Everyday in America, someone chuckles at Bob Alper. Sometimes, hundreds laugh at him.
Alper is the world’s only practicing rabbi who also is a full-time standup comedian. Some of the laughter echos from comedy clubs, universities and other professional stages in the US and the UK where he performs his trademark “100% Clean” comedy routines. Some of his fans laugh in their cars, since Bob is one of the most popular voices on Sirius/XM satellite radio’s “clean comedy” channel.
But, seriously now …
Alper also is a wise teacher, a sought-after rabbi, and this is the time of the year when the vast majority of Americans—millions of Christians and Jews—are marking treasured holidays. Christian Easter and Jewish Passover are vastly different celebrations, but both traditions have kept alive sacred stories handed down through thousands of years. Christians remember, in great detail, Jesus’s final days on earth and Jews remember, in great detail, God leading the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus.
Most Jewish Americans attend a Passover seder each year. And Christians? Pew researchers took a fascinating new look at church activity around Easter. The Pew experts examined online search trends and found “the highest share of searches for ‘church’ (at any time in the year) are on the week of Easter Sunday, followed by the week of Christmas.” The researchers looked back over a decade at this pattern of Americans searching for “church” and found the pattern was nearly identical, year after year.
So, why do some stories hold such sacred power that Americans move in predictable tidal waves each year, especially to retell and celebrate Jesus’s final days—and the story of Exodus?
Because, such ancient holidays are “holy”—and “holiness” is a part of the title of Bob Alper’s new book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This. If the book’s subtitle were written in Hebrew, the word “holy” would be “kodesh,” which also could be translated as “set apart.” At this time of year, we might say that holiday time—and the stories we retell at these occasions—are “set apart” from the rest of the year.
And, as spring dawns across the Northern Hemisphere, that’s a powerful spiritual idea Bob Alper is unfolding in this book’s more than 200 pages: What makes life sweet is consciously deciding which experiences—which true stories—we will set aside, retell, savor and recognize as defining who we are.
In one chapter of his book, Bob addresses all of us who are somewhere in life’s second half. He says that, as we look at our lives, we may regret that we’re no longer a teen or a 20-something with all of life’s courageous possibilities lying ahead of us. But, Bob writes: We can reclaim some of that power if we carefully remember our life’s best moments, our holy stories. He writes: “I’ll never again rescue the damsel, save the multitude, and charge off into the sunset. But I can dream. And I can recollect. And I can savor. Often, that’s all I need.”
What kinds of stories are in this book? Have you ever taken a challenging hike, perhaps a climb in the mountains, that you never expected to conquer? Have you ever received a hand-made gift—accompanied by a story you didn’t expect? Have you ever rushed to comfort a loved one who has fallen and then found yourself caught up in their difficult recovery?
Do you remember an image of your child on a day so wonderful that you will never forget that moment? Bob remembers just such a day, way back in 1976 with his 4-year-old son Zack—and a snapshot he took of his son Zack, that day, is on the cover of this new book.
“When the first copies of this book arrived, I mailed one to Zack,” Bob says in the following interview. “He called me and he said, ‘Dad, you can tell a book by its cover!'”
And, that is a true story.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BOB ALPER ON
‘LIFE DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS’
DAVID: Let’s start with this word in your sub-title: Holy. The majority of Americans are Christian and, when Christians see that word, they may think this book is like Chicken Soup for the Soul. And it’s not. Your stories, I think, are even more powerful than what readers might find in Chicken Soup. So, tell us: What does “holy” mean to you?
BOB: You’re right—when most people hear the word “holy,” they start thinking about old men with long beards, dusty books, big old buildings or maybe Gregorian chants. That kind of thing. But in Hebrew, “holy” is “kodesh,” which means set apart—something that’s set apart because it is so exceptional.
DAVID: And in terms of stories? What are holy stories from everyday life?
BOB: These are the stories we set apart, the stories that we recognize as holy. These are the stories that give meaning to our lives.
And the truth is: We all have them.
For me, this process begins with how we think about our lives. What do we choose to remember? And, then, how do we choose to remember it? I’m talking about a moment that might cause us to say, “Oh, what a nice experience!” Or, “What a great day!” We might say, “Wasn’t that cute.” Or, “Wasn’t that so nice!” But we know that some of these experiences are more than that. They’re not just “nice” or “cute” or “great.”
When we find ourselves saying things like that about an experience, we might be describing something that I would call holy. When I use that word, holy, I’m talking about grabbing these times, recognizing their extraordinary value, setting them apart and hanging onto these stories.
DAVID: There’s such a moment from your own life on the cover of the book, right?.
BOB: The cover was designed by a wonderful artist, Rick Nease. And the photo on Rick’s cover is my son Zack. This is my favorite photograph of my son at age 4. This was back in 1976. We were on Cape Cod on summer vacation and I took that picture as he was getting a drink from a fountain. That was one of the happier moments in our family.
When the first copies of this book arrived, I mailed one to Zack. He called me and he said, “Dad, you can tell a book by its cover!”
