Stand-up rabbi returns
Rabbi Bob Alper will perform as part of Congregation Beth Israel’s Purim festivities on March 23. (photo by Sultan Khan)
It’s too good not to lead with – Pope Frances’ honorary comedic advisor, Rabbi Bob Alper, will be bringing his comic stylings to Congregation Beth Israel on erev Purim March 23.
A professional comedian for some 30 years now, Alper said his life hasn’t changed that much since he became the papal advisor last fall. “I now drive my very own popemobile in my hometown in Vermont,” he said. “It gets 150 miles to the gallon, but is not great in blizzards. Otherwise, nothing has changed, though I do ‘use’ the title whenever I can. It’s a great story.”
No doubt, Alper will be flying to Vancouver. He was invited by the congregation, “people who obviously know how to make Purim rock,” he said.
He’s been here twice before, “once for a show at Temple Sholom and, earlier, for a Federation event. One of the most difficult of my career, since it fell just two weeks after 9/11.
“I’ll only be in Vancouver for a day or two,” he added about this month’s trip, “but I hope to do the highlights. The best part of every trip, for me, is performing!”
Alper won the title of honorary comedic advisor to the Pope in a contest held by the Pontifical Mission Societies in honor of the Pope’s September 2015 visit to the United States and to raise awareness and money for three pontifical missions. He beat out more than 4,000 people from 47 countries, including fellow American funnymen like Bill Murray and Conan O’Brien. You can watch his video, as well as those of the other contestants, at jokewiththepope.org, but the joke is: “My wife and I have been married for over 46 years, and our lives are totally in sync. For example, at the same time I got a hearing aid, she stopped mumbling.”
“I grew up in a religious Reform family for whom our synagogue was central, and my uncle was a Reform rabbi,” said Alper of his background. “My father loved humor, and told long ‘shaggy dog’ stories, which, naturally, prompted me to take the opposite route into the quick-hit world of stand-up. Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman and Mel Brooks records were my childhood companions and, in Jewish youth group, in high school, I would memorize and perform their routines at regional convention talent nights, thereby attracting the hottest girls. Comedy is good.”
Nonetheless, Alper was ordained as a rabbi in 1972 and then worked in congregations for 14 years. It was another contest that led him to become a comedian.
“In 1986, living in a Philadelphia suburb and armed with a doctoral degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Bob was charting a different path, trading congregational life for a counseling practice,” writes editor David Crumm in the introduction to Alper’s book Thanks. I Needed That. And Other Stories of the Spirit (Read the Spirit Books, 2013). “But, at that same time, comedy reared its ugly head in the form of a ‘Jewish Comic of the Year Contest.’ Bob entered, came in third behind a chiropractor and a lawyer, and went on to make stand-up a full-time career.”
Alper’s wife, Sherri, is a psychotherapist. On his website, it notes, “Professionally, he makes people laugh, while she helps people cry.”
With literally thousands of shows under his belt, Alper has made a lot of people laugh. “It gets easier and easier,” he said about performing. “That’s how comedy works. I agonized before I did my first five minutes in 1986. Now performing is a delight and, since stand-up is cumulative, I have tons of material from which to choose.”
Among Alper’s shows are duos with Muslim comedians.
“My Muslim colleagues include Ahmed Ahmed, of Egyptian background, Azhar Usman, of Indian background, and Mo Amer, a Palestinian born in Kuwait,” writes Alper in Thanks. I Needed That. “We do Muslim-Jewish shows, frequently enhanced by the addition of a Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks. And we have so much fun at each performance, it’s almost criminal.
“We call our shows Laugh in Peace.
“Back in late 2001, Ahmed and I were brought together as a gimmick by a savvy publicist,” he continues. “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.”
Alper began working with Usman when Ahmed became more focused on acting, and he also works with Amer quite often.
He admits, “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 brought a sense of hope and relief and healing that shared laughter, especially shared laughter between communities in frequent tension, can provide.”
Alper is also the author of Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, a collection of stories, and the cartoon book A Rabbi Confesses, and he has produced two CDs and a DVD. For more information and a five-minute demo of Alper’s comedy, visit bobalper.com. Readers can also watch the video “Rabbi Bob Alper’s dog respects religions” and many others on YouTube.com.
Beth Israel’s Purim celebration starts at 6:15 p.m. on March 23 with a kid-friendly Megillah reading and costume parade, followed by carnival activities. The full Megillah reading and comedy by Rabbi Bob Alper starts about 8:15 p.m. Food will be for sale during the evening. Visit bethisrael.ca for more information and to register for the kids events.