By DAVID CRUMM
Strange but true!
American comedians Rabbi Bob Alper and Ahmed Ahmed are taking their American interfaith Laugh in Peace! comedy revue to Israel/Palestine this week.
The New York Post’s Richard Johnson broke the news last week, writing:
Everything else has been tried to make life compatible for Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Why not comedy? In a historic first, Bob Alper, a rabbi and stand-up comedian who has shared many a stage in America with such Arab and Muslim comedians as Ahmed Ahmed and Mo Amer, will join them for four nights of comedy, Aug. 10 to 13, in Ramallah in the West Bank. Then, in another first, Alper and Ahmed will perform three shows together in Israel: in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Who knows? Maybe peace will be forthcoming.
The Jerusalem Post chimed in with a story: A rabbi and an Arab walk into a comedy club …
JNS.ORG, the global Jewish news service, headlined its story: ‘Laughter heals’ is message of unlikely Jewish-Muslim comedy act in which Maayan Jaffe wrote:
They believe they’ve played a role in breaking down barriers between Muslims and Jews. On college campuses, where Jewish-Muslim tension and antisemitism run rampant over the issue of Israel, Ahmed and Alper perform for mixed audiences. Jewish males wearing yarmulkes and females in hijabs sit side-by-side, smiling and laughing.
“When people laugh together, it is hard to hate each other,” says Alper, recounting how at the University of Arkansas it occurred to him that they were guests of the “Razorbacks”—a Muslim and a Jew performing at a school whose mascot is a pig.
They keep their shows apolitical, though they do touch on their personal religious experiences in the 90-minute performances, which generally are divided between solo acts of 30-35 minutes and then a joint opening and closing. The closing includes stories from their travels. …
Ahmed and Alper have certainly contemplated their own plan for peace. “In terms of the terrible rift between our people, we’ve come up with one idea, one way that might be able to help heal the divide. That would be if all of us together—Jews and Arabs, Arabs and Jews—if all of us together could simply learn,” says Alper.
You might ask: Learn what? To help you explore more of Alper’s stories ReadTheSpirit Books publishes Alper’s two popular collections—not jokes but true and often inspiring stories about people Alper has met over many years.
The books are called Thanks. I Needed That. and Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This. Yes, there are some stories in these collections that inspire through dramatic and even solemn moments—but you’ll also occasionally discover honest laughter, as well, since Alper naturally sees the humor in any situation where levity can be found.
JOKES: OLD & NEW; HOMESPUN & FOREIGN
When we caught up with Alper this week via telephone from his home in a small Vermont town, he talked about editing the material he typically uses in his standup routine to add some localized references.
“Over there, I’ll be performing mostly the act that I perform here,” Alper said. “But I am changing a few things as I very carefully go over my material.”
The rabbi-comedian has visited in many Arab and Muslim communities and homes and is familiar with kanafeh, a cheesy-syrupy pastry that is popular around the western rim of the Mediterranean, a culinary custom that produces closely related pastries in Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Palestinian homes and cafes in regions including Ramallah and East Jerusalem often display a huge round tray of gold-to-orange-colored kanafeh perhaps with a bright green sprinkling of ground pistachios.
The pride associated with preparing a spectacular kanafeh is akin to feelings among American bakers of homemade pies. Cafes that feature kanafeh—and proud mothers who prepare the delicacy for family dinners—may have friendly rivalries about who turns out the best tray for guests.
“In one of my opening jokes, I usually begin, ‘I live in rural Vermont …’ But I don’t know if people who have English as their second or third language would get the word ‘rural’ immediately,” Alper said. “So, I’m going to say, ‘I live in Vermont on a dirt road …’ because those words are clear to people who know even a little bit of English. They get that dirt roads are essentially in rural areas away from big cities.
“And, I’m going to say, ‘Vermont is a beautiful state with mountains—and valleys—and absolutely gorgeous every where you go—but there is a problem: 10,000 square miles and not one kanafeh!”
Will that guarantee a big laugh? Alper is a veteran who has crisscrossed the U.S. for decades playing in comedy venues large and small—and he admits to a little anxiety this time.
“I’d say I’m very slightly concerned about traveling to Ramallah, but everything I’m hearing recently tells me that it’s a happening city, these days. You don’t hear much about it over here, but there’s a lively restaurant and arts scene there,” Alper said.
“Then, when I get up to perform, any comedian standing up in front of a very different crowd will tell you there’s a little anxiety—until you get a good minute or so into your act and you get the first good laugh. Then, it’s a pleasure.”
Just as Alper is adding a twist or two for his Arab audiences, he is considering adding a few stories from his earlier trips to Israel:
“I’m going to say: My wife and I first went to Israel when I was a student primarily so I could learn spoken Hebrew. I had some biblical Hebrew under my belt but it was difficult, especially during our first weeks. I can still see the look of the cab driver’s face when we pulled into our neighborhood and I said to him in my Hebrew: ‘Behold! Here I descend!’
Then, after a few weeks, we received bills owed by our apartment’s previous tenant. I called our landlord and wanted to say to him, Anach’nu mi’ka-bleem chesh’bo’note (We are receiving bills.)
He replied, Mah?! (What?)
And I repeated what I’d said.
And he said: Mah zeh?? (What’s that!?!)
It was then that I realized that instead of saying, Anach’nu mi’ka-bleem I was saying Anach’nu mi’cha-bleem which means: We are terrorists.”
Despite the few tweaks, Alper says that overall the comedy routines will be the same wherever they go. He told The Jerusalem Post, ““I don’t think it will be different to be honest. Both audiences laugh at the same stuff. They both understand English and American humor.”
The verdict on this unique comedy revue lies in the heads, hearts—and bellies—of the men and women who come to these shows.
“This is a golden opportunity for Ahmed and me to humanize the ‘other’ in the eyes of people who see us perform,” Alper said. “My hope is that when a Palestinian audience sees a rabbi who can make them laugh and appears to be affable, it might help challenge their perception of Jews—and when Israeli audiences see a funny, warm, affable Arab comedian it might help change their perceptions of Arabs.
“It’s just a little step—but hopefully it is a first step and there may be more.”
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)