Rabbi Bob Alper and Ahmed Ahmed will be celebrating their bar mitzva together in Jerusalem this Saturday.
If that sounds funny to you, it should.
Alper and Ahmed are American comedians who join forces in a unique show that will be coming to Israel for the first time Saturday night in Jerusalem and the following two nights in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
They have been performing together for 13 years – some 200 shows since 2002 – making people laugh in synagogues, churches, mosques, theaters, corporate events, and most often, colleges, where Arab and Jewish student groups jointly co-sponsor their appearances.
“People don’t expect to see an Arab and a rabbi performing together – let alone being friends,” Alper says in a phone interview from his home in rural Vermont. “We’re very careful to make people understand we’ve been to each other’s homes and our relationship goes beyond doing our acts together.”
When Ahmed made it big as a movie and television star, Alper started performing with other Arab comics, such as Palestinian-American Mo Amer and Ozmar Usman from the predominantly Jewish Chicago suburb Skokie, Illinois.
Sometimes the friendship of Alper and Ahmed leads to comic situations, like the time Alper tried to pay in advance for Ahmed at a blues bar. When he was asked what his friend’s name was, Alper said “Ahmed.”
The worker at the bar said “OK, your name’s Ed, but what’s his name?” When they performed at a synagogue named Kol Ami, Alper told Ahmed that the temple’s name meant “The Voice of My People” in Hebrew.
Ahmed replied that in Arabic, the synagogue’s name means “Eat My Paternal Uncle.”
In their routines, Alper and Ahmed focus on such cultural differences, but they are careful to avoid politics, or as Alper puts it: “We stay away from the Middle East.”
It wasn’t intentional, but that’s what Alper has been doing for almost 20 years. Because he has been so busy and successful performing across America, the rabbi has not been to the Jewish state since he left his last pulpit in 1986.
That will finally change when Alper comes this week, thanks to respected Jerusalem tour guide Lee Glassman, who connected him with Jeremy and Dena Wimpfheimer, the producers of the biannual Comedy for Koby tour.
Lee’s daughter Kim is the graphic artist for the Comedy for Koby programs and ads, and they made the shidduch that brought Alper to Israel.
It was important to Alper to come at a time when he would not be encroaching on Comedy for Koby’s territory. In what could only be described as good luck, it just so happened that at the time he chose, Ahmed was also going to be around for the first ever Palestinian comedy festival, so they could perform in Israel together.
Alper, 70, got into comedy in 1986 when he entered the “Funniest Jew in Philadelphia” contest. Since then – as he puts it – he has been “trying to get it right.”
He holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary and held two pulpits for 14 years before becoming the first rabbi to do stand-up comedy, at least since the days of the Talmud.
Alper has been seen on The Early Show, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Showtime, the BBC, CNN, and was featured on Extra, TV’s top-rated entertainment program, immediately following a segment on the size of Jennifer Lopez’s buttocks.
In addition to being a full-time stand-up comic and conducting annual High Holiday services, Bob is the author of three books: Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, a cartoon book called A Rabbi Confesses, and the recently-published Thanks. I Needed That. He boasts on his website that while it’s his job to make people laugh, his wife Sherri, a psychotherapist, helps people cry.
Ahmed, 45, was born in Helwan, Egypt, and moved when he was a baby with his family to Riverside, California, where he was raised. He moved to Hollywood when he was 19 to pursue a career as an actor and stand-up comedian, and he has been working there ever since.
He had a regular role for three years in the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son, in which he was reportedly the only Arab-American actor playing a non-stereotypical role in a comedy sitcom. He has also appeared on CNN, The View, and National Public Radio, and was featured in the PBS television documentary America at a Crossroads series in “STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age.”
Readers may recognize him from the cult classic Adam Sandler movie Don’t Mess with the Zohan in which Sandler starred as an over-the-top stereotypical Israeli and Ahmed played a clothing store owner named Walid.
“It was fun to work with Adam Sandler,” Ahmed says in a phone interview.
“He’s a great guy to work with, and the catering is really good.”
Ahmed has been to Israel before but has never performed in the Jewish state. In the Palestinian comedy festival, he will be putting on shows together with other Arab comics in Ramallah and an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem.
“Bob asked if I want to do shows with him in Israel, and I said of course,” Ahmed said. “Bob is fantastic. He is a smart comic, who is really considerate.
His humor translates globally, and he is always a treat to work with.”
Asked how the shows will be different for the Jewish and Arab audiences in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Ahmed adopts a serious tone.
“I don’t think it will be different to be honest,” he says. “They both laugh at the same stuff. They both understand English and American humor.
I think the laughs will be equal on both sides. In the past, Palestinian crowds have been very progressive.”
Ahmed will be doing another comedy festival in Abu Dhabi in early September. He says he would like to bring Alper with, but he’s not the organizer.
Alper says he would love to perform in Arab countries, singling out Egypt. When asked about Iran, he strays from his rule and gives into temptation to get into politics: “After the fakakta [crappy] agreement works.”
“I think people like to laugh all over the world,” Ahmed says. “You need laughter in your life.”
Laugh in Peace comedy tour takes place August 15 in Jerusalem at the Yellow Submarine, August 16 in Tel Aviv at Tzavta 3 and August 17 in Haifa at Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center.