whatever he has, that’s it. So, the Italians enjoy themselves and they enjoy what they are. They don’t have any complexes about me. I’m an extension of themselves and they’re proud of it. As a matter of fact they get a kick out of it, that here’s a guy who sounds just like me, who’s just a Jewish version of me. When you’re out on stage in front of a Jewish audience, the first five minutes they’re evaluating my age and how much money I’m making and they’re evaluating everything except the jokes. They got no time for the jokes for the first 32 minutes. They’re thinking about a million problems; competitive problems, age problems, whatever it is, they relate it to me and I become the thing they have to answer for. Through me they have to answer for everything in their own life. Is he older than me, is he as old as me, is he too old for me? Italians are not competing with me. As soon as there’s a question period, every Jew asks a certain question that no Italian, I think, ever asked me: “How old are you?” Now, why is my age their business and how does it affect them? They came to hear a joke. All their complexes come out as soon as the questioning starts.

Are you referring to a specific segment of the Jews?

Even the Jews who are normal are not exactly normal. The truth of the matter is that there’s no such thing as a normal Jew. It’s no accident that the Jews get further in life than almost any other denomination. Because they’re always competing and trying to prove themselves, that they’ve gotten further and bigger and higher than anybody else. So, if you have such intensity about being someone important, the only way you could become that important is to accomplish something. So, they’re always accomplishing something more than the next person.

At the same time, because they’re so competitive, which is a beautiful thing to get ahead in life. But it’s also the reason they’re so jealous and bitter and a little obnoxious. Because they can’t say hello without telling me how they look better than me and they want my autograph but it’s not for themselves. Every time they give you a compliment they have to take it back. I have a classic thing that happened to me. A woman sits next to me and tells me how good I look. I said, “Do I really look that good?” She said, “You look very good.” I said “No kidding? I didn’t know I looked that good.” She said, “I didn’t say you looked that good.”

Even beyond the Italians, overall you seem to be more popular with the Gentiles than with the Jews.

What is true about the Italians is true about the goyim in general. Goyim in general live with their situation a lot more comfortably than the Jews do. Jews are never comfortable no matter who they are, no matter what their house is, they should have a bigger house. They have a $35 million house, somebody has a$ 40 million house. Always competing and comparing; they never admit to themselves this is the best thing they got. Jackie Mason is not a status symbol for the Jews, like Clark Gable. Except the Hasidic Jews. They love me, a secular Jew, unconditionally. Because they’re not involved with these complexes. They’re great audiences.

How would you define a self-hating Jew?

A Jew who has complexes about being a Jew. He still sees a Jew as someone who doesn’t quite belong in America and is still embarrassed that he’s here. He still thinks of himself as a refugee who is somehow unacceptable to the upper echelons of society. So, he feels he can only be acceptable to the lower class. He doesn’t think the private clubs, the fancy atmospheres, are going to accept him. So, he has to feel like a Gentile in order to feel acceptable, to feel he belongs as a successful person. He has feelings of rejection all his life. He’s still living in that earlier era. If you’re raised in a certain way, these feelings don’t leave you for the rest of your life. That’s why you’ll find that young Jews today don’t have these diseases. Because they were not raised in that era when people rejected them. The earlier generations spend their entire lives trying to prove that they won over the Gentiles, trying to join a Gentile country club, living in a Gentile neighborhood, trying to join the military. Always trying to move and join places they don’t belong to prove that they belong there. While the Gentiles are looking down on him, he convinces himself that they love him. Paradoxically, Gentiles today are desperate to accept the Jews. Every Gentile now starts denying that he’s a Gentile. The Jews are trying to deny that they’re Jewish and the Gentiles are trying to become Jewish. They can’t wait to tell you that their sister-in-law is a Jew and their brother-in-law could have been a Jew but he forgot to convert on time. They always have a story about how Jewish they are. “Four more people in my family are getting married; one is marrying a Jew; one is trying to. One talked to a Jew on a bus; one came home with a Jew.” It has become an in thing; Jews became trendy.

Even the Jews who are normal are not exactly normal.

A few years ago the pope, as soon as he became a pope, didn’t go to talk to Catholics in New York; he immediately went to talk to Jews, he went to meet a rabbi to prove that he’s not really a Gentile. Pope Benedict went to Auschwitz and went so far as to say if there is such a thing a God, how could he have allowed what happened during the Holocaust? He went so far as to even doubt the integrity, the power, the word of God. When he first became pope, the first thing he did was to visit the chief rabbi of Rome. They were very close. It was basically an admonition to the Catholics of the world. He expressed regret, apology for what happened. I would say the vast majority of Jews today understand the sincerity of the Catholics. Many of the official Jewish organizations always exaggerated the extent of hostility about the Catholics: The pope didn’t apologize enough, he could have worded it differently, he could have worded it better, longer, he could have repeated it another time, another year, another day. And no matter how he said it, they found another way he could have said it. But they don’t represent the thinking of most Jews. They’re afraid of their own unemployment. For the same reason people like Jackson and Sharpton kept inventing hate where it didn’t exist; they created hate in order to justify a headline. These Jews are the exact counterparts of the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons.

Why do you think some Christians have become pro-Israel and some Jews have become such fierce critics of Israel?

