Detroit Free Press

Sunday, Noember 22, 1998
A rabbi walks in a bar to tell a few jokes
Free Press Article     Rabbi Bob Alper is probably the only clergyman in the country who regularly addresses congregations that require a cover charge and a two drink minimum.
    That's because he's the only practicing rabbi in the country doing stand-up comedy…intentionally.
    If you're starting to smile, then you'll probably enjoy Alper's performance tonight in Oak Park because those are two of the lines he often uses to introduce himself. If you miss him tonight, don't worry—he'll be back again next year.
    Over the past decade, Detroit audiences have been good to this Steve Martin look-alike from Vermont who has an optimistic faith in the future of clean comedy. Like Bill Cosby in the 60's, Alper has built a career around funny G-rated stories about children, pets, marriage and all the foibles of family life.
    Far from being a handicap in a world of increasingly risqué comedy, Alper says his style "gives me a tremendous advantage over other comedians. I'll be in a comedy club waiting to perform, and I'll look at the other comedians who are preparing to go on. There'll be kids in black T-shirts or older comedians on their third marriages.
    "And I know exactly what they're going to do. They'll get up and talk about, 'Hey, I just got in from New York,' and they'll talk about the city. Or they'll say, 'I just broke up with my girlfriend'—or 'You know the difference between men and women?' So I've got a real hook. None of these 22-year olds are going to tell stories about raising teenagers or officiating at weddings."

Rabbi looks like Steve Martin...

    Alper, 53, actually considers it a part of his higher calling as a clergyman to make people laugh.
    "When I give a sermon, I hope I move people spiritually," Alper says. "When I make people laugh, I know I've moved them spiritually."
    His fans have reinforced this idea, he says. "People come up to me after shows and tell me what it has meant to them. For example, a woman came up to me and said, 'My husband died six months ago, and this is the first time I've laughed.' Another time, a woman who was dying of cancer was in the audience, and she said, 'For an hour and a half, I forgot I was sick.'"

A Michigan Regular
    This will be Alper's 10th appearance in southeast Michigan. He performs about 80 shows a year nationwide. Most often, he is booked by Jewish groups for everything from synagogue fund-raisers to annual conventions, but he also plays comedy clubs. He has appeared in comedy showcases on the Comedy Central and Showtime cable channels.
    He's also the author of an inspirational book, "Life Doesn't Get Any Better Than This" (Liguori, $12). which combines his rabbi's wisdom with gentle humor about life's many small challenges.
    Alper chuckles when he notes that the book was produced by Liguori, a Catholic publishing house. "Last spring, they put out a list called The Best of Catholic Reading –and they listed me as one of their best-sellers."
    He has become so popular in the Detroit area that the Jewish News, the weekly newspaper that serves the local Jewish community, recruited him last year as an occasional humor columnist. Alper liked the format –and the readers liked his blend of wit and wisdom. That experiment led to a regular column that now appears in 35 Jewish newspapers coast to coast.
    "Bob's column provides some levity on our opening page, so we can get readers off to a good start as they read through our news sections, which often carry a more somber tone," says Jewish News editor Robert Sklar. "He's got a good rapport in the community."

On the funny side
    That's because Alper understands the amusing side of life.
    Once, a parishioner called him and began, "Rabbi, my daughter would like to marry a young accountant from Cleveland."
    The rabbi's response: "Wonderful... Um…has she found one?"     Then there was the man who was so sincerely grateful for the funeral service Alper prepared for his aunt that he gushed: "Rabbi, your eulogy for my aunt was wonderful! She would have loved it! And to think: What a shame. She missed it by just two days."
    He also recalls a young man and woman who loved their dog so much that they wanted the animal to play a role in their wedding.
    The rabbi's acerbic response: "Great. Why don't you have him be the ringworm bearer?"
    Finally, every one of Alper's performances includes a section about his home life. He often starts out by explaining, "My wife and I have been blessed with an all –American family: a boy, a girl and a vasectomy. We have on of each."
    He adds, "And I know you're not supposed to favor one over the other, but ever since my kids became teenagers, I've become kind of partial to the vasectomy."

Clean and never mean
    Does publicly sharing such wry commentary about his family, friends and congregations suggest the rabbi has a mean streak?
    Definitely not, says his wife of 29 years. Sherri Alper, who works as a psychotherapist near their home in Dorset, VT. "One of the wonderful things about Bob is that he gets permission to use every story in his comedy routine.

    "He's a very principled and ethical person. He's not happy with a lot of other comedians because of their toilet humor and because some of them are xenophobic or homophobic or racist. When people have to put down other people, it really says something about their own fragile self image."
    Alper has gone so far with this principle of avoiding offensive material that he even decided to drop fat jokes from his act.
    "It may sound trite, but I'm trying to behave in a way that will make this world a better place," Alper says. "For example, I used to do a line about how much it amuses me to officiate at a wedding and see a 200-pound bride walk down the aisle to the song, 'Is this the little girl I carried?'
    "That line always got a laugh," Alper says, "But then one night someone came up to me after the show and said, "You know, if you're overweight, that line hurts.' And immediately after hearing that, I stopped using it.

At home in Vermont
    Alper's work affects more than his audiences' lives. It's clear that his successful performing and writing have improved his own family's life.
    "Vermont is beautiful. Up here, we say, 'Vermont is what America was,'" says Alper. My office is in a silo attached to a post-and-beam barn house that we built. We have six acres of meadow and 10 acres of woods. Sometimes I become tearful just driving home from town as I drive over a rise and the whole valley opens up around me with mountains on either side."
    As sincere as he sounds about all that, the rabbi can't resist adding one last line from his act: "You know, there are just a handful of Jews up here. I was taking a hike one day, feeling just a bit lonely and isolated. Then suddenly a wind came across the mountains and I heard a voice saying, "If you build a deli, they will come.'"
    David Crumm can be reached at 1-313-223-4526 or by E-mail at crumm@freepress.com

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