DAVID: One of the wisest messages you send to readers in this book is: Life comes in waves. There is an ebb and flow to the good times—and the bad. Sections of your book have titles like “From Weakness to Strength or Strength to Weakness” and “From Health to Sickness and Back, We Pray, to Health Again.”
In fact, we don’t often find a warm bowl of chicken soup at the end of a tough day. Sometimes things get worse. And, sometimes we’re surprised for the good. Without spoiling one of your best stories for readers, I can tell them this: You’ll never look at an ugly, hand-made afghan blanket the same way after you read this book.
Another of my favorites is called “Getting Unstuck” about your fear of heights—and the day you tried to climb a rock cliff as high as a 14-story building. In eight pages, you take us through the kind of outdoor challenge that so many of us, as non-climbers, can appreciate, including: What were you thinking setting out on this challenge!?! You tell the story so well, including the surprises on that cliff like a particularly nasty patch of poison ivy!
The reason that story is worth remembering and retelling? Because it’s about, as your chapter title puts it: “Getting Unstuck.”
BOB: It’s such a common experience!
Like millions of other people, I read Dear Abby every day. It’s a column about people who are stuck. Every question to “Dear Abby” is about someone who’s stuck and needs help. They don’t know what to do. But we do know that, if we go in the wrong direction, things can get worse. And, on that rock cliff, someone did head in a wrong direction, where they found the poison ivy. Much worse!
Of course, I got unstuck. And one reason is that I had a safety harness. I finally got to the top. I think it’s helpful for people to realize that we all get stuck—all the time in life. We’ve got to remember to look for the safety harnesses we may have. Stories like that in my book, or in Dear Abby, give people courage to hang on. Just like we all get stuck all the time—we can get unstuck, too.
CHANGE YOURSELF / CHANGE THE WORLD
DAVID: A constant reminder of the possibility of change is right in your small town of East Dorset, Vermont, which is the birthplace of “Bill W,” co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. You tell some of that story in one chapter of this new book. I remember visiting Bill W’s birthplace, and his grave, back in 2010 when I visited you in Vermont, Bob. I think it’s one of the most moving sections of the book.
BOB: Our town is so quiet that, if a car drives up our dirt road, our dog barks. In our back yard, we see deer, moose, even bears. There’s a saying here: “Vermont is what America was.”
One of my daily privileges is going down to the post office. As I do that, I can look across the railroad tracks at the Wilson House, the center where Bill W was born in 1895. His parents ran an inn there and Bill W was born in a room behind the bar.
Every day, people come to Wilson House as a sign of thanks to Bill W. The program he created with Dr. Bob helped them change their lives for the better. It’s a privilege to see them there—people with all kinds of different clothing, in different conditions, clean shaven or with long beards, all kinds of different hair styles. Yet, they’ve all traveled to that place to show that they’ve achieved something that’s very hard to do—to gain sobriety and maintain it.
In my tradition, there’s an old Hassidic story about a young man who set out to change the world. And most of us can guess what happened: He couldn’t change the world. Then, he decided to change his country and that didn’t work, either. The story can go on and on—until finally the young man discovers that what he really needs to do is change himself. And, in changing himself, he is changing the world.
That’s the story of Bill W. and I am reminded of that every day in our town. And when I think about it, it still—(pauses). Well, let me put it this way. Just before this book was published, I had to proof the galleys and because I travel so much, I was working on planes. And it was embarrassing. There I was, the guy crying on the plane.
That’s not to say the stories in this book are all sad. Many of them are happy—but they are tear-enducing to me because they’re true—and because they’re so important.
And I’m not alone.
DAVID: What do you want to tell readers, in the end.
BOB: If you read this book, I hope you’ll find stories from your own life that will help you think about your life in helpful new ways. If you do, then you can start telling your own stories—and discover new meaning in your life.
Care to read more?
BOB’S BOOK—The easiest way to purchase Bob’s new book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, is through Amazon or you may want the Kindle edition. For more purchasing options, including Barnes & Noble and iBooks, visit our bookstore page for the new book. You can learn more about Bob’s life, his work—and his earlier book Thanks I Needed That on this author page.
BOOK BOB—Over the years, Bob has appeared in venues large and small—from individual congregations to major universities, conferences, theaters and comedy clubs. His performances range from his 100% Clean solo standup shows—to a Scholar in Residence Weekend—to his very popular Laugh in Peace shows, which include a Muslim and a Christian comedian as well. You can learn all about him here—and you’ll find his tour schedule here.
CURIOUS ABOUT “KODESH” and “HOLY”? Entire books have been written on these themes, and Wikipedia has some helpful introductory articles. Here is the Judaism section of the overall “Sacred” article. Then, here is Wikipedia’s overview of the Hebrew term that begins ק-ד-ש.
LAUGH ALONG WITH AMERICA—In our opening lines today, we described the typical reaction to Bob Alper: Laughter! Here is a 5-minute clip from one of his shows at the University of Michigan:
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)