You would imagine that it would be impossible for a Jew not to support Israel. Here is a people that was persecuted throughout history, and most Jews have family members who were killed by the Nazis. And they come from parents who suffered all kinds of hate and discrimination and in so many cases were actually killed. And still American Jews who inherited all this misery are now against Israel because in their own lives they’ve been so comfortable and doing so good and had such a good time and enjoying themselves so they have to convince themselves that the Jews are the oppressors of the Palestinians. It’s always our fault if any minority has suffered. So, they decided that it’s the Jews’ fault that the Palestinians are having a rough time. As if the Palestinians would do better if not for the Jews.

The Jews have to prove to themselves they’re great humanitarians. They take up the cause of any underdog. To them a Palestinian is an underdog because he doesn’t have a fancy car and a big house. But how are they the underdog if they persecute the Jews all their lives and the Jews never bother them?

Do you see anti-Zionism as a codeword for anti-Semitism?

It depends on what the anti-Zionism is about. Sometimes people call it anti-Zionism not necessarily because it’s hate for Israel, but because it’s critical of certain things Israel does. And they call you anti-Zionist. People are hypersensitive. If you say a critical word about Israel, they call you names immediately. The fierce advocates for Israel, the ones who are most intensely and emotionally involved with Israel, if you say the slightest criticism about anything that Israel does at any time they immediately call you anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and everything else. In Israel itself there are divisions among the people all the time. There are people who feel we should give up the settlements. They don’t hate Israel; no one would accuse them of hating Israel. In Israel there are people who want to make a lot more compromises than Netanyahu does. That’s why there’s a left, right, and a center. That’s why there are different positions on every issue. But nevertheless, yes, I would say, that more often than not, anti-Zionism is really a code word for anti-Semitism. Those who criticize Israel the most severely, intensely, and consistently, the extremists, are anti-Semites most of the time. They’re just against what the Jews have accomplished because they resent and are jealous of the Jews. Pat Buchanan, for example, is just an anti-Semite in his heart. I think underlying everything he resents Judaism and Jews.

Which comics make you laugh, living and dead?

There are hundreds of comics that make me laugh. Right now among the young comedians there’s a tendency to depend on vulgarity, filth, and dirt. But just because they depend a lot on dirt doesn’t mean they’re not funny. When they’re not filthy, a lot of them have a lot of hilarious things to say. As a matter of fact, I think the young comedians are funnier because they depend on more knowledge and sophistication. They’re much more intelligent and educated than the comedians that started out in my day. In my day they had a poolroom, a street-corner mentality. Most of them didn’t go to college; they had no real education. Their mind wasn’t in the direction of information, knowledge, study, or learning. Being street-corner people, their comedy was limited to contact humor among people on the corner. But today comedians are so much more intellectually aware, they’re so much more intelligent. Someone who becomes a comedian today usually just came out of college. He studied to be a dentist or a lawyer and then he saw it was a rough life getting started. So, he started to hang out with his friends in a comedy club because that’s where the pretty girls were. And he started to notice that comedians got girls easier than other people. That being on the stage was an attraction. Not only that; you didn’t have to get up in the morning to make a living. So, he started to become attracted to the idea of telling jokes. Be a playboy and have a good time and enjoy life at what you do.

But George Carlin was a genius and a favorite of mine. He used to come to my shows and I came to his. We were cordial acquaintances, not exactly friends. He sent me his tapes and he asked me for mine. We worked in similar ways, but he did it in a dirty way and I did it in a clean way. We both commented on human behavior, reflected on life in general. Comments about society, democracy, pretentiousness, lawlessness, the difference between good and evil, hate and love, the story behind the scenes. What a man is really like compared to what he pretends to be. All the sicknesses of people. Phoniness, crookedness, everything. This is my field.

Were you astonished at how quickly you became a success?

I would say I was astonished. Because I didn’t know where I was going career-wise. I didn’t really have any career ambitions when I started out. All of a sudden things started to move. It moved very fast, and I was just keeping up with the fact that I was catching on. I was just having a good time watching it move. I didn’t know where it was going and I had no sense of direction, because I knew nothing about show business. I’d been a rabbi for almost two years.

You thought it would be hypocritical to continue to be a rabbi?

I wasn’t as religious as I thought a rabbi should be. I didn’t want to pretend I was a strictly Orthodox man. I didn’t want to compromise by working as a Conservative rabbi. In my opinion the purity of the religion shouldn’t be compromised. I said to myself, either you’re purely dedicated or you shouldn’t be here at all.

That means you believed deeply in Judaism.

Yes, but I didn’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to practice it.

Because you were a believer, you didn’t want to violate it.

Yes, I had too much respect for it. It’s a beautiful thing, the things it represents. All the values. If you compromise any of them, you shouldn’t be in it.


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David Evanier is the author of Woody: The Biography; All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett, The One-Star Jew, The Great Kisser and six other books. A former senior editor of The Paris Review, he received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and has appeared in Best American Short Stories. He is working on a book about the Fortune Society.

David Evanier is the author of Woody: The Biography; All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett, The One-Star Jew, The Great Kisser and six other books. A former senior editor of The Paris Review, he received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and has appeared in Best American Short Stories. He is working on a book about the Fortune Society.

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