He was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wis., on June 9, 1928, to immigrants from Belarus, although other sources give the year as 1931. When he was 5, his father, Eli, an Orthodox rabbi, and his mother, Bella (Gitlin) Maza, moved the family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Yacov discovered that his path in life had already been determined. Not only his father, but his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers had all been rabbis. His three older brothers became rabbis, and his two younger sisters married rabbis.
“It was unheard-of to think of anything else,” Mr. Mason later said. “But I knew, from the time I’m 12, I had to plot to get out of this, because this is not my calling.”
After earning a degree from City College, he completed his rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University and was ordained. In a state of mounting misery, he tended to congregations in Weldon, N.C., and Latrobe, Pa., unhappy in his profession but unwilling to disappoint his father.
Hedging his bets, he had begun working summers in the Catskills, where he wrote comic monologues and appeared onstage at every opportunity. This, he decided, was his true calling, and after his father’s death in 1959 he felt free to pursue it in earnest, with a new name.
He struggled at first, playing the Catskills and, with little success, obscure clubs in New York and Miami. Plagued by guilt, he underwent psychoanalysis, which did not solve his problems but did provide him with good comic material.
Nevertheless, he found it hard to break into the nightclub circuit in New York — in part, he claimed, because his act made Jewish audiences uncomfortable. “My accent reminds them of a background they’re trying to forget,” he later said.