The comedy team of Rabbi Bob Alpert and Ahmed Ahmed on their August 2015 Laugh in Peace Tour. (photo from Laugh in Peace)
“Both Jews and Muslims have a lot in common. What are we fighting over? Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork, we don’t celebrate Christmas, we both use ‘ch’ in our pronunciation, and we are both hairy creatures of God,” says comedian Ahmed Ahmed. “The only real difference between Jews and Muslims is that Jews never like to spend any money and Muslims never have any money to spend.”
So goes one of the dozens of jokes featured in the Laugh in Peace comedy routine of Ahmed and Rabbi Bob Alper. It’s one Arab, one Jew, one stage. The unlikely duo’s show was in Israel (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa) and the Palestinian territories (Ramallah) for the first time from Aug. 12-17. Together, Ahmed and Alper have performed more than 150 times during the last 14 years – throughout the United States, Canada and England – at synagogues, churches, mosques, theatres and college campuses.
Their story began as a gimmick by a savvy publicist, said Alper, a Reform rabbi who spent more than a decade at pulpits in New York and Philadelphia – or, as he calls it, “14 years of performing in front of a hostile audience.”
Alper admits he was at first resistant to the idea of the combined show. “My publicist calls me one day and says, ‘Bob, why don’t you do a show with an Arab comedian?’ I said, ‘Do you have any other ideas?’”
Ahmed was skeptical, too. “I got this call, ‘My name is Bob Alper and I am a Reform rabbi.’… He says, ‘I have an idea. I thought it would be great to do a show together.’… Well, I said, ‘That sounds good, where do you perform?’ He says, ‘Well, I perform in synagogues.’ … I thought someone was playing a joke on me.”
But the timing was right. In 2001, at the height of the terrorism of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in Israel, people were primed for comic relief. Alper says, when people are tense or sad, “comedy is even more important.”
Over time, the two have been more than just a successful and sought-after show. They’ve become good friends. The women in Alper’s small Vermont town fell in love with Ahmed through his visits and regularly inquire about his well-being. Alper has eaten in Ahmed’s parents’ California home.
“Ahmed’s dad asked about my family,” Alper recalled. “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.’”
They also believe they have 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,” said 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 a joint opening and closing. The closing includes stories from their travels.
Read more at jns.org.
Among the 2016 shows listed on Bob Alper’s website (bobalper.com) is only one in Canada, and it just so happens to be at Congregation Beth Israel on March 23.