When I read about the passing of comedian Jackie Mason, I was transported back to our first apartment in Philadelphia, where my family, recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, gathered near the old-fashioned television set with a dictionary at hand in an attempt to understand his jokes. Our first connection to Judaism on American soil was through Jackie Mason’s uninhibited Jewish humor that rang as both shocking and fascinating.

As new immigrants, we were inspired by his confidence and raw ability to laugh at himself. We, former Soviet Jews, couldn’t yet fathom that it was possible to openly tell anecdotes about religion or authority, or society’s deficiencies in general. I watched the performance and openly laughed at whatever jokes I understood. In the Soviet Union, every word could potentially be used to destroy a person’s life. This was a big change from what we were used to, and we felt hopeful, liberated and free.

Interestingly, my grandmother, Dr. Zelda was born on July 24, 1924—exactly 97 years from July 24, 2021, the day Jackie Mason passed away. Their lives were very different, yet they both used their innate gift to bring joy to other people. Zelda was the comedian and the singer of the family.

As a doctor, she didn’t just heal physical ailments but also uplifted the spirits of her family, friends and patients with laughter and optimism. Humor was Doctor Zelda’s way of defying the Communist regime.

Despite being born on different sides of the ocean, both my grandmother and Jackie Mason were the children of Russian Jewish parents who survived the unsettling times of the Communist Revolution of 1917 and the poverty that followed the Great War. In an attempt to escape that reality, like Jackie Mason’s family, Zelda’s maternal aunts immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, Zelda and her two sisters remained behind—a tragic outcome of the unexpected death of the girls’ mother, who passed away in childbirth when my grandmother was just 3 years old. My family was not able to immigrate to the United States for three more generations, until 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave the Soviet Union. My grandmother often pondered what our lives would have been like if her mother had lived and immigrated together with her sisters to the United States.

Many years later, after I got married and became fluent in English, my husband and I attended a live performance of Jackie Mason in Philadelphia. Thankfully, I no longer needed a dictionary to understand the jokes. As we laughed and watched the audience respond with applause, I felt that Jackie Mason was somehow healing people. He transported us into a place of joy as his performance lifted away anxieties.

Perhaps this gift to connect to the essence of his listeners came from Jackie Mason’s early years. Born Yacov Moshe Maza in 1928, he was the first of his siblings to be born in America after his Orthodox Jewish parents’ immigration to the United States from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Coming from a long line of rabbis, Jackie Mason became a cantor and was ordained as a rabbi before he embarked on the career path of an entertainer.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother and I played endless games of dress up. Since there were not many toys sold in Soviet stores, my grandmother and I spent our days making each other laugh by creating flamboyant costumes and telling each other jokes. We sang silly songs, danced and used humor to brighten our gloomy Soviet reality. One of my first toys was a tambourine. My grandmother would sing to the “music” and dance to the noise I created. Unbeknown to us at the time, during the Exodus from Egypt, this musical instrument became a Jewish symbol of hope and faith.

As a child in Soviet Union playing dress up, holding a tambourine.
As a child in Soviet Union playing dress up, holding a tambourine.

Jackie Mason once said, “A person has to feel emotionally barren or empty or frustrated in order to become a comedian.” His words rang true to the people who lived in the Communist regime. Despite unimaginable risk, people gathered in the kitchens of their tiny apartments and behind closed doors to crack jokes at the country’s paranoia.

Jackie Mason once shared his experience of meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who surprised the comedian by wishing him success in making people happy. The Rebbe recognized this innate gift and validated the importance of using it to bring joy to the world.

Throughout the ages, Jewish people used humor as a powerful way to cope with sadness and pain. I saw it from my own grandmother who encountered unimaginable difficulties, yet was able to find positivity in everyday life. Humor opens our hearts to the feelings of love and gratitude, helping to transcend obstacles. Jackie Mason once said, “I have nothing but love in my heart, and everything I say is just an instrument for laughs.” My grandmother would definitely second that confession.

There is a famous story in the Talmud about a sage by the name of Rav Beroka, who walked through the marketplace together with the prophet Elijah. Rav Beroka asked the prophet, “Who in this marketplace is deserving of the world to come?” Elijah the Prophet pointed at two men and explained that they were two comedians who earned this extraordinary reward by making people laugh. When approached, the performers confirmed what Elijah had said and explained that in addition to entertaining the crowd with jokes, they also helped people resolve quarrels. As the Talmud teaches us, when the people are joyful, it is easier to make peace among them (Taanit 22a).

After my grandmother started to develop dementia, she decided to write down all her jokes to continue making us laugh. As a doctor, she understood that her memory was deteriorating, and she spent her days filling pages of notebooks with funny punchlines and anecdotes. Of all the human functions that are lost with age, Zelda was most concerned about forgetting how to laugh.

Zelda passed away on May 6, 2020, leaving behind pages of handwritten jokes. I was blessed to inherit this treasure and put some of the folded papers in my Tehillim, my book of Psalms. Every day, when I sit down to pray, I read one of my grandmother’s jokes and start my conversation with G‑d with a smile on my face and in my heart.

My Book of Psalms with Grandma Zelda's handwritten jokes.
My Book of Psalms with Grandma Zelda's handwritten jokes.