Laugh in peace

Medical Clowns at work.  (photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH)
Medical Clowns at work.
I’m going out on a limb here, but I think – I think – that I may the first rabbi about to do stand-up comedy in Ramallah.
Seriously? Seriously. I’m an ordained rabbi, served congregations for 14 years, and since 1986 have been a full-time stand-up comic. Next week I’ll be a special guest in “1001 Laughs,” a show featuring seven Arab American comedians, including my close friends Ahmed Ahmed and Mo Amer.
Appearing in Ramallah was a natural outgrowth of performing over 200 Laugh In Peace shows with Ahmed and with Mo, something that began at a Philadelphia synagogue in April, 2002, and has since spread to dozens of other North American synagogues, churches, mosques, theaters, and, most importantly, college campuses from Oregon to Boston.
On August 15, 16 and 17 Ahmed and I will realize a 13-year dream, bringing Laugh In Peace to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Back in late 2001, Ahmed and I were brought together as a gimmick by a savvy publicist. Our relationship quickly developed into a friendship based on the camaraderie of fellow artists and the breezy banter of guys who really enjoy one another’s company. We laugh together a lot. Like the night following a show at a suburban Chicago synagogue, when we drove downtown to a blues bar. Ahmed was on his cell phone, so I entered and told the cashier I’d pay the entrance fee for myself and my friend, who would arrive shortly.
“Fine,” he said. “What’s his name?” “Ahmed,” I replied.
“What’s his name?” “Ahmed,” I repeated. Which received the somewhat condescending response, “I know you’re Ed. What’s his name?” Later, when Hollywood-based Ahmed began to focus more on acting and international comedy venues, I started to work with Mo, including a show at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York.
On the way back to the hotel, Mo inquired, “By the way, Bob. What do the words ‘Kol Ami’ mean?” “Voice of my people,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said. “Because in Arabic, it means ‘eat my uncle.’” Our shows are absolutely non-political.
In every performance, each of us does a 35-minute solo set, and then we sit together onstage, telling road stories from our travels. We describe visits to each other’s homes: the women in my small Vermont town fell in love with Ahmed and continually pester me for updates on his life.
While eating dinner at Ahmed’s parents’ home in California, Ahmed’s dad asked about my family. When I told him my wife would be having shoulder surgery the following month, he looked gravely at me and ordered, “You must stop twisting her arm!” Of all we do, it’s the college shows that never cease to amaze us. Like the evening at the University of Pennsylvania, where Ahmed and I were introduced to the audience by three students, presidents of the co-sponsoring organizations of Jews, Muslims and Arabs. From the stage we looked out on an SRO crowd of smiling, laughing faces, many of the males wearing kippas, many of the females wearing hijabs. At the University of Arkansas it occurred to us that we were guests of “the razorbacks.”
Thus, a Muslim and a Jew, performing at a school whose mascot is a pig. Go figure.
No question, Laugh In Peace was conceived initially as a way to further our comedy careers, to book more gigs, to raise our visibility. It would be disingenuous to suggest anything else. But as the act and our personal relationships evolved, we quickly understood how Laugh In Peace offered a sense of relief and healing that shared laughter, especially shared laughter between communities in frequent tension, can provide.
We deeply believe that an Arab and a Jew doing comedy together, and demonstrating their friendship, clearly represents the kind of unity in diversity that yields hope.
And this we know for certain: when people laugh together, it’s really difficult to hate one another.
Rabbi Bob Alper served two congregations for 14 years and in 1986 found his unique rabbinate: bringing laughter to individuals and communities. He performs across North America and in London, appearing frequently on radio and TV.