ob Alper may claim to be a Vermont rabbi-cum-stand-up comedian, but those who saw him playing London this week know better.
I can exclusively reveal that the man performing at Hampstead's New End Theatre is in fact Steve Martin doing an impression of Alan Alda – or so I was convinced until about 10 minutes into his set, when his eerily extensive knowledge of Hebrew and true(ish) stories about his congregation gave me pause for those who think Jackie Mason is too Jewish. He doesn't look Jewish, doesn't sound Jewish and with his blazer, wire-rimmed glasses and silver hair, looks every inch a Wasp.
His ambitions are certainly more showbiz than shul. He wants to reach the top by the way of “an appearance on the 'Tonight' programme, an HBO special and ultimately…the Betty Ford Clinic.”
But his material is hamishe – he comes from a country where audiences can be expected to get references, and if they don't, he has helpful flash cards (Passover – no bread; treif – not kosher) to help them along.
The hour of comedy takes the form of a brief journey through Alper's life. There is his time as a student in Jerusalem, where he would attempt to give taxi-drivers instructions in classical Hebrew: “Behold, here I descend.”
Then there's his experience in the US university, where he suggested a new faculty in which Hebrew, Russian and German could be taught together in the "department of Semitic and anti-Semitic languages."
And he tells of his time living in New England and of how his co-religionists there define their Judaism: “They eat Maine lobster, but never with butter.”
English audiences will need to be pretty clued-in on US geography and culture if they are to get some of Alper's more obscure Americanisms, but Anglo-Jews will certainly connect with the stories of his congregants, one of whom told him that each of his sermons was better than the next.
Which may explain why he decided to pursue his career as a Hollywood comedy legend – or am I thinking of someone else?
t is probably safe to say that Bob Alper is unique on the American stand-up circuit –that's unless you can think of any other comedians who look like Steve Martin and are practicing rabbis'
Novelty aside, Alper also happens to be very funny, a fact which has helped him develop his act from small beginnings in 1986 to national television exposure in America. Londoners will be able to judge for themselves when he performs in the capital next week.
Alper had always enjoyed making people laugh at college, but had never thought of it as a career until 1986, after 14 years in the pulpit as a Reform minister, he decided to explore new avenues.
One of these was to enter a “Jewish comic of the year” competition in Philadelphia. He was rewarded with a third place – behind a chiropractor and a lawyer. Most aspiring comics would have given up right there, but Alper decided to pursue his new calling.
“I thought I had a pretty good opening line. I came on stage in my talit and kipah, spread out my arms to the audience and said: 'Try not to think of me as a rabbi.'”
At first, he combined the comedy with religious counseling in Philadelphia, then gradually, following appearances on local radio stations and comedy clubs, his act began to develop.
Alper appreciates the fact that he is different to his fellow stand-ups. “If I am hanging out with the other acts before the show – mostly 23-year-old kids – I sometimes ask whether anyone else is going to be doing material about officiating at weddings.
“I like the fact that I have access to a lot of stuff that other comedians don't While they might go on and start up with 'hey, I just flew in from New York,' or 'I just broke up with my girlfriend,' I can do stuff about barmitzvahs.”
In fact, while a lot of Alper's gags revolve around his being a rabbi (he holds out flash cards which say things like “Passover” on one side and “no bread” on the other), many others do not.
“Sometimes I don't do jokes at all, I just report things exactly as they happened. For example, a while ago my daughter, Jessica, left a message on our answering machine saying that she had decided to change her name to Iris. I phoned her back and said: 'Hi, Iris, this is your parents, Bucky and Lou Ella.' It didn't help, she still calls herself Iris and she doesn't like that line either. But I tell her that it is helping to pay for her college education.”
In style and presentation, Alper most resembles the comedians he admired as a young man – Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby. But with the added responsibility of being a rabbi, he sometimes has to watch his material. “I used to do a joke about inter-marriage, but I never felt comfortable with it and I dropped it from the routine.”
Despite comedy accounting for 85 percent of his income now, he still occasionally officiates at weddings and funerals (and will be delivering a guest sermon at the West London Synagogue next week).
He still thinks of himself as a rabbi who does comedy, despite being on the road half the time, and living in Vermont, a state not overly populated with Jews. He says in his act: “I was taking a hike one day, feeling a bit lonely and isolated as a Jew. Then suddenly a wind came across the mountains and I heard a voice saying: 'If you build a deli, they will come.”
He is looking forward to performing in London, partly as an opportunity to try out his material on a new audience, partly as a respite from being constantly mistaken for Steve Martin.
"In England, everyone thinks I look like John Major."
Rabbi Bob Alper will be appearing at the New End Theatre, Hampstead (020-7794 0022), on January 25, 26, 29, 30 and 31 and The Bull, Barnet (020-8449 0048), on January 27.
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